Starting work at Les Agassins was a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’. The restaurant closed for Christmas and New Year with a few groups booked in here and there until Valentine’s Day, when the hotel and restaurant opened – still part-time – for the new season.
It wasn’t until towards Easter that it was open seven days a week, and by then I was really into the swing of things. Steve and Caroline, two professional cooks whom I’d met via the old Dr Keyboard computer help column I wrote in The Times, had given me some great advice on how to run my plonge – essentially, make sure you run it, not the waiters who will do the least they possibly can in order to get back out as quickly as possible. Act like a Chef de Partie de la Plonge, they said. So I did, insisting they, and not I, scrape their plates free from food (and bollocked them like a certain traiteur from Nimes when they didn’t), organised things to suit myself not anyone else, and made sure everything was thoroughly clean when it left; there’s nothing worse than having Chef come back into the plonge with a plate still encrusted with last night’s specials.
I’d more or less given up on the idea of going to any sort of catering college, the two I’d looked at seriously were demanding (a) all my money and (b) all my time giving me (c) no time to earn more of (a). Then Chef pointed me at the local school, l’Ecole Hôtelière d’Avignon (EHA) to give it its full name, where he did some work as an examiner. It had a decent reputation, I could go one day a week under their ‘Formation continue’ program and, best of all, it wasn’t ludicrously expensive.
Well, expensive enough that I ended up selling my beloved BMW to pay for the year, but meh. I had a pushbike and lived in the middle of a city where you can walk to anything interesting from my town centre apartment within a quarter of an hour, so a car was a needless expense anyway. Also, I had no money, earning minimum wage as a washer-up anyway.
So I signed up. Starting in September 2005, I spent every Monday from 8am to 6pm at the school, which turned out to be a 30 minute bike ride south of town. I could have Mondays off, Chef said, and Sundays too so that’d fit in well with my work week. Well, unless he needed me to come in to work, obviously. But that’ll only happen not very often. Promise.
The school sent the list of equipment I’d need to learn stuff there, some of it incomprehensible. A canneleur? Douille? Spatule en exoglass? And no one but no one, Chef at work, my future teacher Chef and the bloke at the knife shop included, knew what a ‘Cuillère à racine’ was.
We were to wear proper kitchen whites, safety shoes and ‘calot’ or hat (the sort they wear in McDonald’s) at school and the list of knives was sensible: Eminceur (25cm chef’s knife), Filet de sole (for filleting fish), désosseur (de-boner), Office (vegetable knife), Econome (vegetable peeler), Canneleur (for carving grooves in carrots – seriously), Fusil (steel for putting edges back onto knives). We’d need a Verre mesureur for measuring liquids and I added my electronic kitchen scales, scissors, the famous set of four ‘douilles’ which turned out to be icing nozzles, a paintbrush, scraper, the ‘spatule en exoglas’ which translated as a plastic stirring spoon, a fouet à sauce (sauce whisk), a fourchette (the sort of fork you use to hold down the Sunday roast while carving it), an Aiguille à brider (chicken-trussing needle, now replaced by elastic bands), a regular spoon and fork and the famous Cuillère à racine which, the consensus had it, was a melon baller.
I already had the clothes and Chef kindly gave me a vegetable knife, the needle and some other stuff. I bought a new Eminceur and désosseur from the knife shop in the centre of Avignon (Spanish Arcos knives for the knife geeks amongst you) and a filet de sole (Sabattier, rubbish) from Metro and I was good to go. Day One, bring it on!