It has been 111 days since the 10th of November, my final day at Ashburton Chefs Academy, or so a reliable internet date calculator has informed me. Is it less scary when put as 2664 hours? 15 weeks and 6 days? How about 30.41% of a year? Nope, all seem too long for my liking! Anyway I thought I was about time I wrote a post with a little bit of what I’ve been getting up to since I graduated from Ashburton all those days ago, full of expectation and fear of what was around the corner.
November and December were mostly getting used to living back at home full time: moving myself back in, re-organising rooms, moving furniture back to where it used to live (and moving entire PC setups off of my breakfast bar). Generally undoing the effect my husband had of turning the family home into a bachelor pad! I also started applying for stages at restaurants, as being unemployed was never far from my mind. A stage is a fancy (French) restaurant way of saying unpaid work experience. I applied for four, and over the course of a month or so heard back from all four, three where they were happy to have me and one where I was unsuccessful as I needed to have an existing paid job supporting me. This was Le Manoir – Raymond Blanc’s two Michelin Star country house hotel in Oxfordshire. I did try to argue I had funds in the form of a supportive husband, but they have clamped down on free labour and wouldn’t take me up on the offer. I set about arranging the other three, I would attend two in December and one in January.
My first was at Restaurant 56, a three rosette fine dining restaurant situated in a hotel in the nearby Faringdon. I met the Executive Chef Andrew Scott who asked me a little of what I wanted to get out of the experience (I think my answer may have been something helpful like… some experience!). Andrew and his team were a little familiar to me, as Andrew himself was on Great British Menu in 2016, his Head Chef Nick Bennett was one of the three finalists in Professional Masterchef in 2015, and Ben Bullen, Head Chef of the Magnolia Brasserie was on Professional Masterchef that year. A star studded crew they were, but also the most kind friendly bunch. During my three days at Restaurant 56 Andrew generously let me prep some really exciting ingredients including boxes of scallops in their shells and deboning a pork belly. Having the brasserie and restaurant share the same prep kitchen meant there were lots of lads (no lady chefs unfortunately) buzzing around happy and busy at work all day. I assisted the pastry chef Dominic in his mise en place and helped plate a few dishes when it came to evening service. The team spirit there was wonderful, they all sit down to eat staff meals together (breakfast, lunch and dinner!) and the place is clearly based on solid friendships as well as a respect of great ingredients and fantastic cooking.
My next stage was a week later, at the Nut Tree Inn, a one Michelin star pub in North Oxford run by the lovely North family, head chef Mike, his sister Mary, and his wife Imogen. Here I was working with a slightly larger team who do more covers, including lunch and dinner. I ended up having to cancel my first day due to the heavy snow in Oxford – I was unable to get out my drive, and the restaurant were getting lots of cancellations. This meant I had a very short stint of two days for this stage. My first day was spent helping out in the pastry section, making mirror glazes, toffee apples, and sticky toffee pudding (or as all restaurants refer to them: STP!). During service I was cooking off the mini soufflés, sent as a pre-dessert. My second morning I helped out in the pastry section again, although this time a little less successfully. For the first time in my life I split a mousse, resulting in it needing to be re-done. I was frustrated at myself for my mistake, but had to put it down as a lesson learned. Instead I made the staff breakfast feeling a little daunted as it was my first time in the main side of the kitchen with all of the mysterious and slightly scary equipment! That afternoon I helped a little in the larder section and a little in mains, the pace was fast and understanding the check system was a little beyond me! It was a quick lesson in just how much there is to keep an eye on in a professional kitchen, and that was a fairly quiet day for them!
Both of my first stages were fairly local, and included doing split shifts where you would get a little time off to go home and recoup before the evening service. My third stage wasn’t until after Christmas, but I already knew it was going to be a whole new level of pressure – a two Michelin Star pub. The only two Michelin star pub.
It was at The Hand and Flowers in Marlow, the first and most successful pub opened by the wonderful Tom Kerridge. I will admit to be more nervous (terrified) about my third and final stage, the prestige of being at one of the twenty restaurants in the UK awarded two Michelin stars may have had something to do with it! I had a longer drive to get to The Hand and Flowers, what should have been a 50 minute drive was often 1 hour and 20 minutes in the morning, but it felt achievable, and I knew I’d want to be in my own bed after a long day on my feet! My first day was intense. There were a lot more chefs, unsurprising given the number of covers and the level the food has to be at. They also work harder than I could have imagined, they never seem to stop apart from a quick break to eat staff dinner just before the evening service kicks off. As with my first two stages, everyone was lovely and welcoming which helped ease my worries a little. Once again I found myself assisting in the pastry kitchen with the head of pastry – a very talented chap called Adam. With the exception of a three and a half hour parsley picking session (I wish I was exaggerating) every day was busy and mostly full of making different sweet treats.
I was delighted to briefly met Tom Kerridge on my second day. I wasn’t expecting to see him as he’s a fairly busy man anyway (he has recently opened his third business in Marlow, the second being The Coach which was awarded its first Michelin star the year it opened) but he was also promoting his recently released book – Lose Weight for Good. I kept my head down on seeing him, desperately trying to not burn the honey I was meant to be caramelising – he spotted me anyway and kindly asked how long I was with them and if I was being treated well. I happily told him I was being treated amazingly and thanked him, while feeling a little star struck! I spent most of my four days at the Hand and Flowers in the prep kitchen rather than the service kitchen, although I have to admit this suited me better. I’m not convinced I am ready for or suited to the fast demanding pace of a professional kitchen during service, and still found myself wistfully looking at the clock around 9 wondering when I could go home to bed! This reminded me of Chef Dave who always said that was a sign you’re in the wrong job!
I am so grateful to all of the kind and generous chefs I met during my stages, I learned a lot even in that short time. Some of what I learned was tricks of the trade, particular recipes or ideas, but I also learned that being a chef is as hard as they say it is. Chefs in independent restaurants like the three I was lucky enough to work at are cooking your stock, sauces, bread, and ice cream all from scratch. The guys and girls who are cooking your food are often doing so having taken little time for themselves to rest or eat, they aren’t paid much and they do it for the love of great food. I admire them all and it’s made me feel differently about being a customer.
I finished my experience understanding myself a little more as well, I knew that I couldn’t give up my evenings and weekends in that way. My time with my husband, family and friends is too important to me, which is something I still find myself feeling oddly guilty for admitting. I didn’t go into my professional culinary diploma wanting to be a chef, so I shouldn’t be all that surprised that I haven’t changed my mind yet, should I? And so I was back on the job hunt, trying to work out what I was going to do with my life and my shiny new diploma… more in the next post!