My stage at Chamberlain’s of London was a real confidence booster. Having already staged at both Fera at Claridge’s and Alyn Williams, I had learned that faith in your own skills is a very real obstacle, especially for a new starter.
Knives have so far been my biggest hurdle, paring knives to be precise, and to slice and dice without the safety net of a chopping board. The worry for me is that I’ll go right through the carrot or mushroom and straight into my thumb as the technique is very particular and done at real speed by those with experience.
I had been up at the crack of dawn that morning to meet Andrew Jones at Billingsgate Fish Market to see the Chamberlain’s stall that had been at the entrance since the 1940’s. They had lobsters and halibut, hand dived scallops and crabs, and plenty more besides. The wholesale side is a key part of the business, with the restaurant chefs often heading over to learn about filleting and blocking in the storehouses.
Chamberlain’s is really a great education centre for chefs, with Andrew Jones bringing in quality, fresh, often local produce, and constantly experimenting with the chefs for new ideas for the menu.
After a quick train ride back into town, I spent the early morning at the restaurant following the sous chef, Luca, around the kitchen as he prepared stock using chicken and veal bones, while also talking with Andrew about his restaurant.
My first job at Chamberlain’s was to trim sprout tops next to Luca on the larder. We had a tray each and the dreaded paring knives.
The curved blade in my hand looked so sharp but I decided to try my luck as Luca knew my limited ability yet felt confident enough giving me the same knife as him. I started slow, with the sprout tips very thin and easily removed with the knife. Soon I found that I had discovered a rhythm and felt happy enough to talk to Luca while we worked, the ten-strong brigade around us busying themselves with other parts of prep.
We finished at pretty much the same time and I felt like I’d really reached a milestone in my early stagiaire education. Not once did anyone ask if I was ok as I simply was. The rhythm was key, as was my confidence to try. We blanched the tops, put them in ice water to retain their colour and moved on.
The restaurant is at its busiest at lunch time, with both the main four floors and the adjacent brasserie packed from around midday. This meant morning prep was key, and after my personal victory with the sprout tops, I began shaping Thai fish cakes – as prepared by the head chef, James Jones – and coating them in delicate Japanese breadcrumbs. I must have done around 70 portions before Stephano, another commis in the kitchen, needed help plating smoked salmon starters.
Stephano had saved me in the changing room that morning when I arrived after the market, as I had somehow forgotten all the buttons for my chef whites at home. He had given me all he had spare, five buttons, which was just enough to do up the jacket. Just.
The salmon, smoked at Billingsgate Market using old whiskey barrels and a marvellous converted fridge freezer, was to be given a ring of parsley, capers, grated egg and soda bread, with a blob of crème fraiche topped with caviar the final touch. I was pretty heavy handed at first, with Stephano reminding me more than once to keep the rings tidy and thin.
It took a while, and I did take my time, but I managed to complete the set, and they all found their way out to the dining room for lunch. I’ve found there’s no better feeling than seeing your dishes make it to the customers, especially for a real trainee such as myself.
I watched service unfold and as it came to a close, everyone congratulated each other, discussed any issues they had, and went for a break before dinner prep. Meanwhile, Luca called out to Ben the pastry chef and asked if he could show me one of his desserts before I left.
The kitchen has been very impressed with Ben since he arrived just three months ago from France, and he had actually asked to come in on the weekend to learn how to perfect sour dough bread. His passion was so well received, as was his treat for me, a classic chocolate tart with homemade ice cream and strawberries.
I had tried his mini lemon madeleines early that day, and his white and brown bread, and all of his work held the same softness and attention to detail. Classic French dessert making, rich but so light. The brigade had clearly tried his speciality, and there were a few envious looks as I dug in.
I went to thank him after polishing off the last wisps of ice cream. It was like his own domain at the back, with French flags sown into each of his chef sleeves. He was only a young chef, but he was the best example of the confidence in that kitchen. He had faith in the ingredients provided by Andrew, he had the presence of mind to step in and help others without being asked, and he had the absolute confidence of his colleagues.
“He’s my boy,” said Luca, “I love his attitude!”
My stint at Chamberlain’s had once again proved to me that both confidence and attitude are the key ingredients for any chef, French or otherwise.