Only young people have the luxury of knowing everything, simply because they know so little. As you get older the day finally comes when you realise that not only will you never know everything, the amount of stuff you will never know is increasing exponentially.
Worse, there are things you didn’t know you didn’t know but thought you knew all along because they’re so obvious. Like, for example, how to wash a lettuce. Until I started working in a professional kitchen I’d never really given much thought to washing lettuces – rinse it under the tap, perhaps, pull off leaves, cut them up a bit without any method to the process.
And then one evening when I arrived at La Grange, Franck asked me to wash half a dozen lettuces ready for the evening service. Greg, the sous-chef, seeing me eyeing them suspiciously, offered me some advice: Fill the sink with water, rip the leaves up, rinse them well and bring them over to my workstation he said.
So I did.
Except when he said ‘rip them up’ he didn’t mean ‘into the small pieces I put onto plates for the starters’, he just meant ‘remove the whole leaves from the stalk, don’t bother using a knife’. So I shredded half a dozen lettuces and was in the process of stirring them in a sink brimming with cold water when Franck just happened to pass by.
‘Why have you ripped up all the lettuces?’
Erm, well, Greg said….
It turns out that ripping them up like that bruises and discolours them and now they’re no longer fit to be served. Ah.
Now, on one level this doesn’t matter – half a dozen lettuces, total value about three euros, not many dead. Take it out of my wages. On the other hand it’s 19h 30, the shops are shut and this is all the lettuce we have. Ah.
See? Even washing lettuce isn’t easy.
There are plenty of other errors to be made: Washing up, for example – that’s not how you wash up. You scrape off the big bits and then put it in the machine. Sweeping the floor – you can’t use a broom because it raises dust and that’s now illegal in kitchens, you have to use a hoover and/or a wet mop which, in turn, is now illegal. You have to hose down, scrub with a stiff broom and squeegee; Beating eggs – where should I start? I can’t even crack open an egg properly, it turns out. For starters, you don’t crack them on the edge of a bowl because that can and will force small fragments of shell into the interior. And when you’re whisking yolks and sugar together your whisk should make a figure-of-eight pattern in the bowl, not round and round. And when you’re beating egg whites by hand the whisk shouldn’t go round and round the edge of the bowl in circles. Or in a figure of eight. It should lift up from the bottom, not vertically but sort of horizontally. Look, let me show you… When the waitress says No Chantilly she means No Chantilly on the profiteroles and not No Chantilly on the crème caramels as you thought, so now have to try to save an order of profiteroles with the unwelcome addition of whipped cream.
And then I opened another new door onto a whole arena of errors I’d never even known existed before when I bought a book on the waitering side of this business, because I thought I knew a lot about the kitchen and wanted to learn a few of the basics out on the other side of the swinging doors.
The book covered the CAP and BEP exams, roughly GCSE level, with a suitably spotty youth in an ill-fitting DJ on the cover holding a covered tray, wearing slicked-back hair and a shirt two sizes too large. That sort of thing.
The very first question in this book is, “In the ninth century the culinary arts changed in five principal areas, describe them.” What? There’s more. “Name the eight cheese families and give an example of each.” Yes, I know – cheese has families? My favourite question is the one that gets you to replace negative expressions with something more positive – so, ‘Je ne sais pas’ becomes ‘Je vais me renseigner’ and ‘Impossible’ becomes ‘C’est difficilement réalisable’. The best, though, is that ‘Non’ becomes ‘Oui mais…’
What it also tells me is that, in fact, I know sod all about cooking and kitchens. Sure, I know, now, where the ladles are kept in this particular kitchen and, yes, I can robot my way through producing a couple of dozen tiramisus. And to start with I was quite proud of my Tiramisu-producing abilities: In fact, I was now make two dozen tiramisus every Thursday morning in an hour, down from an hour and a half back in May. I now also only use a dozen eggs, instead of the two dozen it used to take me – you have to separate the egg yolks and whites, something I didn’t always manage successfully. If you have any yolk in the whites they won’t rise properly. The only time my whites didn’t rise properly was when Greg transferred them out of the mixer bowl into an ice cream glass while he used the mixer. I suspect the glass wasn’t clean but luckily Chef had some spare egg whites about his person so I didn’t have to crack another dozen. It’s a sign of a good chef, don’t you think, to always have a dozen spare egg whites about your person?
But this is not really cooking, as I’m starting to realise. What about Menu planning? Meat preparation? Portioning? No idea. How do you calculate prices? Filet a whole Cod? Negotiate with the baker to get them to give you, for free, all their day-old speciality loaves to serve toasted with the foie gras? Should I do my own accounts or hire an accountant? ‘Give up’ is the only realistic answer I could come up with.
So, I decided, I should do a proper apprenticeship and called whatever the acronym is for the French organisation which looks after apprenticeships. “You’re too old,” they said. “You need to be under 26”. Ah, I said. So who looks after continuing adult education? This is, I think, the first time I’ve ever heard a shrug down a telephone line. Not their problem.