- October 10, 2008
In the last month banks and stock markets around the world have been collapsing….along with our own savings at the bank ;-( ! Turn on the telly or go to any newspaper web site and it’s pretty much the headline every day. However, these last few months I have managed to find the perfect way of avoiding all of this negative news which is leading more and more economies into an official recession…..well, it’s simple….just work split shifts in a kitchen !
First of all, to the uinitiated, a “split shift” is working from 8-ish until 15hrs and then 17h30 until 23h…for the few hours of “rest” one doesn’t do much more than chill out, drink tea, eat a sandwich, read a book or pass some brief time with the family.
For my last 12 days in the UK I worked 10 split shifts (thus missing the collapse of several British finance institutions), and now that I am working here in Paris, I’m on “splits” again. I’m currently the human version of the mole……burying my head in my work and missing out on what’s going on around me.
Curiously, I also seem to be working in one of the few restaurants in Paris which is doing well (according to the weekly trade paper “Hôtelerie Restauration”, the number of restaurants closing so far this year has increased by more than 30% on last year) despite the huge downturn in the economic climate. Saturday and Sunday were very busy (full each service), with approx. 30 for lunch and 50 for dinner for the rest of the week up to and including last night, Thursday.
So all in all, the various moves to renationalise banks in different European countries has been taking place in a parallel universe as far as I have been concerned…..which maybe ain’t such a bad thing.
So, how’s my first week in my new job been ?
Busy, stressful (at first), but exciting and pretty passionate. I am currently the demi-chef de partie working on the fish section where we deal with Lobster, Scallops, Langoustine, Bass, Turbot, Sea Bream and Cod. My job is to set up the section (garnish, sauces and fish) and then cook and dress the plates for all fish orders during the service….so there’s a lot to get done !!! At the moment I still need help completing the prep work, but I am able to do the service on my own now, which I am delighted about.
Overall, I am very happy with this first full job in a professional kitchen. This is exactly the kind of experience that I need to prepare me for running my own restaurant in a few years time. The only aspect that I am missing out on is the “Fine Dining” touch. The products that we work with are of a good quality and are fresh, but because of the time constraints, the lack of staff and the amount of work to be done, we put more emphasis product and flavour than on presentation and precision. I’m not sure if in time that is going to frustrate me or not. In any case, I have to learn to work quickly (particularly in the preparation phases of the day), and I will certainly learn that where I am at the moment. I also need to learn to manage my orders, cook the food, dress the plates, all the while cleaning up my section as I go along (something I need to improve on)….all of this I will certainly get whilst working the fish section.
So, as far as the choice of kitchen to work in, so far so good.
One recent development back at home is that the kids (and particularly my daughter) are clearly missing me. Now that my planning at work is settled (3 splits, 1 early, 1 late and 2 days off) we should all be able to start settling into a new routine. But the kids were clearly expecting Papa to go back to his previous routine (being back home every evening from 18h30 onwards) that he had when studying for his CAP and doing his placement at “La Fontaine Gaillon”. I’ll be making sure that the days that I have off will be managed in such a way as to spend as much time as possible with them…..and then all that will be left will be working out how to spend more time with my wife !!
- October 3, 2008
Rare breed pigs…..don’t you just love ’em !!!
Just to be clear on one thing before going any further – I am not an expert on rare breed pork, far from it. However, having tasted rare breed pork from 2 different farmers in the North East, I can certainly say that the pork is magnificent (in terms of flavour, texture and visually also) and that I will always search out rare breed instead of commercial pork wherever possible.
Now that I’m back in the rainy bustle of the big city that is Paris (yep, the weather here really ain’t that different to back home in Newcastle after all !), my visits to Ravensworth Grange farm a stone’s throw away from the Angel of the North (Anthony Gormley’s magnificent public art project in Gateshead) seem along way away. Ravensworth is a pig and sheep (I know that they would correct me by saying that there are cows, cereals and probably loads of other things) farm run by Ann and Hugh Gray – hidden in the countryside and yet only a few miles from Newcastle. It is the home of the marvellous Middle White pigs.
First things first…..why rare breed pork, and indeed, what is rare breed pork ? With regards to the “What”, rare breeds are simply those that were once bred all over the country before the Second World War, with each region having a speciality. These breeds were then slowly but surely replaced by 1 or 2 more “profitable” and “commercial” breeds (such as the Large White) following a campaign by the British Government during the 50’s to make British Pork more competitive on the open market. The different “rare” breeds in the UK are
There are other more commercial breeds in the UK (Land Race, Welsh, Large White, Duroc, Hampshire and Pietrain) of which Large White is the most widespread.
With regards to the “Why?”, well there is one answer as far as a chef is concerned – flavour ! All rare breeds will have their own characteristics, but in general terms, they take longer to reach maturity, they need more space (unlike the Large White which seemingly accepts being kept in confined places, and thus suits “intensive” commercial farming), the relationship between what they eat and the amount of meat produced is not simple to calculate (thus making it “less efficient” for mass production) and they tend to have much more fat (seemingly from the 1950’s onwards the buying public wanted pork with less fat with the result that low fat breeds became more popular and are now widespread in our supermarkets). This last point is of particular importance to a chef since a good amount of fat ensures that the pork will remain juicy and succulent when cooking, that it will “baste” itself and that the flavour will be much deeper (don’t forget that fat “traps” flavour and is thus an essential part of traditional, flavoursome cooking….leave your butter open in the fridge and you’ll soon see that it will absorb any flavours floating around the fridge). So, basically it’s a “no-brainer”……rare breed is infinately better (in my opinion !!) than the commercial supermarket stuff.
As for Anne and Hugh Gray, I had heard about them through Terry Laybourne’s magnificent book (“A Quest for Taste”) on the real food heroes of the North East – the farmers and the producers. At one time they supplied Terry’s restaurants in Newcastle with their beautiful Middle White pork.
So, off I went for a sunny afternoon outing with Antonella, the kids and even my Dad (who was a bt grumpy that day ’cause he obviously is not used to not driving). Even though the farm is actually not far from Newcastle, it took us about 1 hour to find the place (after several trips out to different farms I now know that the city habit of signposting everything simply doesn’t happen in the “country”)…..I think that this is also why my Dad was a bit grumpy ! Anyway, fortunately it was worth the effort.
Upon arrival, Anne and Hugh were just coming back from herding up their sheep (they also have 500+ sheep in addition to their Middle Whites). We were welcomed with a big smile and though I knew that they had a lot to do during the day (Anne told me on the phone that she’d only be able to spend a short time with us) she took us all around the farm, told us their story, explained about raising the Middle Whites, asked her kids to show Jade and Noé around, talked about her trips to the various Farmers Markets…..in short, we were very well looked after and even my Dad managed to spend a good 30 mins drinking tea with Hugh in the farm kitchen (atleast he wasn’t grumpy anymore) !!
During the summer I was able to buy pork from Anne 3 times – a rolled shoulder (magnificent slow roast at 90°C for 20 hours), a boned top of hind leg (simply roasted for a couple of hours at 160°C….I did nothing, except baste it occasionally) and a beautifully fatty “slab” of pork belly (sealed in a vaccum bag with spices and star aniseed and cooked overnight at 140°C and then cut into square portions for finishing off and reheating “à la commande”). Every time the pork was just gorgeous.
So now that I am back in Paris, the search for the French equivalent is on. At the moment I get the impression that rare breed (“les races anciennes”) is less widespread than in the UK. Once I know more I’ll get back to you all.
I’ll sign off, and if you’ve got any sense you’ll get yourself off to your local Farmer’s market and buy some beautiful rare breed pork !!!!
ps…some sites on rare breeds just to get you (and me!) started
- October 2, 2008
It’s almost 1 year to the day since this incredible, crazy, passionate and sometimes stressfull conversion process began.
The first step was my “Initiation” – 1 CAP Cuisine (infact my actual diploma only arrived this morning !), 6 restaurants / caterers, umpteen cookery / chef books (of which my latest is a true gem – “The French Laundry – Thomas Keller”) and a 2 month stint back home in Newcastle.
I am now finally on the point of embarking upon phase 2 of this magnificent journey, as I have finished almost 2 weeks of interviews by agreeing to join the restaurant “Au Petit Marguery” in the 13th arrondissement in Paris. I will be the “demi-Chef de Partie” in a team of 6 (1 Chef, 1 Second, 2 Chefs de Partie – fish and cold starters, me, 1 Commis) where I will be working mainly on the Fish Section (having sole responsability for the section on Sunday & Monday, whilst supporting the Fish Chef de Partie for the other 3 days of the week).
Overall, the restaurant is 150% “cuisine traditionnelle” and “terroir”, with a particular focus on game (when in season….and now where right in there !). So, I’ve really got what I was looking for – small team, chef who is very present and who loves to share ideas and pass on knowledge, good quality produce (everything is fresh and seasonal). The only minor negative point is that I am definately stepping out of the “fine dining” arena….but then again, that could be the subject of another debate, namely “What is Fine Dining ?”. In my opinion, the only aspect lacking “Au Petit Marguery” is the presentation in the plate. All of the other aspects of fine dining are there.
Anyway, as a start to my professional career, I’m delighted to start in a kitchen where the emphasis is placed wholly on quality and flavour (the 2 main principles of the cooking of the much admired chef from my home region, Terry Laybourne), which many a supposed “Fine Dining” restaurant do not seem to share.
Just a few practical points on the process of searching for work and negotiating ones salary. Yes, the overall restaurant sector is having a hard time and thus people will always say that it’s difficult to offer “decent” salaries (especially for those starting out). However, the same restaurants are having a great deal of difficulty in finding “good” staff. So, we newcomers are in a relative position of “power”…..or atleast, we are not without a certain bargaining power. Listed below are the aspects that were important for me when securing this position,
So, there you have it. The next step starts tomorrow (assuming that the contract is sorted today), my family are happy with my planning and I am delighted with the quality of the team and the menu.
Watch this space.
- September 26, 2008
After over 2 months of working in Terry Laybourne’s kitchen at Jesmond Dene House in Newcastle Upon Tyne, I am now back in Paris and have spent the last 5 days looking for work. This is to be the kitchen where I will settle down for the next year or so, so I want to choose carefully. So, what am I looking for ?
So where am I looking ? Well, the places where I’ve had interviews so far are,
I’m expecting other things to come up over the next few days, including a visit to one of Christian Constant’s restaurants (Les Fables de la Fontaine, 1 Michelin star, fish and shellfish). In addition, I will be having a try-out on Monday in “L’Escargot”.
So watch this space for where I actually end up.
- August 19, 2008
Yesterday I had a much needed discussion with my wife (whilst the kids were jumping around in a softplay castle with hundreds of other little Geordies) about the next step after the end of my time here in Newcastle. There’s a bit more than 1 and a half months to go here in Newcastle before I return to Paris and continue my “apprentissage” as a chef, and overall 8 and a half months before the end of my 11 month sabbatical period from Capgemini.
Our main priorities over the next 9 months / year are to move away from Paris (west of France being the current favourite destination….Atlantic coast or Brittany) and to start the process of buying a house. My wife (and my family) needs the security of knowing that we have atleast bought a house before I throw myself fully into this new chef / restaurant career…..understandable.
So, I have set out the following plans for the coming 8 months…..
That’s where I’m at at the moment.
- August 11, 2008
Just a quick note to let those interested know how I am getting on over here in Newcastle at Terry Laybourne’s flagship restaurant “Jesmond Dene House”.
It’s now been almost 1 month (remember that I’m here for 3 months) and I am now pretty well integrated into the Meat section within the team. There are 3 of us on this section and I am working as the commis chef preparing the different garnishes for the various meat dishes for the lunch and evening menus. Our lunch menu changes every 2 weeks and the dinner menu every season (3 months).
So far so good…..even though I’m a commis, I do all of the cooking for the garnishes for the meat dishes when the orders come in….so I’m finally au fourneau / at the hot plate, and it’s fantastic !! I work 5 days per week, split shifts every one of those days (8h30 – 15h and 17h30 – 11h).
I’ve been out to meet one or 2 of the local suppliers (Steve Ramshaw with his organic beef / lamb / pork, and Anne and Hugh of Ravenshaw Farm with their magnificent middlewhite pigs), but more visits are planned (flour mill, lobster diver, Jersey Dairy cows….amongst others).
I’ll be back soon with a film of where I work so that you can see what a typical day is over here…..but one thing that I can say is that the guys that I work with are passionate about their food / cooking, and the quality is atleast as good here as I saw in Paris.
- July 10, 2008
On the day of my departure for 3 months work at Terry Laybourne’s “Jesmond Dene House” in Newcastle, I received my official CAP Cuisine results. Overall, a decent mark, but I’m disappointed with the practical exam score (15 out of 20). Anyway, it’s all pretty academic, as we say….the main thing now is the real work in the professional kitchen.
Good luck to those of you who are still waiting for their results. As for me, I’ll keep you updated on my progress in Newcastle…up until my return to Paris in early October.
Cheers, and have a great summer.
- June 30, 2008
Time to write in English, I think, because the last few posts have been in French.
This weekend I wanted to try a technique that I saw whilst working at my first caterer’s – namely, rolling a piece of meat (in this case, a roll of chicken breast that I had prepared the day before) in a mousseline stuffing (made out of chicken, coconut milk, coriander, anchovy sauce, salt and pepper). The end result being a solid piece of meat covered with another meat with a different texture.
I created a recipie which associates the following flavours :
I was tempted by this technique because I like the visual aspect of the end result (a disc of meat with different textures and colours) combined with the sensual aspect (different flavour and texture from the middle to the outside of the meat).
Ingredients and Steps to Follow
End Result ?
Sauce was much appreciated by my wife – rich tomato flavour (depth given by the good chicken stock, in my opinion) softened by the coconut milk.
The 2 different chicken preparations work and the different flavours are present. Visually effective, but a little dry (I still haven’t worked out the best cooking times for the 2 different steps – cooking sausage and then the mousseline). I’m not sure that the texture would please everyone.
Vegetables were not a great success….too fussy.
Overall, even though it is always tempting for a young chef to put lots of different techniques into one dish, the end result is too intense / fussy / trop chargé. My wife suggested that the chicken discs could stay but placed on a simpler more modest base (for example, a celeriac mash with a chunky sauce).
See what you think and let me know.
- June 21, 2008
Last w/end I prepared a couple of tarts, something that I’ve not done for quite some time since it’s just “too easy”….not real cooking, not a real discovery…..yes, stupid to think that “real cooking” only consists of fancy, complicated dishes with an elaborate sauce presented carefully on a large plate !!!
So, a session of “home cooking” produced this magnificent combination of fresh Brittany tomatoes, emmental cheese on a base of celeriac (céleri rave, in French) caramelised in the sautoir. I have to thank my neighbour, Chloé, for giving me the desire to make a tart because when I popped in to see her a few days before she was preparing a tomato and emmental tart (along with another tart – onion and Dijon mustard…..one that I made also but didn’t do very well…tant pis !!). I took her lovely looking tomato tart and simply added some celeriac which I cut into small cubes (a rough mirepoix)…..the result was really tasty and went down very well with my family !!
The steps to follow are,
….and that’s it. Leave in the oven for approx 40 mins at 180°C, remembering to remove the tarte circle for the last 10 minutes of cooking time (to brown the outside of the tart).
And the result ?…..
Even the kids loved it !!!!
Bonne appetit !
- June 9, 2008
Just a quick note to say that, after 9 days of working at a famous Parisian caterer, I think that I’m progressing pretty well. That means, I’m remembering what different dishes look like and what ingredients are required, and who to go to see to get them. I kind of looked after 2 students this afternoon, which did me the world of good…getting back vaguely to my project management days at Capgemini.
Still frustrated at being told simply what to do next rather than having a list of things to “produce”. My independence and autonomy is coming though.
It’s tiring, though our working day now seems to finish around 17h or 17h30 which means that I’ve got the whole evening with the family which is great. Starting work at 6h30 is still tough but by the time I’m into my tasks it’s fine.
I think that I’ll be happy to finish at the end of the month, but I will learn several things whilst I’m here – none least than “professionalism” and “presentation”.