My girlfriend broke up with me the day after my five-day stage at Pierre Gagnaire’s two star London restaurant, Sketch. I had stayed at her flat in Central London all week to be able to get to Oxford Circus everyday at 7am, and she had to stay up every night to let me back in in the early hours of the morning. Both of our stress levels rose during the week and she wasn’t willing to continue. Being a chef’s girlfriend is a tough job.
Fittingly, Sketch was the hardest stage I have done to date. Five long days of almost non-stop prep and service in an extraordinarily high-energy kitchen. Almost every chef and waiter there was French, with the language boomed out throughout the day. I’ve been told that kitchens in France are the most demanding and stressful around, and this was surely the closest thing I’ve come to the real thing.
Sketch has two kitchens, the Gallery (a gastro brasserie) and the Lecture Room & Library (the 2* restaurant). I was to be based in the Lecture Room kitchen and to work off the pass during prep with the kitchen being small and fully stocked with chefs.
Daniel Stucki, a sous chef, gave me a thorough inspection of my chef whites after I entered the kitchen. He refolded my mop cloth, gave me two different aprons and straightened the collar of my whites. He checked my hair, glared at my chin and asked me to shave for the next day (I’d actually shaved that morning) and finally gave me a deep “Oui”, clapping his hands as if the cake he’d just floured was finally ready to be baked.
My first job at Sketch was to peel boiled eggs, and my first mistake was to attempt conversation.
Looking to get to know the brigade I would be spending 18 hours of every day with for the next working week, I started to ask those on the larder how their weekend went. Johannes Nuding, one of the two executive chefs at Sketch, was on the other side of the pass wrapping ravioli and he said to me quite sternly, “How about we do some work first, eh?”
Trainee chefs and commis in a new kitchen should be seen and not heard, especially during their first prep. If the chefs there are chatty, then you’ll be chatted to. Turns out that these chefs needed to see a certain amount of blood, sweat and tears before accepting a newbie into their midst.
I kept largely to myself for the first two days. And that meant head down, blanching beans, topping and tailing spring onions, peeling eggs and making sure I did everything and anything asked of me.
After finishing with a bowl of chestnuts on the second day, Daniel came over to me and said that I’d taken too long.
“Today, you’ve done that in eight minutes,” he said.
“Tomorrow, you do it in seven. Then six. That’s the difference when you talk about Michelin stars. Detail. Detail and love.”
During lunch and dinner service on both days, I moved between two different vantage spots in the kitchen to watch, not before joining the whole brigade in changing from standard blue aprons to smaller white versions. My sole job before and after service was to clean the pass and to cover it in a gold card to protect the white sheets underneath. And observe.
Bleary eyed on the morning of the third day, I strapped myself in for further egg peeling, looking up to see Johannes eating duck liver terrine at 8am. I chanced it.
“Is that your breakfast?” I asked, wondering if I had overstepped again.
“No, it’s a taster.” he replied with a smile.
With that response, I realised that I had graduated to being part of the furniture and that was a huge achievement. And my reward was to join a commis named Jules on working on the feuiletes during service. These are a collection of seven intricate amuse bouches that are sent out to every table.
At Tom Kerridge’s The Hand and Flowers, I had been in charge of the white bait which also had to be sent to every table before the rest of the food could follow. But there was quite a bit more to remember here.
Roquette financiers needed to be pushed together with roquette cream and placed onto a plate with squid ink wafers stuck with fresh goat’s cheese. I had to squeeze out perfect amounts of apple and tarragon gel onto another plate and stick hot black pudding croquettes on top.
Cumin crackers were to be laid onto mini bowls of beetroot and chickpea puree (pink hummus), and sticks of dirty martini jelly had to be pushed into ice with a single slice of lemon zest draped on using a drop or two of vodka. A portion of parmesan sable had to nestle perfectly in a tall container.
For the crab salad, I had to drape seaweed over a shallow bowl, carefully lay out small parcels of crab meat, mayonnaise, crab stock, cognac and lemon onto abalone shells and pick out small amounts of Persian caviar to put on the very top.
Everything was very slippery and I had to make sure I put the right amount considering the number of people on the table.
All this coupled with potential allergies and the pressure of an entire brigade waiting just for you.
For service on day four, I was allowed to flit between sections. It was important for me here to accept the response I got from each individual chef on the various sections. If they didn’t mind talking with me, then great. If they wanted me to get lost, also perfectly fine. If they were going to let me help or even cook, then brilliant.
And that’s just what happened with a DCDP called Anthony on meat. He was in a cracking mood and gave me the frying pan he was using to cook sweetbreads to let me have a go at scooping up and pouring the hot butter and oil over the meat as it fried. There was a technique to it and a certain angle with which to hold the pan so as to keep the meat above the gathering liquid at the bottom.
“You have to love your food, even if you have no ability,” said Anthony, making me chuckle.
Next door to him was a CDP, Ari, who then let me finish lightly heating sweetcorn and Swiss chard for the chicken main course of the set menu. This I then combined with turnips that had been braised in white port, which in turn was plated with a lemongrass, mushroom and ginger infusion, poached chicken and tapioca.
This dish, like all others, would disappear from the menu within a couple of weeks.
The timeline for a dish at Sketch is around 14 days. When I found this out I realised just why Sketch has so many repeat customers and why the chefs here are so enthusiastic about each and every week.
“Elements are recycled,” Johannes told me, “But the only time we’d have the same dish on the menu past the two weeks would be when we have five chefs off in one day. That hasn’t happened in two years.”
On fish, a DCDP called Romain was smoking trout in a deep tray before pan frying. He didn’t want me in his space so I left him to it and was taken in by another DCDP called Sophie on the larder who wanted to show me the ‘Sketchup’.
This is Sketch’s signature condiment. Sketchup is a ketchup made with beetroot, and has an earthy and quite a metallic taste. Apparently many first time customers aren’t big fans of it when first tasting, but like with mustard and whiskey when young, the taste of Sketchup is something to be acquired. And it usually is.
Day five, my last day in the kitchen, was the most exciting. Now fully part of the brigade, knowing everyone’s name and spending my breaks talking with them, Daniel and Johannes decided that I should help run the pass during service.
But first, I was invited to be part of the chef’s lunch which happened every Friday without fail. All the chefs told me how important this was for morale. And I got to slice the roast pork.
Everyone was there, with a big table all to ourselves in the upstairs staff lounge. We had arancini, couscous, pork, the duck liver and pistachio terrine that Johannes had had for breakfast, and all manner of salads. I really felt like part of the team, and I actually was. Everyone treated me like a chef, even though by now the gig was up and everyone knew I was also journalist.
So, at 12, I swapped my prep apron for the perfectly clean white one and stood with the two sous chefs and Johannes at the front of the kitchen waiting for the first ticket. Daniel gave me the biggest slap on the shoulder that I’ve ever had as the machine started printing. Game time.
The tickets were called loudly in English with the kitchen shouting a “Oui” in response and Jules on the feuiletes got going. He is only 19 and still at college in France. He is in England for six months for work experience with Johannes only happy to take on the teenager because of his physicality.
“It’s very tough here and with very long hours,” he said as we waited for the first round of dishes to be prepared. “Big is good, small is bad.”
First, I got to plate the chicken dish I had helped cook the day before with Jeong In, the second sous chef, keeping a very close eye on me. He is from Korea and spent four years working at Pierre at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. His French was unbelievable as was his constant smile.
I was quickly told to hurry things up as I was trying to make the plating perfect and copy the dish that Daniel had plated the day before. But he pounced on me and said that identical dishes aren’t what they’re after. He encouraged me to drip, drape and place as I saw fit.
“This is our story,” Daniel told me, “Gagnaire is art and we chefs don’t feel restricted. After following the sketch of the design, we can express ourselves. Lots of dishes, lots of love.”
The paintbrush, if you will, is handed to the chefs once a dish has been finalised by the likes of Pierre and Michel Nave in Paris, and Herve Deville and Johannes in London. That made things a lot easier for me, and I soon got a deep “Oui, Tommi” from Daniel as I sent beautiful but different dishes out double time.
I got my hands on the lamb shoulder which I plated with couscous and spiced bouillon. The ribeye steak, which is presented raw to the diner for inspection before cooking, was sliced up and laid out in a line with a blob of wild mushroom and truffle sauce with butter.
The ravioli that Johannes prepared every single day, made with spinach, parmesan, egg yolk, buffalo cheese and fresh brown butter, came next. As did Romain’s slightly smoked trout which was plated with petit pois à la Francais and pink redcurrant butter.
Beautiful braised veal topside from Anthony, with burrata and persimmon sorbet; Aubergine caviar with sesame oil and black Iberico tomatoes; pumpkin veloute with cep and mascarpone tortellini, pink radicchio, sage and carrot. I plated the lot and it was thrilling to have such an important, albeit temporary and with training wheels, role in this 2* kitchen.
Dinner service was the same again, but with even more tickets to complete. After the last main was away, Daniel came over to me.
“Superb, Tommi!” he said, grinning.
“You’ve done well today, you were a bit useful,” he continued, and I took the huge complement.
“Will you stay for a beer after? You’ve been very brave.”
My bravery and celebratory beer was not appreciated by my girlfriend, who was up until 2am that night to let me back in. I left her house for the last time the day after, exhausted, thrilled and with a huge sense of accomplishment.