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!
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!
Mon 30th Oct to Thu 2nd Nov, 2017
Charity Dining Club
Ironbark Pumpkin Velouté
with Sage & Garlic Foam
Pan-fried Spiced Quail Breast
Crispy Leg, Quince Pureé, Pickled Vegetables, Vanilla Jus
with Chestnuts, Roast Squash, Clam & Mussel Chowder, Squid Ink Tuile, Prosecco Foam
with Jerusalem Artichoke, Kale, Parsnip Purée, Fondant Potato, Beetroot Crisp and Venison Sauce
Salted Chocolate Tart
Vanilla Poached Kumquats, Orange Gel, Cointreau Bubbles and Mascarpone Sorbet
Petit Fours & Coffee
There were eight of us on kitchen duty on Monday, with four front of house. The start time for kitchen staff was 8.30 and front of house started at 10. We’d been told that Alan would assign us to a section, and those on the slightly lighter sections would be assisting another section once their prep was complete. We’d also been told that the first day in the kitchen was always the hardest, especially the Monday as no one has seen the whole menu come together in one evening before.
I was quite surprised, honoured and terrified to be told I was assigned to the main course on Monday, with one of my friends coming over to help me out once her breads were baked. We were also going to be cooking for 34 covers with no allergies. I walked into the kitchen to see an alarming quantity of ingredients covering my bench, there was very little bench left under all the potatoes, artichokes, and kale. The venison wasn’t even out yet!
Alan had laid out a simple prep list for us to follow. It was around 9 by the time we got ourselves organised and started prep. That gave us under 9 hours of prep, once a little time was taken for lunch and dinner (a very little time!). My first task was to prep the venison, which I was really looking forward to. As I’ve probably mentioned before, butchery is one of my favourite activities and I’ve never had the privilege of preparing a saddle of venison before let alone three! I started out with one saddle (loin and fillet on the rib-cage), and two loins already removed. To put this in context the last time I bought venison loin it was over £50 a kilo, making it more expensive than fillet steak! The venison I was preparing was Red Deer, the largest of our native breeds. I spent most of the morning preparing the venison loins so I had just the eye of meat without any sinew. Then we weighed it and found that it was only enough for around 60g a portion. This meant I was straight back to removing another loin from the next day’s saddle to give us a more reasonable portion.
Portioning the loin was my next task and that was much harder than it sounds! The aim was to get 90g per portion, which is difficult as the loin tapers and therefore they are all slightly different shapes. I was happy enough with my portions, although I only ended up with one spare so had to sideline the fillets just in case something went wrong in service. I was reassuringly told that if I was going to burn them I’d likely do it in a batch of six anyway so one or two spares weren’t going to be much help!
The next few hours of prep were making litres and litres of sauce and preparing over 100 Jerusalem artichokes, which was made much worse when Chef Darrin suggested they should be turned – made into little barrels with a turning knife, a skill I had not yet mastered. What’s slightly impressive is that I still have not mastered it, Darrin re-turned every single artichoke telling me not to get a job turning vegetables – whoops!
With the help of George who did all of the fondant potatoes and James who prepped and blanched all of the kale I was in a good place when it was time for service. Darrin showed me how we were going to plate the dish at the pass and soon enough we were sending out the quail starter meaning it was time for me to start searing my venison. Service was fast and exciting. The best part was how everyone worked as a team for every course. During my main someone was warming batches of kale, another person was slicing venison, another bringing up batches of hot sauce while I was plating at the pass.
At around 10pm we served the petit fours on wooden boards complete with chocolate candles created by the patisserie students. Darrin did a little thank you speech and we were cleaned down by around 11.15pm. It had been a long and adrenaline filled day and we were all pleased to get good feedback from the customers and the Chefs.
The next morning I woke up feeling relieved that the first day had gone well and was looking forward to working on another course. I confess that I was hoping for one of the courses with a little less pressure during service. Alan read out our courses for the day and I had been assigned the fish dish – so much for my hoping to be under less pressure!
Extremely luckily for me one of my best friends had done the fish course the previous day so I had a handover from her and I felt very relieved to have her around to answer my many questions! My first task of the day was to prepare around six monkfish tails, removing any membrane and whittling the fillet down to just being white flesh. As with the venison it was a pleasure to be preparing so much of such a wonderful ingredient. I was a little more nervous when it came to portioning, I struggled to get them similar sizes and decided it was best to get the scales to reveal the degree of my mistakes. This may or may not have been a good idea as I soon discovered some of the portions were twice the weight of others! Chef Alan was very kind and didn’t berate me for my mistake, rather telling me it was all part of the learning curve. The solution was to cut some of the larger pieces down and to combine some of the smaller pieces into being ‘one’ portion.
The next task was to prepare the three butternut squash into even cubes (macedoine for anyone interested in official terms!) As I was cutting them into slices ready to dice I realised that I had a rather impressive blister right where I hold the heel of the knife on my index finger – it seems this week was an lesson in endurance chopping! I soon realised my blister was nothing really as my friend who was on the venison that day managed to cut himself really badly using the fondant cutter. He was incredibly brave and came back in strapped up and pushed through with no word of complaint. We were all worried for him as it was definitely the worst injury we’d seen at school and impressed with how he dealt with it.
My maths was tested again later when I had to count portions for the mussels and clams to go into my chowder. I’m embarrassed to say I had to re-count about five times before I felt confident I had enough for our 34 portions with ten to spare. It seems numbers were really not my forté that day!
Once again our 9 hours of prep disappeared and in the blink of an eye my Prosecco cream was ready to be foamed and my mussels and clams ready to be reheated with my vegetables and sauce. Just before service I took over from Chef Alan doing the tricky job of making squid ink tuiles as Chef had kindly spent most of the day making them. The batter was fried off in tiny saucepans, dehydrating the mix until it formed a crisp tuile. I ruined the first two completely before I realised how long you have to cook them for! I did eventually get the ten tuiles we needed (just) and was very grateful that Alan had done the other 20 odd, although I’m sure he could think of nicer ways to spend his birthday!
During service I was helped out by Libby (my friend who had done an amazing job on the dish the day before). Service was much trickier that day as 11 of our 34 guests had allergies, meaning there was a lot more to deal with at the pass. I had made a separate alcohol free sauce, we’d kept all of the seafood away from the vegetables so they could be excluded for the two with seafood allergies, and Chef had made a beetroot tuile – they were the special items required for just my dish! There were chicken dishes being done for those who didn’t want red meat, and gluten free bread for others. It definitely showed us how complicated service becomes when you’ve got so many dietary requirements to contend with, something which all restaurants have to manage on a daily basis.
At the start of service I helped hand out some of the canapés to the guests and was upset to not be recognised by my own parents who were attending the dinner that evening! Hubs was meant to be joining them but unfortunately work commitments and lack of holiday got in the way (I wonder if he would have recognised his wife in chef’s whites?!).
Despite the dietary complications service ran smoothly again, helped out by post-it notes on plates and the Chefs taking quite a key role in calling out the tables. I was pleased to have my course sent and was able to help Libby with plating the small components of her beautiful dessert. Once again the night was a success. We sang Happy Birthday to an unimpressed looking Alan, I dropped my parents at their hotel and tried to get to sleep before 1am.
I spent Wednesday with my parents, we went for a walk in Brixham and saw the slightly underwhelming Babbacombe model village. It was lovely to spend some time with Mum and Dad, although I was feeling completely wiped. I went to bed at 9.30 that night and slept through until my alarm went off at 8am! Thursday was my day to be front of house, spending the day preparing the dining room and the evening serving the guests.
I was looking forward to the day knowing we were under a lot less pressure than our classmates in the kitchen, however I found the lack of adrenaline made the long day feel much longer. My morning was spent polishing cutlery and crockery, folding napkins into birds of paradise and ironing tablecloths on the tables! We had Tom giving us instructions for the day and he was very kind answering questions on how we were meant to serve our guests. It hadn’t really occurred to me just how terrible I would be at this… isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing? The moment we started taking plates I realised how spacial awareness and poise are key to being front of house, and are skills I do not have!
I was surprised to find out I can’t even pour wine… I thought this would at least be one of my more practised skills, but no, I managed to get it down the glass, on the stem and on the tablecloth! Much worse than that was when I bumped a plate into the wall while delivering the monkfish dish. By this point I was ready to curl up in the corner or go to bed! My land lord and lady were unfortunate enough to be served by me that evening, hopefully my useless service skills didn’t distract from their evening too much! They kindly said they had really enjoyed the meal, especially the monkfish dish, a compliment I happily relayed to my friend who had cooked it that night.
The whole week was a success, raising over £3000 for the local charity The Bank Youth Project. Our class were rightly proud of themselves, if a little exhausted! My favourite part of the week was definitely how everyone pulled together, helping each other out at every opportunity to make sure each night was a success. It was the closest a lot of us have come to what real service in a restaurant would be like – exhilarating, rewarding and tiring! Given that was only three days, I’m starting to realise I may not be cut out for this Cheffing malarkey! I just can’t quite cope with the idea that I’ve got my final assessments next week instead of the week off I feel like I need! Here’s to the last three weeks of term.