The Palomar restaurant stopped dead, kitchen and bar. I had just shouted ‘check on’ in Hebrew. Tomer Amedi, the head chef, looked excited having taught me my very first Hebrew word. I had a ticket ready and cracked on:
“Challah bread, lemala, pork belly tajine, ma mucan!”
The kitchen responded in earnest: “Yes, Chef!”
It was around eight, the place was rocking, and I was learning how to operate a pass in perhaps the most exciting London restaurant around. The Palomar is just on the outskirts of Soho and offers an exotic menu inspired by modern day Jerusalem, with further influences from Southern Spain, North Africa and the Levant.
A 40-cover space, with all diners encouraged to eat at the bar; The Palomar kitchen is as open as they come, stretching long and lithe across the majority of the dining room. This is theatre as well as gastronomy, with every chef engaging with diners throughout service.
This was my 18th stage as a chef in the space of around seven months. During that time I’d worked at British institutions such as Le Gavroche, The Ritz and The Hand and Flowers. I had done ‘commis chef’ – now I wanted to find out what it was like on the front line. Dictating a brigade at the pass in an open kitchen.
I had a flat cap on throughout – the headgear of the sous chef, Thomas – which made me the unofficial sous for the evening. Thomas had told me how he fell out of the Josper Oven when they first opened and was so good that they gave him a job. Now it was my turn for a baptism of fire.
Before the blood and thunder of what was to be another midweek dinner service, the brigade at The Palomar united to toast the evening with a shot. Customers indulging in a drink or two at the bar before dinner were welcomed to join, immediately breaching the traditional barrier between the kitchen and the dining room.
Forget a tour of the kitchen after dinner – you’re right slap bang in there with them from the off.
“You have to be loud,” Tomer told me before my first ever ticket in a kitchen. “Shout, be confident, but don’t rush it. Leave a little break as you say each course.”
Chef had spent three years in the Israeli army and had clearly picked up a little something on leadership there. He has a swagger, a natural aura of confidence. He strutted through the kitchen, chatting with customers, all the while geeing his team on to keep levels high with the eyes of everyone in the restaurant permanently fixed on them.
Seeing all those eyes, and those of the chefs, turn to me as I sent a booming ‘check on’ in Hebrew out into The Palomar was pretty empowering! I glanced at Tomer, who had both his palms up, raising and shaking them like a classical conductor. I’ll never forget it. I read out four tickets in succession and I completely relaxed into it by ticket two.
Now it was part two of the pass – serving dishes. Unlike in traditional restaurants, chefs here are both waiter and chef to those at the bar, the majority of the restaurant.
The feeling of power that came with bellowing out orders gave me new levels of confidence, and I was soon chatting away to diners while plating dishes. One lady ordered the butternut squash risotto and Tomer had me construct the plate, with mangetout, pine nuts and a parmesan labneh foam. She watched intently throughout, asking questions, which Tomer helped me answer.
It felt great to talk with a real live customer. In my normal stages customers lived in a different land but here they were right in front of me and asking me questions.
Before service was out, Tomer suggested I go work the raw bar to get a feel of where all young chefs start out in his restaurant. Here I met Stavros, a Greek commis who had had no kitchen experience before this job. He had a clear passion for food, had recently finished a business degree at Bath University, and was now in charge of five raw dishes on The Palomar menu.
Tomer is a natural teacher and likes nothing better than a blank canvas to work with. The raw bar is the first port of call for diners when entering the restaurant. Stavros and I greeted them all as they arrived and I helped him with the Beetroot Carpaccio, made with burnt goat's cheese, hazelnuts, dates and honey syrup.
I was discovering that passion is crucial to an intimate, open kitchen – at every level. A successful chef will always be passionate, but to be successful in an open kitchen like The Palomar, a chef needs to be busting a gut to show, tell and explain.
Not every chef has that in his or her makeup, and that’s ok! Not having that doesn’t make you any less of a chef. Some of the world’s best are quiet and withdrawn.
Others yearn for the spotlight, and The Palomar is a great example of where they would feel right at home.