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?!