Staging at Bokan
There I was, covered in artichoke gunk, 37-stories up in the kitchen at Bokan in Canary Wharf. I’d just asked a commis on pastry by the name of Pedro if he had any kitchen gloves that aren’t made for pixies (small gloves being so frustratingly common in kitchens from London to Lyon) and the response I got was simply: “My god, you’re English!”
Quite surprisingly, of the 26 chefs employed at the restaurant, only a couple are English. Not that they don’t hire English chefs, mind you. They would certainly be welcome, as I was made to feel despite trudging back to artichoke prep without gloves made for people.
More interestingly perhaps is the fact that the hierarchy of the kitchen, past and present, is predominantly made up of chefs who previously worked at the now closed L'Atelier De Joel Robuchon.
The two sous chefs, Giuseppe and Lucas, the recently departed executive chef, Aurelie Altemaire, and her successor, Guillaume Gillan, all braved the fire and fury of Robuchon’s London powerhouse at one time or another.
I had no idea this was the case when I arrived that morning and, as Robuchon is impressive pedigree, I wondered how it would translate into a relatively unknown, modern European restaurant nestled in the clouds of affluent East London.
I had taken a stage at Bokan primarily to learn from the French-born Guillaume Gillan, who was only promoted to executive chef in March and is an unusually young 27 years of age.
By being with Guillaume in his kitchen, I hoped to learn what it was like for him to make the transition to executive chef and how he has started to implement his vision.
Guillaume began life as a chef with five years of training at Paul Augier in Nice followed by an apprenticeship at Alain Ducasse’s Le Grill in Monaco. After moving to London, he spent a year as a demi at the five star Bvlgari Hotel in Knightsbridge, joined L’Atelier as CDP (also for a year) before being part of Bokan’s opening team in 2017 as sous chef.
As Aurelie Altemaire’s protégé for two years, who had cooked across France and the USA before becoming head chef at L’Atelier, Guillaume was groomed for leadership ever since he started at Bokan. And he emanates confidence and natural authority.
“It was really exciting to take over as exec chef – it wasn’t scary at all!” said Guillaume as we started on a recipe for a new tarragon sauce together.
“I was here from the start and rose through the ranks. As head chef (a position he was given after a year and a half), I already had lots of responsibility such as dealing with suppliers and working on menu alterations.
“Now as executive chef, things are actually relatively the same but now I have the final say. And things fall on me if they go wrong!”
Guillaume has not changed the basic structure of the menu (“Two fish, three meat and a veg for the mains, and British-led produce, for example”), but he is slowly changing some of the items on it.
“The first thing I did was put monkfish on the menu. Aurelie never liked that fish!
“I’ve also changed the salmon dish to hake, changed tagliatelle to agnolotti, and the lamb main course is now different.
“Aurelie and I are both French but from opposite ends of the country which means our views on food do differ. She is from the north and I’m from the south, and one difference is that we generally use more olive oil in the south whereas they use more butter in the north.
“You know, the last thing Aurelie said to me before she left was “Careful, don’t go crazy”! It can be tempting to change everything immediately when you become exec chef but that’s unwise.”
While the old lamb dish was served with an olive and harrisa puree, artichoke and confit lemon, the new lamb, from Rhug Estate, has a mustard crust and is served with panisse (a chickpea flour cake and speciality of the Provence region in south-eastern France) and the tarragon sauce that I was now doing with a commis named Louis, with Guillaume heading off to make final preparations before service that evening.
Before service started at six, I was asked to wrap eggs (steamed at 65 degrees for 25 minutes) in kadaif noodles. These noodles are from the Middle East, with the resulting nests served with a wild garlic foam, broad bean & apricot ragu and scarlet elf cup mushrooms.
Never have I had a fiddlier bit of prep to do this year. The eggs first needed peeling, which was a nightmare in itself with the slow-steamed eggs runnier than when poached. Then, after an egg wash and panko coating, I had to wrap them in, basically, edible barbed wire.
Swimming in egg yolk and frustration, I was encouraged throughout by my mate Pedro on pastry. I did notice that that encouragement progressively became more and more forced and with more arm waving as service inched closer, with the last of the twenty agonizingly breaking when placed in the finished tray.
At long last, at 5:56, it was done, with Guillaume shepherding me through to the separate larder section in the middle of the 65-cover dining room for service where I’d be helping with starters.
But first, Guillaume chucked me what seemed to be the mouldiest lemon I’d ever seen.
“This is a black lemon!” said Guillaume excitedly, “They have these in Iran but we make it ourselves here.”
This lemon was rock hard and quite literally jet back due to it having been cured in mix of salt and sugar for three weeks (with the chefs changing the mix every week). It can be grated over dishes or used for flavour in soups and stocks.
Bokan has a six course tasting menu and an a la carte, with a squid & courgette spaghetti salad with a coconut dressing, ginger mayo and squid ink tuile the second tasting course after the amuse bouche.
This was quite the plate, with squid ink and courgette puree first plated using a spinning table in the main kitchen to make perfect swirls. Then, lightly dressed and spiralized squid and courgette spaghetti is carefully placed to give height, with a squid ink tuile then balanced on top.
“In terms of my plating, I am careful and precise,” said Guillaume as we finished plating one and sent it away. “My plating has lots of tweezer movements and I’m very focused on the smallest details.”
After I had a crack at plating the teriyaki eel & foie gras terrine with dashi jelly, sea herbs salad and red Kampot pepper, Guillaume whisked me away to see his guinea fowl dish which he roasts in bread dough in the Josper oven.
“I often find that roast guinea fowl is quite dry,” Guillaume explained. “So we thought about roasting the bird in a casing so as to keep it moist. After a lot of experimenting with hay and different breads doughs, we found a perfect match.
“I get all sorts of ideas and inspiration from eating out – which I think is so important for chefs – as well as reading and on social media.
“Staging is also really important. I did ten days at L’Enclume quite recently and it was amazing.”
Talking of inspiration, I was already thinking about where would be best to hide a slowly blackening lemon in my kitchen at home.
My Stage at Bokan: On Paper
What I learnt:
Further appreciation for careful plating
The concept of roasting meat inside bread dough
A glimpse of how to make the transition to executive chef of a restaurant
A new recipe for tarragon sauce and how to prep egg nests
Bokan is a brilliant find for a stagiaire. A large and professional kitchen with a friendly brigade and high level cooking. Plenty of new techniques and plating movements are here to be learnt, with Guillaume an inspirational leader and willing teacher.