Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 4

This has been the first week where there have been some harder moments, as well as all the usual incredible ones. The whole process really is like going back to school but as an adult with responsibilities! You come together as a group of complete strangers and start a really intensive learning process. At the beginning you get fully swept up in it all, then at some point the magnitude of how much your life has changed hits you. I think that was what partially happened to me this week.

French Apple Tart with Cinnamon Ice Cream

Week 4 started in much the same way as week 3, but this time our demo day was mainly on pork. Our chef for this week was Ross, who I didn’t know at the start of the week – but I feel like he knew me well enough by the end of the week! The pork in the demo was made into lots of tasty bits which we would be using later in the week including sweet cured bacon and braised belly. Ross also showed us a few puddings, including crème brûlée and custard. Also a slight contrast; chicken liver parfait, which we ate for lunch on Tuesday. I am a huge fan of chicken liver parfait and found it really interesting to be told the difference between a parfait and a paté – the livers are pan fried with the aromats etc then blended in a paté. In a parfait you blend the livers raw and then the infused butter is added slowly, like an emulsion. This did look a little like something out of a horror show, and you’d probably want to thoroughly clean your blender before making your next banana smoothie! But the results were, in my opinion, beautiful and delicious (photo below). I was amazed by how many of my classmates were not a fan of livers, so I happily ate someone else’s portion too, then felt rather content – if a little ill!

Chicken Liver Parfait with Croutons, Chutney, and an Aged Balsamic Glaze

Tuesday was pudding day! Really. We made three lemon desserts, one apple tart, and a custard which was churned into an ice cream to accompany the apple tart (pictured at the top of the post). Oh and shortbread as a side to another! I went home that night laden with things that would finally last until Hubby turned up at the weekend. The shortbread then did a disappearing act soon after he arrived!

Tuesday was also the first chance I got to wear my newly created short sleeved chef’s jacket. We are given long sleeved jackets, so obviously we all roll them up every day or they aren’t practical – but that isn’t the most comfortable thing in a hot kitchen. A few weeks ago I asked if I was allowed to make one short sleeved and was given the go ahead. When I came in wearing it I got lots of comments from the chefs – a few asking if they were lop sided – but mostly compliments on my sewing! I think they look really neat, even if I do look a bit special as the only one with them (that was a comment from one of the Chefs!)

On Wednesday we made another two puddings. A crème brûlée which we had after lunch and a lemon posset intended to be enjoyed as lunch pudding later in the week. Unfortunately none of the possets set due to the wrong fat content in the cream, which was a shame because I was getting used to this lunch pudding concept!

Whole Plaice

For lunch we got back to some savoury cooking. We filleted plaice to make goujons (that’s posh fish fingers) with some tartar sauce, which meant making our first mayonnaise. That’s another dreaded emulsion which can split easily if you add the fat too fast. Luckily mine did not – what a relief!

Plaice Goujons with Tartar Sauce

Wednesday was also the day we did our roast style meal, with lots of components which we prep throughout the day and plate together at the end. I should point out at this stage that this was the day where I really just didn’t feel like myself and unfortunately my final dish echoed that! My partner for the week was a really calm lovely chap who I was lucky to be with because I was in a flap that day. I kept forgetting to do little steps which annoyingly were always on dishes we were working on as a pair; not stabbing the chicken legs for the marinade and forgetting to put sugar in the posset to name two. Despite my partner being nothing but kind I got frustrated at myself and it slightly got on top of me. So my dish of pan fried pork fillet, with pork medallions, apple cider sauce, mustard mash, kale and baby carrots included the feedback “dirty rim of plate”. In an effort to demonstrate honesty I’ve included the picture below – I am not proud of it! Most of the rest of the feedback was fine, and it could have been a lot worse. I think it just stuck out in my mind as being the first time I didn’t feel like I was on top of things. Hey ho, Thursday would bring a brand new day.

Pan Fried Pork Medallions with Apple Cider Sauce, Mustard Mash, Kale, and Baby Carrots. Served on a dirty plate!

I do remember having one fun moment that day though, when I couldn’t hide my true colours from Chef. I was trying to peer into a tupperware tub at the chef station before a demo, because I wanted to see how his pork tenderloin looked (some of you may see where this is going). He used his apron to shield it from my prying eyes, so I made some joke about covering up his meat and two veg! I appreciate that was probably much more amusing at the time – but what really made me laugh was his reaction; he shook his head and called me ‘smutty’. At that point I went as red as my clipboard and hid behind it. It did feel good to go back to laughing as well as working hard, and that moment helped ground me a little for the rest of the week!

Tagliatelle drying off in semolina

Thursday was our last day in the kitchen that week, as Friday was a session on our assessments. The morning started with making lots of salads for our lunch the following day. Next came the fun bit; making pasta. We made the dough the day before to allow it to rest overnight so now was time for rolling it and turning it into tagliatelle. I really enjoyed this bit, it seems I’m at my happiest when I’m playing around with some sort of dough. I’m sure that goes back to Mum making me playdough all the time as a child! Our rather more normal coloured dough was for a carbonara for our lunch that day, made with the bacon Chef cured on Monday. While I did enjoy both cooking and eating this dish, a few of us agreed that the cream and butter intake was starting to take its toll on our wellbeing!

Tagliatelle Carbonara with Sweet Cured Bacon and Broccoli Florets

The final dish of the day was a red mullet dish, so it was onto filleting our second fish of the week. It really is great that we regularly get the chance to practise these basic skills now, so we don’t just feel we’ve learned them once then put them to bed. Our red mullet (who had a very nice ‘hair style’… ok I stole that joke from my classmate, but it did make us giggle!) was served with crispy belly pork, crushed potatoes and a caper dressing.

Red Mullet

The fun part of this dish was it was the first time we’ve been encouraged to come up with our own design for plating rather than copy Chef. I commented on the use of negative space in modern plating, which Ross said he thought was a bit naff. So off I went to do a negative space plated dish! I honestly didn’t start the week trying to be cheeky, it just seemed to pan out that way. Luckily for me I had not one but three of the chefs say they did like my plating, although the skin of my mullet was a little too dark, and rimless plates are better for negative spaces. I was proud of it anyway, I hope you can see where I was trying to go with it in the photo below!

Red Mullet and Crispy Belly Pork with Crushed New Potatoes and a Caper Dressing

Friday was spent with Darrin telling us all about our assessments in week 6 and our assignment due in week 16, which is tied into our assessments in week 18. I won’t go into too much detail on this as it was honestly a full days worth of information. The main thing I’m focusing on is getting myself ready for week 6 assessments first. This involves planning exactly what our menu will consist of given the brief and our food orders. Then getting our mise en place list (prep list) together and combining all of that with our recipes with added notes into one pack, ready to print off and take with us into the exams. I initially greeted this with excitement, having now done a few days work on it I’m rather more nervous and concerned about timings. Oh and for anyone really curious, I don’t find out if I passed my hygiene exam or not until the end of week 6, but they did say if we hadn’t passed they probably would have pulled us to one side by now!

Needless to say Darrin’s talk focused my mind and reminded me what they told us on day one: never forget why you walked through that door and what it is you want to achieve. That was something we found ourselves discussing that evening – the future and where we hope this course might lead us.

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 3

It’s strange to think that at this point we’re already half way through term one as we’re three weeks in. It’s more strange when I think we’ve only spent eight and a half days in the kitchen and we have seven days left before we’ll be facing our first assessments. Let’s move off that scary topic!

Pan Fried Sea bass and Creamed Leek Tart with Green Bean and Shallot Salad

This week started a little differently to last week as we had a demo day on Monday. This is where we get the opportunity to watch chef do demonstrations in the dining room all day, which also means we come to school at ten, in civvies not whites. The dining room is cleverly set up to be able to pull out and construct a fully working demo unit complete with hobs, oven, fridge, and sink. This makes for a fantastic learning environment as we are able to fully focus on the masterclass going on in front of us, rather than being semi distracted worrying our bread might be burning in the oven!

This weeks demo was on lamb and pastry (these were not combined into lamb pie you’ll be upset to hear!) We had Chef Alan for the week, who already knows me as he taught me earlier this year on a weekend course. Assisting him was Chef Stuart who also taught me last year (I go to Ashburton a lot…). So on Monday Alan showed us how to prepare particular cuts of meat, how to make shortcrust and choux pastry, as well as filleting mackerel and sea bass  – all of which we would be doing ourselves later in the week.

Lamb joints

Tuesday started with making a beautiful spelt bread, something I will most definitely be making at home, because despite it being a very wet dough (the word batter was used) it is a pleasure to make and even more so to eat.  We then made a start on preparing our first cut of lamb; breast of lamb, which is quite tricky to butcher as it mainly consists of ribs, sinew and fat and you have to whittle it down to something you can roll together to be braised. I was quite pleased with mine as I’ve never done anything like that before. The other cut was the best end, which is where you have a rack of lamb chops, that involved getting keen with scraping knife against bone to get them all nicely French trimmed. Effort well spent as we then chopped two of them off once they were cooked! At least it’s all good practice.

We also made choux pastry for profiteroles that day, as well as a mascarpone cream to stuff them and a chocolate ganache to dip them into. I was very pleased with how mine turned out, I was even more pleased once I was scoffing them all that evening! I’m never normally a fan of profiteroles because choux is a pretty flavourless pastry, usually filled with flavourless cream and covered in flavourless chocolate! However the mascarpone had some real flavour, and because of the quality of the chocolate we use at the school they were genuinely delicious – I felt like I finally understood what all the fuss is about!

Profiteroles with Chocolate Ganache

Wednesday was our  turn to have a go at filleting round fish having seen it demoed on Monday. We started on the mackerel, which is the more difficult. Mackerels have very soft flesh so if you’re a bit overly keen you can easily wreck the fillet. Sea bass was next and that was much easier and I confess in my opinion, much tastier! We had our sea bass for lunch, pan fried with creamed leeks in a pastry case (which we had made on Tuesday) with green beans and a mustard dressing (pictured at the top of this post). I actually binned my beautifully brunoise shallot, because I added it before I was meant to. As I was subtly tipping it in the bin I was told that it didn’t really matter as they would be added together later anyway – arg! Very luckily for me this week I was working with a partner, and she was my saviour! She got straight on re-chopping up another shallot so I could start again – what a star. It was great working with her, we seemed to work in a fairly similar way and at a similar rate. More importantly though we get on really well and we worked hard, but had a giggle while doing so!

Rack & Braised Breast of Lamb with Dauphinoise Potatoes, Roast Vegetables and Lamb Jus

This week’s epic roast was lamb (shown above). We braised the rolled breast, and then roasted the best end to have with dauphinoise potatoes, honey roasted celeriac and carrots and a really tasty jus made from the braising liquor to bring it all together. This was one of the dishes which was assessed and I was really pleased to hear that other than slightly under-cooking my dauphinoise, I received positive comments on the rest of the dish. Chuffed!

Beautiful scallops

On Thursday we got the chance to prepare the most beautiful scallops – Alan told us they haven’t been able to get scallops in the shell for ages because the sea bed has previously been contaminated. Luckily for us that is no longer an issue so we were presented with this stunning box of scallops to chose from. Although two rather unlucky people found a load of sand in theirs rather than a scallop! Apparently it’s wise to have spares for scallops, as something else may have come along and eaten your lunch first.

To accompany the scallops we made a vegetable tian (that’s a stack to you and me) of griddled vegetables, which were then stacked up in a ring. This was served cold to accompany the pan fried scallops and a basil oil, all of which will feature in our assessment – gulp.

Pan Fried Scallops with Tian of Mediterranean Vegetables and Basil Oil

We made another dish which is rather unfamiliar to me – scrambled eggs! As with the omelette, I have made sushi more times than I’ve scrambled eggs. Clearly I am a bit odd. However Chef’s method seemed pretty fool proof and when placed on some griddled spelt bread, and served with steamed sea bass and crispy pancetta made for a scrummy lunch. At this point I feel I should point out, we make all of the things which accompany our dishes as well as just the main bit! We’re already getting pretty used to multi tasking – it turns out that pauses between stirring can be filled with tasks other than drinking wine – shocking!

Steamed Sea Bass and Scrambled Egg on Griddled Spelt Bread with Crispy Pancetta

Also on Thursday we made our first soup of the week, pea and ham hock. This was assessed by us sitting opposite Chef and tasting it with him. When asked what I thought of my soup I said I thought it might be a little over salted. Chef disagreed, he said it was nicely salted, but was missing pepper. Which was quite true as I had totally forgotten to add pepper – at least that was easily explained!

Pea & Ham Soup

Friday was great fun as we had our first field trip – off to see Duck Man Dan at his farm just down the road. The long legged chickens from last week are from his farm – as you’ll see we took one away with us again. It was really fascinating to see every aspect of farming from the incubation, to hatching, rearing, and then eventually the killing and butchery of the animals. Dan himself is quite a personality as Alan had warned us the day before (although he mentioned he didn’t think we were an easily offended bunch!) Dan is really passionate about producing and eating quality local produce and it’s great to meet someone who is making a living doing what he loves.

Captive audience at the farm

We took our chickens back with us and got ready to butcher them after we made our lunch. Lunch was lamb tagine that day, which we had made the day before. Therefore all we had to do was re-heat it and get some cous cous cooked – so nothing too strenuous. I really enjoyed butchering my chicken again. The legs are going to be used next week and the breast is being frozen and will be the one we use in assessment week. Gosh I feel like that word has come up a lot in this post and it’s only going to get worse as the weeks go on!

All in all it was another amazing week, we’re really gelling as a group which just makes it all the more fun. Work is piling up a little and I’ve spent most of my weekend catching up on writing up my notes – as well as making one of my chefs jackets short sleeved and shortening all of my aprons. I really didn’t realise how much sewing this cooking course was going to involve! Nearly time to get back on the road and head back to my second home, if only I could take the Hubby with me, life could perhaps be perfect.

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 2

I can’t believe I’m only writing about five days when I think back on how much we covered. I was told on my interview this was a very intensive course, not a holiday and they were not fibbing! Although it was a full on week it was amazing, it just feels like it lasted for about a fortnight.

Potato and watercress soup with a poached egg

We started our week with a proper introduction to the kitchen. That isn’t just how the oven works (and why is mine off when I thought I’d turned it on AGAIN!?), but more how much of each bit of equipment should you have and where it lives. This sounds simple, but as I will expand on later, you’ll be amazed by how long it can take to get right for fifteen stations.

Saying fifteen stations brings me onto the thing we all noticed at half 9 on Monday morning. We’re all sat at the tables in the dining room, in our fresh whites already feeling like a group. And we notice one place is empty. We were really sad to hear that one of our group decided that the course isn’t for him at this time, and therefore has dropped out. He was a lovely guy and we really wish him all the best. So on we went as a slightly less even group of fifteen.

The odd numbers became quite relevant for me because of the way the kitchen is organised, four pods of four stations. Ideally four students at each. In order to make sure we all work with everyone we are assigned a station for the week. I was on a station with two of the lovely, friendly, and hugely efficient, organised ladies, and the blank spot where our missing chap was meant to be next to me. So I was partner-less for the week. Being me I joked around playing my mini violin for effect, but actually flying solo for the week had its perks – twice as much space, basically twice as much equipment and not having to negotiate seasoning levels or cooking times with anyone – perfect for my controlling nature! The downside was that all pair work was done at double speed! But I actually really enjoyed the added pressure, especially because the ladies on my pod were supportive and always there to lend a hand if I really didn’t look like I could do twice as much work in the same time as everyone else. We were also one of the front pods, so Chef Phil was an amazing help for the first few days of the week while we found our feet.

So back to day one! This was knife skills day and the phrases ‘fine dice’ and ‘little cube’ are no longer in my vocabulary (ahem). It’s all brunoise and macedoine for me from here on in! Chef Rob was our lead chef all week and he was an amazing teacher. Starting with showing us just how easy even, small, neat veg cuts are. When that same knife is in my hand it all goes a bit on the wonky uneven side. Essentially I became far choosier about which of my cuts will make the grade and so my yield one day was three jardiniere (that’s a baton if you didn’t know) from two carrots. Not great!

Ministrone soup with Parmesan croute

From our beautifully cut veg we made a few soups, including a lovely minestrone topped with Parmesan croutons (pictured above), which I enjoyed for lunch. This would turn out to be one of the more enjoyable soups of what ended up feeling like soup week!

The end of day one was our first clean down, and it was basically a demonstration of chaos. Everyone means well so everyone helps each other out, but there is a lot to get done and a sensible order to do it in and it took us most of the week to figure that out.

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Day two we learned how to make bread, and as we’re at cookery school this wasn’t the nice dry dough you’re able to cleanly knead – this was wet bread! I make bread at home, and I have never managed to knead through a really sticky dough, I always lose my temper and end up covering the thing in flour until it becomes a more manageable beast. Rob showed us a great technique (essentially throwing the thing at the bench – but it was much more controlled than that!) and we were able to get our bread under control with the addition of no extra flour at all. We had quite a laugh while doing it as the lady opposite me covered chefs station in tiny flecks of dough, which was impressive as it’s a good few meters from our pod! Our first dough was focaccia – which was the accompaniment for a salmon pizza. We found out this salmon pizza was artistically named as the base was finely sliced salmon which Chef Rob had filleted in a demo for us – but extremely tasty none-the-less.

Salmon 'pizza' with focaccia

The end of Tuesday was the omelette challenge. We’d already covered boiled and poached eggs, which was pretty calm, but the omelette challenge struck fear in us all! I was really pleased with how my omelette turned out but I have to admit I have both Rob and Phil to thank, as they conveniently turned up at moments I was about to do something wrong and corrected me.

Wednesday was really chicken day – after a demo from Rob, we butchered our own chicken. I’ve portioned a few chickens before so that bit wasn’t too new to me. But this was no supermarket chicken. First we had to gut it,  then remove the head and feet. As you can see, these were no ordinary feet! These are real free range birds (from Duck Man Dan who we visit in Week 3) and they have big powerful legs and feet! None of this put me off, I got so stuck into it I forgot to take a photo of my bird before I started, so this was a photo one of my classmates sent me. He named his Harry… my classmates are quirky!

Chicken feet! Harry the dead chicken

In keeping with the start of the week we then made more bread and soup. The only change here was I managed to launch my dough straight onto the floor! Whoops! I knew someone was going to do it, and if I’m honest I was quite sure it was going to be me! After making pathetic noises I picked off the bit which was on the floor and carried on. Not sure that’s what our Food Safety training taught us, but it wasn’t like I then fed those rolls to my husband at the weekend… that would be mean…

Floor rolls

Thursday was more butchery, this time we were doing guinea fowl and they came gutted without their heads and feet so it was all a bit more normal. These guinea fowl were all part of our big roast – and one of our final two soups of the week, a veloute. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that our food is already being assessed all the time. One of the chefs will come around and taste your soup or sauce etc so that we can start to get a feel for seasoning and balance. But every now and then we plate up a full dish, take it to the dining room, pop our photo next to it and go back to clean down. One of the chefs then taste your dish and leave a post-it with comments. So far I’ve been really pleased with my feedback. Comments that veg were well cooked and cut (really?!) but that sometimes my seasoning needs a bit more punch. Except in the case of my curried butternut soup which I over spiced a tad!

So on Thursday we worked to have two dishes assessed, our guinea fowl veloute and our guinea fowl roast complete with roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese, carrot jardiniere in a honey glaze, a braised leg, roasted breast, and gravy made from the roasting and braising juices. My veloute lacked a little body (more cooking time needed for the roux to cook out) and my guinea fowl meat was a little too big. However my seasoning was complimented and my egg was well cooked (it was served with a soft boiled egg in the centre). All of that was forgotten by me however because my feedback on my roast was really good, so much so that I took a photo of my post-it note (below) – I was chuffed!

Guinea fowl roast with potatoes, cauliflower cheese and carrots Best feedback so far

The other soup that day was was an onion soup, which we made for lunch and I have to say it’s my least favourite dish we cooked all week – sickly sweet and rich (I was told to up my seasoning) and the repercussions are probably best left off this blog! I shall just say that we were all discussing ‘inner turmoil’ on the WhatsApp group that evening – onions are evil!

Friday was a slightly lighter day cooking and food wise, which we were grateful for! We filleted flat fish (plaice) which we had with a light sauce with clams, we also made a lovely chocolate pot with a hint of olive oil and some chocolate garnish. And finally we prepared some ham hock ballotines which we’ll be eating the following week.

Plaice and pesto roulade with peas and clams a la Francaise

The main accomplishment on Friday was that we finally nailed the clean down! After it taking us ages every night us girls discussed it in the changing room the day before and decided there must be a better way. One of the ladies suggested each pod should be responsible for themselves, cutting down on everyone walking all around the kitchen trying to find a home for a single sieve (not an exaggeration, I did it myself, decided it was a homeless sieve, only to see it in my classmates hand five minutes later getting another tour of the kitchen!) The whole thing worked much better and it took us twenty minutes to do a full clean down, which is about half the time it took us every other day.

It was a nice high to end the week on. I then had a fantastic weekend busy exploring (and falling even more in love with) Devon – currently feeling like I may be the luckiest person ever, one full week in the kitchen done and two weeks of the course, I cannot fathom how much more we’re going to learn over the next 18 weeks.

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 1

This is more of an introduction post than an exciting round up of my first week at culinary school, because as interesting as I found doing my level 3 hygiene training, I suspect it wouldn’t make for a very interesting post. So instead I shall pretend like there are people who don’t know me who may read this one day (doubtful) and introduce myself and a little of my story.

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My name is Rachel (no prizes for guessing that bit) and I have spent the last, and only, nine years of my career working in the Motion Capture industry. For those of you who don’t know what that is – think how they created Gollum in Lord of The Rings. It is a really niche and fascinating industry and I truly consider myself lucky for getting to learn so much about it and meet all the wonderful people I met.

Seven years ago my lovely Mum bought me a wonderful birthday gift – a weekend cookery course at Ashburton Cookery School in Devon. I had just started gaining an interest in cooking as I’d never really cooked much; boarding school apparently didn’t feel that was a life skill worth teaching us in the seven years I was there, and University was more eat to live than live to eat. However one weekend at Ashburton really sparked my interest and what would turn into my real passion for food.

After thirteen cookery courses in various schools of various lengths my desire to learn everything I can about cooking hasn’t been satiated, but more than that, my desire to see if I can turn my passion into my career has meant I’ve taken the plunge I’ve been dreaming about since that September course seven years ago.

Which brings me to today, the end of my first week of my six month Professional Culinary Diploma at Ashburton. Last weekend I moved myself into my wonderful little Loft in Devon, overlooking sheep, cows, and chickens. I waved goodbye to my husband on the train (least favourite part of the adventure so far!) and nervously prepared for my first day at school.

Quite sensibly the tutors decide it’s best to train us on hygiene and how to avoid poisoning our customers before they let us in the kitchen. So it’s been a week in the classroom, which has been a great opportunity to meet my fifteen classmates – all of whom are lovely. A few of us keep saying ‘I love our group!’. We’re all getting to know each other but it feels like we’ll work hard together and support each other over the coming six months, which is something we were told on day one will be an important part of the course, and an important part of working in any kitchen.

So after a week of discussing bacteria, rats, and the importance of hand washing, we had our exam on Friday afternoon. I shall find out if I passed or not in a few weeks – and reader, if I pass I shall let you know… If I don’t then I’ll be keeping it quiet and re-taking it!

Next week is our first week in the kitchen, so I am suitably nervous and excited. I’ve spent the day taking up my chef white’s trousers and ironing everything – a real first for me, I usually use hair straighteners if anything has a bit of a crease in it! Here’s to next week and what will feel like the real start of the adventure.