Chef stands me in front of a big bowl of fresh, green French beans, haricots verts, a plastic cutting board and a knife.
“You can start with these,” he says before moving off to start doing something serious to the lumps of meat that have just arrived.
Now, I’m not daft. I’m not stupid. I’ve done French beans before, lots of times in fact. Since I was a kid on my granny’s knee in fact. Ha! You just sort of break off the tops and tails between your thumb and forefinger, trying to pull the string that sometimes peels down the side as you do so. Right?
But. But. There was the cutting board and the knife next to the beans, so obviously in proper restaurants one cuts the ends off beans on a cutting board. I mean, the one thing I’d learned since becoming a ‘professional’ chef was that everything I thought I already knew about cooking was wrong. So I set to with the knife and board.
At first I cut the beans one at a time but then – having thought about this – I realised that I could be more chef-like and cut several at once. Saving time, doing things quickly and efficiently is the other thing I’d learned since becoming a ‘professional’ chef two days ago.
I was just lining up my second lot of half a dozen beans when Chef passed casually behind me. He was very good at wandering by apparently casually, as if on his way somewhere else and not at all checking up on my stupidities.
“First,” he says, “we don’t use a knife to top and tail beans here – you do it with your thumb and forefinger, like this.” He demonstrated, showing me the bean top-and-tailing method I’d been taught by my grandmother 40 years ago in between her egg-sucking lessons.
“Well yes, obviously,” I blurted. “That’s how I’ve always done them but you gave me the board and the knife so I thought I was supposed to use them instead.”
“And secondly,” he continued oblivious to my blurtings, “that is not a cutting board. That is a sheet of frozen puff pastry I’m going to use to make the millefeuilles for dessert with when it’s defrosted.” Ah. Millefeuilles of green beans, anyone?
Ahem. This is the start of my third week – well, third day as I’m only here one day a week – in a restaurant working as a ‘professional’ chef. I say ‘professional’ like that because I’m actually not a Professional Chef. Not even a professional cook. I feel like a culinary tourist, peering into the real world of restaurant cooking as if I were a fat tourist poking my camera into a mud hut in some distant land. I’m here because I think I want to become a Professional Chef, open a restaurant and have a Macaron – a Michelin Star (us chefs call them Macarons because the symbol in the Guide Michelin looks a bit like a macaroon) – within five years. Three by the time I’m 50 in seven years time. Some hope if I can’t spot a sheet of puff pastry at arms’ length.
My desire to become a chef goes back to my childhood, when my school dinner lady mother said becoming a cook would be a waste of my public school education, and more recently to my 40th birthday party in Paris in October 2000. While everyone else was off seeing the Eiffel Tower and getting their portraits painted in Montmartre, I spent a morning watching a class at the Cordon Bleu cookery school. It was a blindingly revelatory moment, the sort that, were I driving towards Damascus, would have been accompanied by flashing lights and heavenly voices saying, “This is the life for you my boy!”
I wasn’t put off by the hordes of foreigners taking the Cordon Bleu class (mostly Japanese and American teenagers who had to have simultaneous translation of the French chef patissier’s instructions for making a red-fruit charlotte), in fact I hardly noticed them; I was simply entranced watching the chef working, how precisely and authoritatively he did every single thing and the beauty of the final product.
I was also entranced by the equipment he got to use, in particular the pantry cupboard-sized fast chiller he used to cool down the two cakes he’d made so they’d be suitable for tasting at the end of class.
And he looked so damned cool in his kitchen whites. Even his toque looked cool. This, I agreed with the blinding white light and the heavenly voices, was the life for me.
First, though, my future ex-wife and I had to move house, split up, get divorced and sell the old stone farmhouse dream home we’d bought in the middle of nowhere in the South of France, a process which took us through to just after Easter, 2004. By which point I’d worked out that I couldn’t afford to go to the Cordon Bleu school in Paris – apart from the €30,000 annual fees there were the questions of where to live for a whole year and how to earn a living whilst going to school full-time.
So I’d found the Vatel school 40 kilometres away in Nîmes, which would take me on for a more reasonable €5,000 or so. They did a one-year ‘Masters’ course which, most interestingly to me, included nine months of ‘Stages’, work experience courses during which I’d be paid a basic wage of about €450 a month (see, maths has never been my strong point – I pay you five grand so you can pay me a €4,000 salary…).
I visited the school and was warmly welcomed, the school secretary telling me that I’d have my pick of the Stages because most people doing this course wanted to be ‘future Club Méditerranée managers not cooks’. All the famous former pupils welcomed people like me into their restaurants, she said. It sounded good.
All I needed was five grand which, since we were selling our house and going to make an immense profit, would be easy. I’d have plenty left to live on and set up a fantastic restaurant – that Macaron was as good as mine and I was already well into choosing the china and cutlery.
A voice of reason did begin to intrude at this point though – I knew how to cook up a good dinner party but everyone said that restaurant cooking was completely different. Be careful, they said. People always say things like this because it’s what everyone says, and coincidentally they’re right.
So one day after a good lunch of foie gras maison, fricassée de pintade au cidre and poire au vin at La Grange de Labahou in Anduze run by Franck and Isabelle, in the Spring of 2004 I chatted with Isabelle about my upcoming inscription at Vatel and, er, could I come here and work as a plongeur (French for dishwasher and kitchen porter) to get a bit of experience?
My first day in my new life as a chef was, appropriately enough, April 1st. I had both great hopes and fears for the day – I hoped I’d adore it, I fervently hoped I wouldn’t make too many stupid mistakes and wished that the others working there would accept me as a potential future colleague and not see me as a culinary tourist. But I feared I’d find the work too difficult, too tiring and that I’d make endless, clumsy mistakes.
I’d managed to find some trousers that didn’t matter, although at the time I was 40 kilos into a giant diet which meant that my trousers kept falling down around my ankles. The 40 kilos I still had to lose meant that I could barely button sous chef Greg’s old chef’s jacket over my stomach but an apron hid the worst and helped hold up my trousers.
The first surprise was that that kitchen team in full was just Franck and Greg, with a dishwasher on Saturdays. Blimey. And the two of them do up to 100 covers a night. I’d eaten at La Grange before, and in their previous restaurant Les Terrasses d’Anduze in the centre of town, and I’d never guessed how they did it or that there are only two of them.
The very first thing I got to do was to peel five kilos of oranges to make marmalade, and the very first thing I learned was: Everything you know is Wrong. You don’t peel oranges by trying to stick your thumb nail into it, you do it with a knife. A knife? To peel an orange?
Look, says Franck, and he deftly cuts off the top and bottom of the orange then trims the peel off down the sides leaving no flesh on the peel, wasting nothing.Then it’s all cut into equal-sized pieces and goes into the pot. In about 10 seconds flat
That ‘equal sized pieces’ thing will haunt me over and over again over the next few years; any Chef who wants to have a go at an underling will watch them cutting something up. Then saunter over – Chefs do ‘Saunter’ very well – and pick up the smallest and largest pieces of whatever it is you’re cutting up apparently at random. They can spot them within half a second, and all they have to do is hold them up in front of you while raising one eyebrow for you to know what a loser you are.
And then there’s the whole ‘peel just the peel not the fruit’ thing. With orange marmalade it doesn’t matter so much since it all goes into the marmalade, but again Chefs have a way of pulling peelings out of your waste bin and explaining to you just how much you’re adding to their food costs by THROWING THE INGREDIENTS AWAY.
So here’s a tip if you do ever find yourself in a professional kitchen and don’t want to look like a complete idiot: EAT your mistakes. Even thick peel. And you may even get away with it, until Chef brings out the weighing scale and wonders how come you started with five kilos of produce and now only have four. Feeling hungry are we?
Franck, though, isn’t that kind of Chef and, once he’s over his initial reluctance at having any sort of tourist in his kitchen, is happy to chat about the differences between French and English cooking. Like the way he’s boiling the oranges first – I’m pretty sure Grandma never did that when making marmalade. Chutney comes next, with Franck making his famous Dried Apricot Chutney, the one he serves with the foie gras. The recipe is disturbingly simple, just vinegar, water, cinnamon, cloves, a few raisins and the dried apricots. Let it cook very gently for two or three hours and voilà, chutney.
During the preparations and the mise en place, a lot of commercial representatives arrive to show their products – they normally arrive on Mondays or Thursdays, says Franck. One’s selling pre-cooked dishes – no interest here where everything’s home-made; then a couple of chaps who sell kitchen equipment – one of them makes plates, bowls and other such things in, incredibly, Stoke on Trent in England, “The Limoges of England but bigger,” he explains. There are some very interesting things including sloping bowls, with one side higher than the other. And black ones, long plates suitable for fish but all expensive. Wait until next year, says Franck, they’ll all be half-price.
Talking of fish, he shows me his ‘bassin’ full of trout and crayfish; dozens of fish in a 10-metre square by five metres deep concrete basin. He’s in the middle of draining it – it takes four days – to refresh the water. Eventually the trout will be served in the restaurant.
Then a little washing up for me, and what a washing up machine they have here; the size of a regular domestic washer-upper but at sink height. You slide a plastic tray of plates, saucepans and whatever in, lower the lid and one minute – yes ONE MINUTE later everything is clean and dry…I really want one of these in my kitchen at home. Only five grand.
The other thing I want is the steam oven; you can control both the temperature and the humidity and voilà, everything is perfectly cooked. Incredible, and not badly priced either – just €30,000.
More work: I cut up the strawberries and give them a whiz in the robotchef, then add sugar. Then add more sugar to correct my mistake…
And then I put the potato purée in a giant tray – it’s called a gastro, short for gastronorm, I discover later because it’s a normal size for gastronomic cooking, 70×40 cms – scooped ice cream for the puddings and squirted red-fruit coulis. The day just got better and better. No really, I loved it. The only real mistake I made that first day – at least, the only mistake that I saw myself – was to break two of the poached eggs I served while cutting them into round shapes and putting them on a plate. Oops.
And then really before I realised it service was over and we dine together, Franck and Isabelle and I – the duck breast with pepper sauce from the menu then some cheese. You know, I could do this for a living…