UPDATE: Fera at Claridge’s closed at the end of 2018
It was a first day at a new school moment. I had on the uniform. I’d met the headmaster and the teacher, but now it was time to be introduced to my fellow classmates.
Dan Cox, the head chef at Fera at Claridge’s, was all smiles as he guided me through the sparkling new kitchen at the heart of one of London’s greatest hotels. I was there to spend a day's stage as a commis and it had been decided that my home for the day would be the larder.
My "classmates" were two CDPs and a junior sous: Michael, Luigi and Rafael. Although I was undeniably nervous, the adrenaline was flowing fast. This was my first stage in a Michelin starred kitchen and I didn’t know what to expect. My biggest fear was that they were going to look on me as some sort of fake.
But I was wrong.
They welcomed me warmly and before I knew it I was into the swing of the day, busy with a pile of watercress that I had to separate into perfect leaves for garnish, with the rest to be made into watercress oil.
My biggest problem was my outfit. I was wearing what was an amazingly complicated apron that I was convinced I had put on badly, but I didn’t want to bother anyone with how I should do it up.
After my mop cloth fell out for the third time, a chef from the fish section tapped me on the shoulder and asked why I wasn’t buttoned up. I feared the worst until I realised she meant my chef's jacket.
Standing preparing food in a Michelin starred restaurant was a new experience for me. It’s very easy to get the impression from television that these kitchens are full of fiery flames and angry passions but this one wasn’t like that at all.
One of the things that struck me as I moved from watercress to taking the skirts off scallops was how big the kitchen was and also how the pace and energy was consistently high, yet all was calm.
Simon Rogan was in the house that day, but I didn’t get to talk to him and I felt pretty much as any new stagiaire would. A little lost but at the same time connected to something that was very exciting.
For lunch service, everything changed. The mood, the pace, the energy. Everything intensified. It was so busy that I was no longer required to work with food as I was not experienced enough to handle the rush. It was so busy that one of the chefs from pastry came over to help out, with my position as a bystander even more underlined.
I spent a lot of time watching that afternoon and, as the hours went by, I found myself getting a little down. I wanted to be in the thick of the action, but I was not ready.
Later Michael told me that being a chef at Fera isn’t an easy thing.
“We get a lot of chefs coming to work here,” he told me, “but not many last the distance. The hours are long and the work is tough. You have to really want it.”
The kitchen rota sat by the workstation and I saw that the average day was 08:30 to 00:00 - a thirteen and a half hour day. Halfway through a shift, there was just about enough time to grab a sandwich for lunch from the canteen downstairs before ploughing through the evening.
“We’re a tight knit group here,” Michael continued.
“We work hard and those chefs that are here really want to be. The toughness acts as a kind of separator.”
Following a late lunch - I’d got lost trying to find the canteen downstairs in the labyrinth of Claridge’s corridors - I helped clean our section down. Across the kitchen, all the other chefs did the same. Cleanliness is all part of being a good chef, Rafael the junior sous told me, and by the time we had finished it was as clean as a hospital theatre.
As evening approached, I began portioning salmon for dinner service and picked red mustard leaves for the garnish.
As I worked, Simon Rogan and Dan Cox huddled together next door to me to discuss the presentation for the starter of organic carrots, cured saddleback, pickled mushrooms and buttermilk that was on that evening’s menu.
I tried very hard to overhear what they were saying but I didn’t want to be seen to be slacking on the job and I was just out of earshot.
Despite this, it was clear to me that I was in a very exciting kitchen. Simon Rogan is one of the most successful and dynamic chefs currently at work in the UK. To be invited to open a restaurant at Claridge’s is some achievement. The previous incumbent was Gordon Ramsay.
However, I felt a touch marginalised. As if I was just out of reach of the sunlight. But that is often the lot of the stagiaire. To be a trainee is wait patiently until you have had a chance to prove yourself.
The high-point of the day was watching out of the corner of my eye while Dan Cox dressed a plate with the watercress I had picked. That was a tremendous feeling, even though it really was such a small thing. Something I had done had made it onto the main stage.
Dinner service flew by. Collectively, we served up smoked lobster with pickled kohlrabi; Gairloch scallops with red pak choi and elderflower vinegar; veal sweetbreads with goat’s curd; and lots of other great looking dishes that I would loved to have tucked into myself.
“We work with amazing ingredients,” Luigi, one of the CDPs, told me, “It’s why I came to work with Simon Rogan.
"The stuff that comes down from his farm in Cumbria is amazing."
During the evening, a handful of diners came to talk with the chefs and give praise. That reflective warmth rubbed off on me and I felt a glow just seeing the joy on the faces of my fellow chefs in the larder.
As I handed in my uniform and made my way home, I realised that I had not even managed a whole day. I started at 9:00 in the morning and it was just after 9.30pm when I left. I was, forgive my French, totally knackered.
But I had learnt an important lesson: Being a chef at the top level is about commitment. It takes stamina, patience and above all a desire to be the best.
But, as I had experienced, once you get a toe in the door and you stick it out then you can play a part. After all, my little watercress ended up in the amazing dining room that I could see if I strained my neck.