Being in the same kitchen as Michel Roux Jr. was an experience in itself. Actually being part of his brigade during a busy dinner service in his two Michelin starred restaurant in Mayfair was another thing entirely.
Arriving an hour before service with a spring in his step and a wide smile, Michel greeted almost all of the thirty strong team individually, from the wait staff to the KP. We were hard at work, with the ethos centred around being 20 minutes ahead of schedule at all times to avoid last minute panic.
I was on the larder with a demi chef de partie, Dejon Duclos, who treated his section like it was his whole kitchen. Everything was in perfect order from the off to avoid angry glares from the head chef Rachel Humphrey.
When I had arrived that morning, I was immediately thrown into a trough of asparagus to trim with a paring knife for the following day’s lunch rush. Within thirty seconds of being in the Le Gavroche kitchen, I realised that the atmosphere was unlike anything I’d encountered before.
It was as though every one of the chefs there was on probation considering the speed and ferocity with which they went about their work. Stand static in this thoroughfare, I thought, and you’ll be callously run down.
I quickly scuttled over to join Dejon on the larder, getting to work on the asparagus. He was busying himself slicing beef as well as prepping pigs ears. Le Gavroche is as classically French as they come, with the menu and life in the kitchen very much in keeping.
I shot through the asparagus as fast as I could and soon had them cling-filmed and in the prep fridge. I then took out yesterday’s prepped batch and began blanching. I was to be in charge of the asparagus dish and the beef carpaccio for both lunch and dinner service.
The asparagus was to be served simply with parmesan flakes in a truffle dressing, with a parmesan tuile perched on top. It was for the vegetarian “Menu Exceptionnel”.
My other dish, for the classic set menu, was a carpaccio of marinated and seared fillet of beef with horseradish, pickled beets and salt beef rye bread toast. This was to be the second in the eight course menu, with petit fours from pastry triumphantly ending the experience.
“Don’t give people a reason to shout at you,” said Dejon as I’d finished with the asparagus, clearly looking a little unsure of myself.
“Do exactly as you’re told and don’t be a victim. You’re the only person who can do it.”
My orders came by way of an eight-strong prep list, including slicing the rye bread, peeling parmesan, picking garnish and maintaining my station. Not the twelve trials of Hercules, granted, but my job none-the-less. In a two Michelin starred kitchen.
I was pleased to find that lunch service was a relatively mild one in terms of pace as I could ease myself into what was only my second ever service in a kitchen. This was my fifth stage, with my evening stint with canapes at Alyn Williams at the Westbury my only other experience with service proper.
I was so pleased that I could really get to grips with my two dishes before dinner, and the arrival of Michel. And it was all a matter of fast plating.
With the asparagus previously blanched, all that remained was for a drizzle of truffle dressing, a sprinkling of parmesan and the addition of the tuile.
The beef was to be laid out on the plate on top of a horseradish swirl, with the pickled beetroot placed around a rectangle of sliced rye bread, which I toasted in a salamander grill, and garnished. Without what could be considered to be rather menial prep, my contribution to service would have been an utter disaster. With it, it was as smooth as you like.
Lunch time at Le Gavroche, for the staff that is, consisted of a beautifully laid out platter of bread, cheese and fruit, as well as spaghetti bolognaise. The wait staff happily sat and chatted, but the chefs (on probation) largely grabbed a slab of brie and a wedge of bread and hurtled back into the kitchen to clean once more.
I assumed this was due to the impending arrival of one famous TV chef, but after seeing him greet everyone with such calmness and, well, happiness, I couldn’t understand why everyone seemed so on edge. I found this out later.
Michel stood himself on the other side of the pass closest to the dining room, chatting with the wait staff as tickets started flowing in and occasionally doing rounds of the dining area and the chef’s table.
Soon enough, I was bogged down with the amount of orders for both the beef carpaccio and asparagus dishes, but Dejon quickly told me that panic is no chef’s friend.
“My first head chef told me that we are constantly pushing a metaphorical ball up a mountain," he said while helping me toast the rye bread for the carpaccio.
"Stop pushing, and it’s a steep slope to the bottom.”
With this in mind, we kept pushing orders out, with our well-maintained mise en place serving us well. Had it been lacking, we’d have been done for. Rachel at the pass demanded much from us, often becoming angry about late dishes across the kitchen, with the pastry section’s slow delivery of bread even reaching the eye of Michel at the very front.
Michel Roux Jr. is not known for having a fiery temper, but as chef patron of Le Gavroche, the kitchen represents him every day. I could see him roaring at one particular pastry chef who had dawdled when bringing up a dessert to the pass, his stern expression bathed in the red light of the pass.
I realised that we had to earn his affable nature by consistently delivering Michelin starred dishes, double time.
Michel Roux Jr. may be much higher up the mountain than us, but poignantly, he’ll never stop pushing. From head chef to commis - we all push for perfection.