Tom Kerridge has three kitchens at The Hand and Flowers – the main, the prep and the stock. The chefs alternate between the three depending on the time of day and the state of play. I arrived in the early afternoon for my stage and was sent to the prep kitchen. Perhaps, I thought, because I wasn’t sporting any tattoos.
I was put near the back of the long kitchen and set about removing the stems from wild garlic leaves, chopping carrots and peeling potatoes. Beside me, a CDP named Jimmy spent his time placing apple and charcoal jelly onto astriates and beside him a Romanian stagiare called Val wrapped faggots. There were three other chefs milling around, everyone was wearing white t-shirts underneath their aprons, the radio was on and it was very relaxed.
I soon found out that Jimmy’s nickname was “Jimmy the Pig” (which was probably why he wasn’t on the faggots) and he was the most senior chef in the prep kitchen at the time. However, it was his first time making the jelly, and being so delicate, it wasn’t coming out the way he wanted. Aaron Mullins, the head chef, wasn’t happy.
The jelly was a key part of the pavé and parfait of salmon starter, served with confit lemon, Avruga caviar and garlic bread. Not so ‘pubby’ after all.
“This is the best pub in the world,” said Paul, a demi in the prep kitchen with me.
“Don’t be fooled by the word ‘pub’. Tom (Kerridge) has built a fortress here.”
Paul, it turned out, was soon leaving for Madrid with his girlfriend, a trainee architect. He had joined The Hand and Flowers straight after college and in his first six months had lost two stone through working so hard.
“It’s tough, but the best places always are,” he continued, “I don’t care if I’ve lost weight – my girlfriend certainly hasn’t!”
“I’ve loved it here. The brigade are brilliant and the food we serve is too. There’s so much opportunity to learn from such a unique place. It’s traditional so there’s a lot of shouting and telling off, but some chefs thrive on that.”
I heard a similar story from a Russian demi named Artur. He said that one of the main reasons why he chose to work at The Hand and Flowers was so that he could improve through the pressure of an all-action kitchen.
After finishing off my prep (portioning chocolate and ale cake) and with the kitchen finished with lunch service, Aaron Mullins called me into the main kitchen and told me that I’d be on the whitebait starter for dinner.
Aaron said that every table ordering food was to have a portion of the whitebait (over four people on the table meant two portions) and that the kitchen couldn’t start preparing anything else until I had done each one. Aaron was covered in tattoos and wore the white t-shirt, like the entire brigade, but this didn’t take anything away from how serious he and everyone there was about the food and the kitchen.
The main kitchen itself is large and square with every chef able to see each other. A large stove stands in the centre with five to six chefs cooking there at any one time. Desserts are plated at the back beyond the stove, the meat section is on the right of it and the starters are made on the left. I was put just opposite the pass on the left hand side, almost on top of the stove, with the fryer away from me next to the desserts.
Under the watchful eye of Aaron, I would have to dash to and from the fryer to dip and then collect whitebait as orders came through, all without disturbing the three chefs between me and the fryer. Back at my station, I had to place handfuls of fish into pots lined with newspaper-style baking paper, add a pot of tartar sauce, and send it off.
As dinner service began, Tom Kerridge himself came in through the kitchen door and gave me an encouraging pat on the back. My chest swelled with confidence.
Off we went and it was busy right from the off. I started service with a kitchen towel with which to absorb the hot oil from the fish after taking it from the fryer, but I soon had to dispense with that step and handle the piping hot whitebait immediately, scorching my fingers in the process. This way I sped up, kept the kitchen flowing and received encouragement from the rest of the chefs around me.
Wondering if I would have any fingerprints after dinner service, I ploughed on, getting into a real groove. Beef fillets with homemade chips would head to the pass after my whitebait, as would slow cooked duck breast a l’orange, pork tenderloin with pickled cabbage, beer-roasted chicken with citrus braised chicory, and other magnificent dishes.
As we hit eight, Aaron stuck on the football at the pass, cranking the volume up for all to hear.
With things quietening down I was relieved of my duties and was asked if I wanted to try a dish or two. I was given the duck liver parfait starter which was as smooth as they come, served with a classic orange chutney and toasted brioche. And for dessert, a white chocolate sphere with lime mousse and chocolate sorbet, dehydrated hazelnut sponge, lime sugar and grated dark chocolate.
All this from a country pub with three kitchens full of chefs in t-shirts and tats.