In 1992, an American artist called Tom Friedman asked a witch to curse the 28cm space above a white pedestal. This pedestal lives on an upper floor of the St Pancras Renaissance. The plaque next to it explains that the space above it is either drastically altered or unaltered depending on your belief or scepticism.
It was one of the first things I came across when I arrived for my one day stage. The very first thing? The grand staircase used in the 1996 Spice Girls’ music video, ‘Wannabe’.
I had gone for a tour with Allister Bishop, the executive chef of the hotel, before I changed into my whites. And there was plenty to see. Built in 1873, the building itself is littered with gothic revival metalwork, with tall gold leaf ceilings around every corner, and amazing hand-stencilled wall designs. It holds 260 rooms and two restaurants, The Gilbert Scott and The Booking Office, with both having dedicated kitchens. This on top of a number of smaller kitchens for private bookings and events.
Allister was named the 2013 Hospitality Guild's Mentor of the Year, and my first job in the hotel was to join one of his apprentices, Reielle, for the end of a breakfast buffet in a private function room. Breakfast is served from 6:30 to 11:30 daily, and I was on eggs.
After a couple of botched attempts at poached eggs, I soon got into the swing of things. The end of breakfast went smoothly and, after the last table was served, we moved onto Reielle’s prep list for the afternoon.
First up was duck rillettes. The confit duck, prepared earlier, was to be simply mashed, mixed with parsley and seasoning and then portioned out to be returned to the fridge. It was Reielle’s last week at the Renaissance, I discovered, as she had taken a pastry apprenticeship in the city. She had tried for six months to get herself in and, with just a love for baking at home, had found the going tough. She was over the moon to have finally been accepted and it showed.
That afternoon, we prepared couscous salad, sorted oyster mushrooms for canapes, roasted a chicken, and made sure everything was ready for gluten-free guests that were arriving for private lunches.
Next came a visit to the Booking Office kitchen where I would spend most of my day. With six or seven chefs here at any one time, the kitchen itself is long and stretched out over two rooms, with one half largely dedicated to prep and the other housing the many stoves and ovens, and also the pass.
Service is constant in a hotel and I was immediately set up to slice crispy duck for their version of the Caesar salad, with quail’s eggs, anchovies, shaved parmesan and croutons.
It was in the Booking Office kitchen that I met my first deaf chef.
His name was John and he was a banqueting chef. I asked Andreas Garcia, the head chef of the Booking Office, about John and he told me that he actually had a signer with him for his first few weeks, but now he is a fully-fledged member of the team and had earned his stripes. He had the confidence of Andreas, Allister and, perhaps more importantly, the rest of the brigade.
As lunch gathered pace, or all-day dining as it was called, the kitchen took things up a gear, with a CDP called Carmella mobilising the prep chefs. He was so full of energy and it was hard to keep up as he shouted ticket after ticket to us, with my keyword being – “Go with the duck!!”
I was soon plating the Caesar salad, as well as the Wagyu beef burger. I thoroughly enjoyed the confidence given to me by the team, much like John the deaf chef had all those months ago, or indeed any newcomer in a kitchen.
I’ve staged in many kitchens where I wasn’t needed during service, or perhaps my skills weren’t up to handling service so early on in my chef career. Accepting this is important, but being asked to take part in service is a clear acknowledgement of your skill set. Accepting this graciously and continuing to prove yourself, day in day out, is perhaps even more vital.