13 April 2006

Learning from the big boys

A busy couple of weeks for Chefette, what with work experience at Le Caprice, two separate visits from family, and numerous attempts to perfect her hollandaise ahead of the upcoming country house weekend with friends (when she will be making eggs benedict for 17). But, as is becoming ingrained into the fibre of my being, a good chef must Never Say No to a bit of hard work. Coz let's face it, a bit of hard work is really the only way to become efficient.

And if I learned anything from Caprice, it's that there are zillions of ways I can become more efficient. That place has loads of systems in place. Systems that have been honed over time. That everyone knows, from chefs to waiting staff down to lowly kitchen porters. So even if disaster strikes from out of the blue (such as a porter accidentally dropping a bucket of oil over the chargrill during service), things just keep ticking over nicely as the fire extinguishers are spraying.

For one thing, the mise-en-place was far more organised than anywhere else I've been to date. All the meat and seafood, and anything prepared in the fridges / freezers, was either individually clingfilmed or vac-packed. Everything was date stamped and on trays. All the ingredients except herbs and salad leaves were weighed and portioned out exactly for service. And every chef de partie communicated what needed doing with their counterparts before the next shift.

Perhaps the most fun part was getting to watch the chef orchestrate a busy service at the passe. At first it all looks like mayhem. The orders are flying in, and the chef is barking them out in a rapid fire, barely discernible shorthand code. The line chefs, who are already trying to concentrate on cooking and keeping straight 5 separate items for 2 different tables, must acknowledge with a loud 'oui' the new lists of items as they are shouted out, and try to watch out for which order is up next. But the longer I watched, the more I could discern the organisation in the chaos. The way the chef would replenish new haddock portions a couple at a time to the girl on the deep dryer as she would cook off orders. The way the cold section chef would co-ordinate with the hot line chefs (anticipating how many minutes it would take them to finish their risotto, or warm up the base of the onion tart) to ensure that hot and cold starters for the same table arrives at the passe simultaneously. The way the printed tickets would move from the 'starter away' position to the 'main away' row.

Besides watching service, I had plenty of jobs to do. Most of them (let's be honest) were the at the less-than-glamourous end of the spectrum. I prepped a bucket of onions the size of a deep snare drum for lyonnais. I did finely diced shallots by the gallon container. I rolled out and cut up biscuit dough into 4cm x 10cm leaves. Not to mention picking over trays of herbs, washing and prepping cartons of watercress, iceberg, leeks, etc. But the compensating factors were myriad. I learned the right way to cook white asparagus (poach briefly in a cooking liquor of water acidulated with lemon juice, plus salt and a little sugar, and remove from heat completely to finish cooking and cooling in the same pan). I tasted wild garlic, wild chervil, and bitter cress for the first time. And best of all I got to help out on the cold station during one lunchtime service, plating up salads that actually got served to customers. (Cue brief moment of glowing pride.)

I was meant to have two days with them, but I managed to convince the chef to let me come in for a third day. Secretly, I would have loved an extra three or four days, but at least things ended on a good note-- he very generously let me take a few recipes with me, and also gave me a Le Caprice cookbook as a parting gift.

Tomorrow the husband and I leave for the country house weekend. I've done my prep lists for the two meals that I will be responsible for, and have already had an email from one of the other guests offering to help out in the kitchen (thank the Lord), so hopefully things will all go smoothly. Friday night will be a pasta al forno with garlic bread and green salad. And Saturday brunch will be eggs benedict, accompanied by fruit salad, sauteed mushrooms, hash browns, and bread baskets.

Toodle pip.

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