Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 19

I’ve been picturing this week for at least a month – the feeling that all of the weight has been lifted and there is no work to be done in the evening. The joy of being at school and learning with no pressure of assessment. Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case! We had a leadership program over the first three days which involved putting together a project for a presentation on the last day, a theory exam on Friday which definitely required revising for, and I of course had two weeks of my blog to catch up on editing. So much for the free evenings!

Autumn morning sun – the river on my walk to school

My evenings were partially spent catching up with classmates down at the pub, but even that was marred by us all speculating about how we’ve done in assessments. That’s probably been the most tough part of this week, the waiting. We’re used to getting our results the day after assessments are done, but this term there is a lot more to mark. Not only are there more hours of assessments and more dishes produced, there are also our assignments and the theory exam from Friday. Speculation aside we all got a letter inviting us to the graduation ceremony next Thursday, which we did our best to take as a good sign… and then went to the pub and speculated about that fact!

Monday to Wednesday was the leadership course. We walked into the dining room to find our photos marking out where we would sit and therefore what ‘team’ we would be in for the week. We also found sweets, chocolates, and toys on the tables – they were clearly aiming to keep us entertained! Darrin had kept the content of this week fairly secret and simply asked us to come in with an open mind. The week was taken by Darrin, Phil, and Rob Coulston who is a Learning and Development Consultant (title stolen from LinkedIn!). Rob met Darrin seven years ago when the school was going through quite a big change, as the Chefs Academy was being built and Darrin was having to take on more staff. Darrin started the day by talking about the importance of leadership skills in a kitchen or any work place, how he is always assessing his own skills as a leader and how Rob has been a part of helping him to make positive changes.

Strength cards

Over the three mornings Rob took us through a workshop on leadership, what we think it means, the importance of finding your ‘Why?’, and thinking about the ‘shadow I cast’. A lot of it was focused on self awareness, being happy and motivated in your role and then being able to pass on that motivation to anyone you lead. Anyone who has done a similar course before has probably heard of the four stages teams go through when they come together (form), argue (storm), start working together (norm) and start working well (perform). The way Rob illustrated this was by showing us a video using Jamie’s restaurant Fifteen as the example.

Fifteen was an ambitious project where Jamie hired fifteen untrained but enthusiastic teenagers to train up, work in and run a new restaurant in London. During my favourite part Jamie sprung a full service day on the freshly trained students with paying customers. Just as Jamie is calling out the late cheques over the pass, one kid has cut himself, another is explaining she’s only cooked half the table’s fish. He stops them all and gets them to come out into the dining room. There they find all of the sent dishes lined up on the table in a dining room devoid of any diners! As storming is an essential part of coming together as a team, Jamie forced it to happen in a safe environment where they could learn from their mistakes and not be too disappointed by them. I thought that was a powerful message and a pretty good leadership technique!

On the Monday afternoon Darrin introduced the project part of the program. We had to come up with an idea for a convenience food and on the Wednesday afternoon present the concept, marketing, packaging, recipes and costing to Rob, Darrin and the class. Our team came up with a sauce spice kit – hard to source ingredients packaged up in an attractive tiffin tin, where the customer only has to buy the fresh ingredients. Artfully named – Sauce Yo’Self (that was the boys’ idea, not mine!). The project was done over three days and during that time we sprinted through the forming to performing stages, starting with working out what we were doing, who was doing what, how we would work (or not work!) together as a team. After a bit of storming we then finally got our heads down and got it ready in time to be presented! Our team mostly worked well together and I thought our product was almost viable, if a little confused. Sadly we didn’t win the prize! These three days were food for thought, especially if I do ever open my own business. They also made me think about my old job and what leadership had meant to me while I was at Vicon.

Naomi and Chef Phil

Thursday was gluten-free day and I was thoroughly looking forward to getting back into the kitchen and making bread and pastry again! The day was taken by Naomi Devlin, who has been coeliac (allergic to gluten) since she was pregnant 16 years ago. This change in Naomi’s life caused her to research alternative flours to wheat flour, and also to learn what makes a healthy gut. It was fantastic to hear from someone so intelligent and knowledgeable who started out developing recipes for herself and her son, and moved onto sharing them and eventually making a career out of it. Naomi talked to us about how gluten intolerance has become quite trendy, sometimes without people being diagnosed as coeliac themselves. Naomi herself gets flu-like symptoms for over a week if she has gluten, something she isn’t really willing to risk as she’s busy with her extremely successful career including working for River Cottage and teaching in her own home.

Gluten-free Baguette

The first thing we had to get our heads around was all of the different types of flour used in the recipes. When we use plain or strong flour we are relying on the gluten to form the structure of the pastry, biscuit, bread etc. With gluten-free flours you have to balance the properties of different flours to achieve the desired result. In the chocolate cookies for example – ground linseed stabilises the mix as it forms a gel, rice flour adds the sticky quality, chestnut flour gives the fudgy quality and cocoa powder has protein giving it structure. This does result in recipes which have lots more ingredients than gluten recipes, but as we found out later, are well worth the effort. Another interesting point Naomi taught us is that gluten-free does not mean healthier. Often in cheaper ‘free-from’ products they replace the gluten with starch, which is of course sugar!

Gluten-free Chocolate Cookies

We started out by making the autolyse for the French bread – mixing all of the flours with water and leaving them for an hour to hydrate. This stage leaves the enzymes to react with the flours which softens the bread. We then made a gluten-free shortcrust and choux. The choux was the most strange as you have to mix it with an electric mixer because it goes so sticky! We’ve made choux quite a few times over this course and this process felt quite alien, however once the egg was added it looked like the usual gluten based choux paste. The French bread mix was another alien texture. It ends up more like a thick cake batter than a dough, meaning you spread it onto the baguette tray rather than shaping and placing it on! At this point having not eaten anything and seen some fairly strange ingredients being added (psyllium husk and xanthan gum into bread) I admit I was feeling a little sceptical, I’m pleased to say I was wrong!

We made a prune and frangipane tart with the shortcrust pastry and also made focaccia, and chocolate chip cookies. I was partnered with one of my best friends on the course for the day and once we’d made the cookie dough I suggested she take the rest of the mix home. That was until I ate some raw and then I suggest she leave it there for me to snack on for the rest of the morning! By the afternoon I’d snacked on a fair bit of raw pastry, cookie and frangipane dough and was feeling a little bit sick! It’s a very good thing I’m not doing the patisserie course, I wouldn’t be able to climb the stairs by now!

Just a little snack…

I’m lucky enough to not be allergic to anything (unless preservatives in eye drops count!) and therefore have never had to eat gluten-free food. I have tried some over the years I’m sure and been put off by the same things as everyone else. Gluten-free bread is often more similar to cardboard in taste and texture than bread! These recipes were delicious and if I hadn’t known they were gluten-free I never would have guessed, they were often more delicious than the gluten version we’ve made. Naomi was such an inspiring person too. My friend and I chatted to her at the end of class and it’s wonderful to hear the story of someone who has worked so hard and is so successful as a result. I also enjoyed watching the Chefs being rather flustered by her charm and beauty, we’ve never seen them so dashing and helpful! Just to make her even more inspiring Naomi holds her own in the kitchen. She got the measure of our innuendo based humour and very quickly joined in and then won with her comments – most of which won’t be funny out of context in this blog unfortunately! All in all it’s been one of my favourite days in the kitchen and has made me see gluten-free food in a very different light.

Death or Dinner?!

On Friday we had another guest tutor – David Beazley‏ a forager and Chef Tutor at the Michael Cains Academy, Exeter College. David came in to tell us about foraging in the UK, something he started doing at the beginning of his career to help bring in some more money alongside working as a chef. Unfortunately it took him years before he even found a single mushroom to bring in any money at all! David kicked off the day by giving us a load of mushrooms (some just photos as he couldn’t get hold of all of them) and asking us as a group to put them into three categories – dinner, diarrhoea, or death! We actually did fairly well, and mostly wouldn’t have killed or poisoned ourselves. Unfortunately the exceptions would have been enough to kill us, so getting them almost all right doesn’t help much! We also had the youngest of the group (Dan, aka, Feet Boy) try one mushroom which was inedible but not poisonous – apparently it tastes like sulphur which I can believe after seeing the look on his face!

Mussels and Sea Vegetables

In our three tables we were then asked to guess what each of the 12 foraged ingredients were as they were passed around. I was very pleased to correctly recognise sea buckthorn (small orange berries with a sour and bitter taste) and the rest of my team recognised a lot of the others. Our team tied with another table, both getting 12/14 correct (to our surprise!) and we won the tie-break by guessing the closest to how many varieties of wild mushrooms there are in the UK. Our guess was 900, the correct answer was 1900 (the other team guessed 15,000!). David gave us a little jar of foraged cherry brandy (I think the cherries were the foraged part, not the brandy!), which we happily sipped away at! David then demoed a few dishes including a mussel and sea vegetable dish with homemade cider where every ingredient was foraged with the exception of the cream.

David left us with a Latin phrase which when translated meant – “All mushrooms are edible, but some only once!” which felt like a very fitting end to the talk! David, like every other tutor we’ve had at Ashburton had a great sense of humour and he wished us luck for our theory exam saying “Think failure, then you won’t be disappointed”!

Smiles before our last exam!

We all did a desperate last ditch of cramming in the final minutes before our theory exam – trying to remember the dates for the grouse season, the setting temperate of gellan f, and the name of sheep when they are between one and two years old (hogget for those interested!). The exam was one word to one line answers, so not too tricky, but the range of topics meant there was a lot to learn. On sitting down to the exam it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. The mark doesn’t affect our diploma, but will go on our certificate from the school so would look better if it wasn’t a low mark! With the end of the exam came an early end to the school week and a slightly celebratory air. Finally the pressure really should be off! One more week left and then ‘school’s out for summer!’… or Winter as the case may be!

Dartmoor Pony

Me and Hubs have been enjoying our second to last weekend in Devon, particularly Saturday evening by breaking down in the middle of Dartmoor! We got a puncture and ended up stranded for hours in the dark and the rain before finally being rescued five hours later by a very nice chap with his specialist flat bed made for quattro cars. That wasn’t how we’d imagined our Saturday night going! Thank goodness for heated seats and unexpected internet in the middle of nowhere.

Next week is my last week and my feelings are mixed as always. I’m sad to leave my friends but I’m looking forward to moving back home, and I’ve started getting excited and scared by the prospect of where I could end up working when I leave! Do any of you want to hire me?!

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 18

Week 18 – the week of my final assessments of my culinary diploma, is finally over. I’ve been preoccupied by (dreading) it for about six weeks and am most definitely celebrating the fact that it’s behind me. Before I get too into the celebrations and trying to forget about it forever, I’ll do my best to take myself back to that horrible Monday morning to recollect it for you!

Fillet of Beef with Parsnip Purée, Roasted Baby Beetroot, Buttered Cabbage, Potato Rosti and Mustard Cram Sauce

This week’s assessments were longer than our previous two terms’. Each assessment was four hours long and we had five days (as opposed to the previous term’s three hours over four days). The brief we cooked to was the menu we designed for our assignment, thankfully just cooking one portion of each (rather than say 100 for the wedding!). We also had set service times for each dish, which we could serve two minutes either side of, or it would affect our marks. I’ll include the menu, with the name of the business, theme of the day and brief for each dish on each day.

The Pigeon & Puddle

Menu 1 – Modern British Gastro Pub

Pigeon Starter

Wood Pigeon Salad with Honey Roasted Fig, Pomegranate Seeds and a Pomegranate Molasses Dressing

Beef fillet main course, with 2 vegetables, 1 potato or starch dish and a sauce

Fillet of Beef with Parsnip Purée, Roasted Baby Beetroot, Buttered Cabbage, Mustard Cream Sauce and Potato Rosti

Fruit soufflé dessert

Apple Soufflé

Monday was probably the day I was most comfortable with, both in terms of cooking the elements and also timings for the day. I’d practised the starter on my week off, as it was a slightly invented dish after Nay had the idea of pigeon and pomegranate going together! I’d also practised the soufflé twice because the timing of it was quite tricky. It was due 15 minutes after the main and took up to 12 minutes to cook and cannot be made in advance!

I had a slight blip in the morning when I peeled my potato to see a small black spot… after trying to peel and chop it away I eventually chopped the whole potato in half to see that it was rotting from the inside out! I showed Chef (to his joy!) and asked for another, less evil, potato for my rosti! Thankfully that only cost me a few minutes and as I’d hoped my timings went well. I actually had a little too much time to kill before I could start cooking and serving dishes. I started wondering if they can penalise you for cleaning your bench and washing your hands too much?!

Wood Pigeon Salad with Honey Roasted Fig, Pomegranate Seeds and a Pomegranate Molasses Dressing

After I’d stalled for 50 minutes it was time to cook and serve my pigeon dish. While making the pomegranate dressing I realised the school’s pomegranate molasses was more red than mine at home, and the dressing came out blood coloured… suddenly giving a dark meaning to name The Pigeon & Puddle! Despite this gory idea I was happy with the dish, served it on time and moved onto the main. I was actually very happy with my main as well, even with the plating which isn’t exactly my forté. While frying off my beef I was whisking up my egg whites to mix with my creme pat and apple purée for my soufflé. I got it in the oven just before I delivered my main and then longingly stared through the oven door begging it to rise! Very happily it did rise, though perhaps it wasn’t quite as neat as others. I’m never sure if my soufflés are cooked to the right degree – the Chefs look for them to be a little under but not too under! At least it was one day down with no disasters.

Baked Apple Soufflé


Café Rochelle

Menu 2 – French Bistro

Mussel starter with French style bread

Moules Marinière with French Baguette

Round fish main course with 2 vegetables and a sauce

Fillet of Bream with Roasted Fennel, Beans À La Bordelaise, And Tarragon Sauce

Custard based tart dessert

Tarte au Citron with Fresh Raspberries

Tuesday was another of the lighter workloads of the week as French Bistro food is meant to be bold, rustic and simple. The bread and tart were the two most technical elements of the day, and the two I tackled first so I could relax a little once the dough and pastry were made. Oven management was important as well, as the bread had to be baked at 230°, the pastry blind baked at 180° and the tart baked at 120°.

French Baguette

I was happy with my dishes again, although my fish looked a little messy and may or may not have been overcooked (to make up for under cooking my bream fillet in previous assessments!). I also caught the pastry when I was blow-torching the glaze on my tart, but I walked away pleased that those were pretty small concerns. Once again it was good to have had a disaster free day heading into the more full on days of the week.

Tarte au Citron with Fresh Raspberries


Actually Love Catering

Menu 3 – Wedding Reception

Cold plated vegetarian starter

Goats’ Cheesecake with Caramelised Onion Jam And Roasted Figs with Rocket


Celeriac and hazelnut soup

Chicken Main course, with 2 vegetables, 1 potato dish and a sauce

Roasted Chicken Breast, fondant potato, Wild Mushrooms, Sautéed Spinach With a Mushroom Sauce

Cold fruit based mousse dessert with a garnish

Blackberry Mousse with Pink Lemon Jelly and shortbread

Wednesday was the first busy day with four dishes and therefore four service times. Each day I had split my plan into my mes en place preparation time (broken into 30 minute slots of tasks) and my service time (15 or 30 minute slots with my tasks broken down into 5 minute slots). This may sound like overkill but I know that it’s the way I work best under pressure – being as prepared as possible.

Goats’ Cheesecake with Caramelised Onion Jam and Roasted Figs with Rocket

As I was really nervous I was so pleased to be working opposite one of my closest friends from the course again this assessment. She gave me the giggles on Wednesday as she decided to forewarn the class of the noise her potatoes were about to make when she put them into the hot duck fat – “Sorry about the noise guys…” followed by an almost inaudible “szzz”, what an anti-climax! It’s the little things which cheer you up in high pressure environments!

Celeriac and Hazelnut Soup

My starter and dessert were both made in advance, with minimal effort required to get them on the plate during service – good planning on my part! I was happy with the taste of my goats’ cheesecake, however looking back I realised I should not have filled the mould to the top as the portion was somewhat large for a four course wedding menu! I was pleased with my soup, but not so happy with my main. The chicken looked a bit messy and I fear I may have under-seasoned the dish. I was happy with the texture of my mousse and grateful my lemon jelly went pink as it had in practice (something to do with the acid of the lemon when it comes in contact with the blackberry). However once again I realised I should not have filled it to the top of the glass. Large portions would soon become a theme for me this week!

Blackberry Mousse with Pink Lemon Jelly and Shortbread

I did also have my first wobble that day, as I had a really clumsy moment in the fridge. I accidentally put my fingers into the top of one of my classmates mousse. I told her immediately and she was very kind about it, which I was grateful for and she managed to smooth it over. I felt terrible, it’s bad enough to mess up your own stuff, but to mess up someone else’s is horrendous. I made a strong mental note to be more careful in the walk in fridge in future!

The Orchard

Menu 4 – Fine Dining Restaurant

3 canapés: 1 meat, 1 fish, 1 vegetarian

Crispy chicken, Salmon and Crème fraiche, Blue cheese filo bites

Hot scallop starter

Pan-fried scallops with Black Pudding and textures of Apple

Poussin main course, 1 pastry item, 2 vegetables

Roasted Poussin with a Leek Mousse Vol-Au-vent, Glazed Baby Vegetables and Sauternes Sauce

Cold Chocolate dessert

Chocolate Cremeaux with Raspberry Fluid Gel and Salted Pistachio Crumb

Thursday was the day everyone was dreading – four service times including three canapés. On my walk into school I was cheered up no end by meeting the world’s friendliest cat (he was really part cat, part monkey) who clambered all over my shoulders and tried to follow me to school! I was so pleased to have something to smile about as Thursday was a really horrid, busy, tough day for everyone. In the first hour of the day I was slightly unhappy to find out that about five of the ingredients I ordered hadn’t actually been put out so that wasted a very precious ten minutes searching for them!

Me and the friendliest Kitten!

I was as happy as I could be with my canapés, they were very simple and perhaps didn’t fit the ‘fine dining’ brief very well, but that was my coping mechanism for the day! I’d planned the menu to be as simple as I could get away with, using expensive, rich ingredients to hopefully elevate the dishes beyond the simple techniques. I believe my scallop dish was ok. My apple textures were a caramelised purée, pickle and salad. They tasted nice but the dish looked messy, although that mistake was overshadowed by the poussin dish!

Crispy Chicken with Mustard Mayonnaise, Salmon and Crème Fraiche, Blue Cheese Filo Bites

I was around five minutes behind on getting my poussin in the pan browning, which had a knock on effect as I didn’t have the spare time to really make sure it was cooked in time. I let it rest, plated the rest of my dish and then carved the breast (it was cooked on the crown to keep it moist) to find that it was most definitely under cooked. With around three minutes to spare before the dish was late I had to put the breasts back in the oven for as long as I could. By the time I plated the dish I was right on the edge of being late, the poussin was still under cooked and every other element on the dish was stone cold. Everyone likes under cooked chicken with cold veg right?!

Moving onto dessert I was pleased with the texture of my cremeaux, however once again I’d filled the mould to the top and therefore the portion was far too large. It didn’t occur to me to just chop the end off at the time! I was also unhappy with my plating again, not great on a day where plating is an important aspect of the theme. Thursday was definitely my worst day yet!


Menu 5 – Pop-up Thai and Indian Restaurant

3 Thai snacks

Thai fish cakes, Chicken Satay, Prawn Rice Paper Rolls

Thai soup

Galangal soup with Mussels & Coconut Cream

Indian curry with rice, bread and a side dish

Salmon Kerala Moilee, served with Aubergine Yoghurt, Jeera Pulao, Roti

I very incorrectly thought I should have time on my side on Friday, however I also felt the least prepared for this day (correctly it turns out)! I didn’t manage to complete the practice I’d intended to the previous weekend because I ran out of time and energy and my paperwork had been the most neglected. I worked to schedule for the whole morning, so not ahead of time as I would have hoped, but no disaster. That was until it came to service time. I started cooking my chicken, cutting my wraps etc all as per my plan. Then I realised no-one else was plating up, and that I’d written the timings on my plan wrong: fifteen minutes ahead of where I was meant to be.

For me this was a bit devastating, I pride myself on being organised and prepared and I realised at that moment I wasn’t, and it knocked me. At least I was ahead, not behind. Unfortunately it resulted in me presenting very overcooked chicken with a slightly split satay sauce. Thankfully I hadn’t cooked all of my fish cakes, so was able to cook them fresh and the rice paper rolls hopefully didn’t suffer.

Chicken Satay, Thai Fish Cakes, Prawn Rice Paper Rolls

The soup had to be made from scratch in service, as there are no elements that can be prepared ahead of time. I was flustered by this point and accidentally knocked my wok, spilling some of my soup into my curry – at least they were both coconut milk based! I then burnt my cumin seeds for my rice so had to dash out to get more rice just as I was meant to be serving my soup. My morale wasn’t good, but I hoped the flavours in my soup were balanced and moved onto getting the last course of my assessments finished. My salmon may have suffered from my being distracted as I didn’t turn it down to a low simmer early enough. I got my curry, bread, rice and side out, on time, but far from perfect.

Galangal Soup with Mussels and Coconut Cream

I was gutted to end the week on a day like Friday and went for a beer feeling disappointed in myself rather than in the mood to celebrate. I know I work best when I’m prepared and Friday just confirmed that fact. I have been trying to remind myself that the week was tough and overall I had a good one. It could have been a lot worse. I think I served all of my dishes just about on time and I was mostly proud of what I plated (massive portions and over / under cooked chicken aside!).

It just leaves me wondering how I did. Usually we get our results the same week, this time we have to wait until the final Monday of the course. Nine days of speculation and worrying. I’ll have to do my best to not let that overshadow my second to last week here at Ashburton.

Ashburton Chefs Academy – Week 17

Week 17 has been the most unusual week of school yet – Dining Club Week. During dining club we cook an eight course tasting menu for paying customers over four nights with all of the money from the tickets going to charity. Each of the students cook for two nights and are front of house for one night, giving us one day off. The menu was designed by Chef Alan who also oversaw the whole week. It was a week of long days for all of us, but nobody put in as many hours as Alan, who even pulled nearly a 17 hour day on his birthday on Tuesday!

Venison Loin with Jerusalem Artichoke, Kale, Parsnip Purée, Fondant Potato, Beetroot Crisp and Venison Sauce

Monday and Tuesday were my days in the kitchen, I got Wednesday off and then was front of house on Thursday. Beyond seeing the menu we came in on Monday morning with no information and no prep done – Monday was set to be one hell of an education!