I joined Cactus Kitchens in 2015 after graduating from Leiths School of Food and Wine. From prepping ingredients for our cookery lessons to making canapés for corporate cooking events, I run around behind the scenes wielding measuring spoons and trailing flour behind me.
Le Gavroche, famed for its classic French haute cuisine (and two Michelin stars), is the restaurant that made the rules; Roux at Parliament Square, (whose food restaurant critic Jay Raynor has described as akin to ‘enlightened classicism’), breaks them.
Work quickly and efficiently
My natural habitat is one of organised chaos. Setting foot in the kitchen of Le Gavroche, I realised that chaos wasn’t going to cut it. Space was limited, the prep was endless, the schedule tight.
Straightaway, my dainty technique for picking parsley was ridiculed. I rapidly learnt how to strip a bunch of its leaves in half the time. No sooner was one job finished, then another was waiting. I chopped kilograms of shallots and double podded peas as if I was competing for an Olympic medal.
There’s no such thing as a stupid question (unless it’s a question asked twice).
I asked lots of questions about ingredients, techniques and flavour combinations I hadn’t encountered before - I was here to learn. What went into the gazpacho ketchup? How did they make the pea sorbet so green? I had to ask questions to complete the simplest of tasks. Where was the blast chiller? How small should I chop the carrots? Better to ask the question and complete a task correctly than second-guess and end up with 250 asparagus spears all cut to the wrong length. I’m afraid to say I learnt that the hard way. Now, I did hide in the walk-in fridge until the burning shame had ebbed away.
Watch out for knife carriers, bearers of hot pans and piles of chopping boards cutting a swathe through the kitchen. Listen out for their warning bellow of ‘watch your backs!’ A timorous 'excuse me,' will go unheeded in the din. Think Mel Gibson in Braveheart to deliver a rousing war cry of William Wallace proportions. Pay attention to the little things; find out where the Kitchen Porter (KP) likes you to stack dirty equipment. If the KP is unhappy, the rest of the kitchen is unhappy.
Try everything, no matter how nerve-wracking it may feel. At Roux at Parliament Square, I was set to work on canapés during lunch service. I had started the morning peeling 7 kilograms of carrots, now here I was, a vital member of the kitchen team, during the frantic lunch service. As I sent out plate after plate, of canapés, I felt a rush of adrenaline that I could easily see becoming addictive.
During evening service, I watched enthralled, as every member of the team brought together their dishes with seamless efficiency. Beautiful plates of food flew out of the kitchen in minutes. As the orders poured in, each one greeted with an accompanying chorus of ‘Oui Chef!’ I was swept up in the buzz and energy of the moment. I was still buzzing long after I had finished work. Sitting wide-eyed on the bus home, I felt invincible.
I cannot fault the patience, generosity and kindness of everyone I met during my time in the restaurant kitchens, all of whom helped me and proffered so much advice. I came away with an even greater respect for the people who dedicate their lives to producing ridiculously good food. In a few short days, I had learned so much.
I was happy to return to my little prep kitchen, but it was with a renewed sense of purpose and a with a resolve to perform to the best of my ability and to produce food of which I can always be proud. (Strangely, my new found love of bellowing ‘watch your backs’ at every opportunity has not gone down as well.)
The pace of our London cooking classes may be a little less frenetic than Harriet’s stage in the restaurant kitchen (there’s no walk-in fridge either), but we guarantee that like her, you’ll take home a generous helping of chef’s wisdom. Check out our range of courses here.