In the world of fine dining, all might be calm in the restaurant itself – the little crab tartlet placed in front of you probably looks exquisitely simple – but behind culinary perfection is hours of hard graft.
A current case in the British High Court is putting the sometimes punishing atmosphere of professional kitchens front of house once again, with a former pastry chef for Heston Blumenthal claiming damages for the “fast, arduous and repetitive” tasks she says she had to perform while working at his three Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in 2014 and 2015. Court documents claim that the work she says she was made to do (which could include putting 400 sweets into small bags with tweezers or making deck upon deck of edible playing cards) left her with repetitive strain injury. Fat Duck Ltd has denied liability for Anderson’s injury and says the work she did was routine for a pastry chef in a ‘fine dining restaurant’.
Whatever the outcome of the case, it’s fair to say that only in a Michelin-starred restaurant would part of your job be to craft an immaculate chocolate playing card at speed or de-bone 75 quail in record time. Speak to any professional chef about their memories of starting out and you’ll be regaled with stories about not leaving their station to so much as go to the lavatory during service and being made to chop carrots for weeks on end until they had perfected a precise (and quick) 3mm cube.
Martyn Nail, head chef at Claridge’s, recalls the week he spent meticulously cleaning Jersey Royal potatoes when he first started there in 1986. “Of course you never peel a Jersey Royal, you very lightly scrape them. I spent the first week with a huge bucket in a sink at the very back in the kitchen.
“The chef would come and say you’re not getting any [expletive] faster at this, are you son? It literally was a thankless task. As quick as you put them in they were being cooked and served [...] If you scraped them too hard and there was a bit of a blemish, you were wasting your time because they went straight in the bin.”
Much of the madness comes during prep time. The hours between 8am and 11.30am are the most important in a kitchen, and head chefs are fiendishly specific about how they like everything to be chopped, picked and peeled. One former chef recalls having to peel the outer shells off individual peas every morning and being asked to chop shallots in a specific way – separating each leaf, then carefully peeling off the inner membrane and cutting the leaves into 2mm cubes “to make it absolutely perfect”.
Tom Phillips, head chef at Restaurant Story in London remembers spending five hours a day peeling globe artichokes when he first started out. Restaurants have changed in recent years, he says, with many of the best kitchens no longer operating the traditional stations, where one junior might be left doing the same job day in and day out. It’s partly, he says, because menus tend to change more frequently.
“Repetitive jobs you’re never going to get away from – there are certain things that are always going to need to be done – but... we constantly have a level of change.”
Every kitchen has a ‘worst’ job. In Jack Stein’s restaurant, it’s cuttlefish prep. He says: “If you can prepare a cuttlefish without getting the ink out of it – it’s almost impossible to do. Once there’s cuttlefish ink on your [prep section], it just looks terrible.”
Stein, who runs the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, recalls the hours he spent thanklessly chopping vegetables as a trainee chef. “I remember trying to figure out the quickest way of doing so many things, like chopping tomatoes into little concasse [peeled, seeded, and cut into small cubes]. You’re just trying everything you can to get that extra 20 minutes prep time so that when it comes to service you look ready and like you know what you’re doing.”
Though the culture across the industry is beginning to change, there is clearly still a level of rigour that is still required in the best restaurants in the world and what some might describe as ‘tough love’ as a means to achieve it.
James Knappett, co-founder of Kitchen Table, a tasting menu restaurant in Fitzrovia, remembers, at his first job, the pressure on the hollandaise sauce station to keep whisking no matter how tired your arm got.
“We used to make it by hand, and one of the chefs would pour in the clarified butter and, of course, the idea of making the hollandaise is that you constantly whisk the butter on to your egg yolk mix,” he says.
“The chef that was pouring, you didn’t want to stop whisking or change whisking hands. It was about who was the mightiest, that they could get all of this butter into one hollandaise whisking with the same arm. It wouldn’t look good if you swapped hands or asked him to wait a minute.”
“I think it was a test,” he adds.
The Daily Telegraph