Staging at Alyn Williams at The Westbury - One Michelin Star
I hadn’t expected to see Alyn Williams arrive for the day in full biker gear. I spotted him walking just behind me as I turned down the back road of the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair at around 8:30am.
For a brief moment, before I checked to make sure, I thought he was one of those crazy caffeine-fuelled courier bikers. But then Alyn caught my eye, grinned and waved a one Michelin starred motorbike glove in my direction.
It was a nice touch and set the tone for the day.
Alyn then led the way through the staff doors and into his kitchen. After being introduced to the head chef, Dane Shelton, I was placed on the larder, a station I was becoming acquainted with after spending almost an entire day on the larder at Fera at Claridge's during my previous stage.
A CDP named Charlie quickly handed me an enormous bowl of trompette mushrooms. He told me that they would be part of a malt purée for the tasting menu. My job was to tear each one open, rinse them through, and deliver them to the blender.
Charlie frequently came over to check on me through the day. Here was a man who knew the benefits of a chef tasting his food. He always had a mouthful of something, even my raw mushrooms.
He was very helpful and I felt at ease asking him plenty of questions about the section and what I was preparing. He knew that dealing with the mushrooms was a rather mundane task and he often gave me cheeky glances like an entertained big brother.
The biggest issue I had while working that morning was keeping out of the way of a very determined commis called Christina. I felt a little intimidated and quite embarrassed that I was constantly having to get out of her way with my mushrooms.
After she had asked me to move further down the line to make room for her peanut mousse and fresh batch of caramelised popcorn, I nervously said, “Sorry, I'm taking up so much room!"
Straight away, she turned to me with a huge smile and said, “You don’t need to apologise at all.”
This broke the ice and we were soon chatting away like old friends during prep. She had been in the kitchen since July that year, and had worked in a few restaurants before Alyn Williams, including with Andrew Fairlie up in Scotland.
“There can be long days in the kitchen here,” she told me, “but there’s always something to do!”
Just before lunch service, I was handed a crate of sand carrots. These were expensive, Charlie told me in between mouthfuls, and that they were grown on a beach in France. He had me wash the sand off, peel them, and pop them in the fridge for later. I was pretty comfortable with carrot peeling.
Like with my day at Fera at Claridge's, I was not required for lunch service, but the benefits of watching a brigade in action are huge. Yes, it may be frustrating to be left on the subs bench, but how are you meant to become a cog in a machine without first understanding the mechanism?
There were around 36 covers for dinner and this is where Alyn Williams entered the fray. For lunch, he could be seen darting in and out of his office by the pass when he was needed, with Dane and the sous chef Charles taking the reins for the majority.
Halfway through dinner, I was finally given my chance. I was asked to jump in and prepare the canapés along with Alice, another commis. She had faith in me and allowed me to toast the delicate smoked mackerel tubes with a blowtorch.
I wasn’t particularly comfortable with the blowtorch but both Alice and Charlie came to my rescue, showing me that one small brush with the flame is all that's needed, giving a small part of the outside a toasted look. There was a button on the side that released the gas and popped the flame on together, and the rest was actually both easy and quite entertaining. I could smell toast every time I brushed.
Something that struck me was that every time Alyn Williams passed me in the kitchen, he would make a point of asking how I was doing. He was such a friendly character with great faith in his brigade and them in him.
After my first batch of canapés were done, I watched as they were taken to Dane for approval. He nodded, and the waiter turned to take them to the dining room, before quickly turning back to the pass with a grimace. My heart sank, but only briefly. One of the tubes had rolled ever so slightly across the plate, and needed a small adjustment. My canapés had successfully made it into the dining room, and it felt great.
My day at Alyn Williams came to an end at around 10pm, but I really didn’t want it to. I had had an amazing time. Not only did I learn more about mushrooms for my own food education, and had actually been incorporated into dinner service, I felt more comfortable with knives and had been afforded such confidence by my colleagues in the kitchen. They were like a little, busy family.
And for twelve hours, I was wonderfully one of them.