Fear is the product of the mind, not of the kitchen. This was the overriding feeling I took from my first 15 stages as a commis chef.
Over the last six months, I have worked in some of the best kitchens in the UK, and with some of the most well respected names in the industry. It was also my first six months as a chef, of any kind. I was really in the deep end, and I received no special treatment. But my cooking abilities were not my main asset, it turned out; what really mattered was attitude.
Stress and anxiety is nowhere more prominent than in the kitchen, especially for a trainee chef on a stage. The idea of being part of the brigade at the two Michelin star The Hand and Flowers, for example, filled me with fear. It was my sixth stint in a kitchen, and I was put on the larder, in charge of the deep fried whitebait starter.
These went to every single table ordering food, and nothing else could go out before them. I was the first port of call, with the rest of the kitchen watching me for the okay to start cooking. And as such, I didn’t even have time to let the hot oil on the whitebait dry before picking the fish up with my bare fingers.
But carefully pushing the incredibly hot little fish into pots lined with newspaper meant that I was a crucial part of a two Michelin starred operation, made all the more clear when Tom Kerridge himself patted me on the back with encouragement. The pain from the oil was a necessary evil, fading with each pot handed to the head chef Aaron Mullins, as he and his team became more and more used to my presence in the kitchen.
They may not have stood by cheering me on, but it was clear that these intensely focussed chefs genuinely wanted me to succeed on my one day stage. I may have been alone on my whitebait island, but I was surrounded by lifeboats. Just as long as I pulled my weight.
The initial fear that I felt when arriving was shallow, and my biggest success that day was adapting. I wanted it, and that was all that mattered.
Interacting with the chefs at Le Gavroche, the most high-intensity workers I’ve ever come across in any industry, made me realise that the difference between chefs is not necessarily talent, but a willingness to push boundaries and be a dependable team player. Be busy. Always be busy. And that’s really not hard in a kitchen.
“Chefs are always pushing a ball up a mountain,” they told me, “Stop, and the ball will knock you all the way back down. You’ll lose yourself, and the rest of the brigade.”
It’s no secret that brigades are often unforgiving and cutthroat. There’s no carrying the weakest member, not if he’s dead in the water. But this depends more on attitude than skill. I was again on the larder during my stage at Le Gavroche, and the station had started to lag behind during dinner service that evening. We were struggling to keep food coming with orders flowing in. The head chef, Rachel Humprey, was becoming agitated with the kitchen, and Michel Roux Jr. looked a fearsome sight, his furrowed brow bathed in the red light of the pass.
But no one jumped on us, because we kept pushing. We chopped, plated, lifted, dropped, sweated and cooked. We never looked done, and the brigade reacted, helping to fetch ingredients, and also leaving us to get the job done. We completed dinner service with a flourish. It was a successful day in one of the best kitchens in England. We hadn’t stood out, and we’d put the kitchen first.
I saw something similar at the The Waterside Inn. Marcus, a commis newly promoted to the meat station, found himself horribly bogged down with the amount of orders flooding in on one Friday night. At first, he visibly floundered, becoming irritated and panicked with those around him. Fabrice the head chef, and his sous chef Alex, watched him, and didn’t like what they saw. It became heated, with Alex shouting at Marcus from across the work space. I thought at one point that he was going to walk out as the situation loomed over him.
But then he seemed to realise that his struggles not only affected him, but the entire kitchen. And that his and their salvation lay with a change of attitude. Marcus told those around him to give him space, grabbed his pan and went again harder than I had seen him in my two days there.
The kitchen reacted, handing him tongs, herbs, and silent approval. His relieved smile at the end of service saw Fabrice throw a small wink to me, with the tough love he and his sous chef meted out saving the chef in the eyes of his colleagues, keeping the team together, and giving Marcus an evening he’ll never forget.
Shadowing in a kitchen is also a very important skill for commis chefs on a stage. Sometimes, perhaps during a busy service, you can’t help or take part. I found this on my very first stage, at Fera at Claridge’s. Simon Rogan and his team run a very tight ship in their gleaming, spotless kitchen, and with that, it becomes crucial that you allow the kitchen to put you on the substitute’s bench when necessary.
But, even then, you have to keep busy. Always be busy. Keep yourself available for any little job. Watch, learn, digest, and remain vocal. The majority of chefs I’ve met are more than happy to take you through their work as it comes in. Being a shrinking violet is more of a pest in the kitchen than a curious chef. Engage, as and when possible. Show your willingness to work with the team, and be led by the situation.
During my stage at Alyn Williams at The Westbury, I came across a commis from Eastern Europe who was clearly feeling hindered by his lack of English. He felt uncomfortable, but this was again a personal fear, not at all exacerbated by the kitchen.
I had met three Italian chefs at Hibiscus, all of whom couldn’t speak a word of English, but ‘Chef’ is itself a universal language, and through work and awareness, Kitchen English is easily picked up.
I also met my first deaf chef at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel kitchen. He had arrived on his first day eight months previous with a signer in tow. Now, through hard work and perseverance, he has the full confidence of the executive chef Allister Bishop and, perhaps more importantly, his fellow chefs in the kitchen.
Over the past few months, I’ve worked many different jobs in (and outside) kitchens, from carving roast duck to plating beef carpaccio, blanching asparagus tips to peeling carrots, popping peas to decorating éclairs.
I’ve been a KP and washed dishes all night, and I’ve helped run the pass. With Hayden Groves and his BaxterStorey team at a top London bank I helped prepare everything from grand banquets to continental breakfasts.
With Matt Weedon at The Lamb Inn pub in Crawley, I helped fetch fresh goat’s milk and duck eggs at the nearby farm, and even threw on a beekeeper’s outfit to get fresh honey!
I also baked bread and constructed delicate eel starters with Dan Doherty at Duck and Waffle at the top of the Heron Tower, the UK’s highest restaurant.
My point is, there is no concrete way to prepare yourself for your stage, and that’s okay! I went in blind every time. Blind but with the right attitude. Be brave, and do what you’re told. Not only will the chefs appreciate it, but you’ll more often than not succeed in the task put to you.
Dean the head chef of Tom’s Kitchen in Chelsea taught me this in spades. Being asked to fillet plaice and make a golden raisin and caper vinaigrette from scratch was, I thought at first, well beyond me. Especially with the latter to be relied on for the whole of that day’s dinner service!
But Dean explained that a new commis should find his rhythm, ask for a demonstration if possible, and above all else, approach everything with a positive attitude. And relax! In the end, finding my way around the dry store was actually the hardest part of the two tasks. But even then, I asked a chef de partie where the cider vinegar was, and he happily took me round collecting every ingredient needed for the vinaigrette recipe in a cardboard box.
The many apprentices at The Ritz were also very inspirational. Operating in their grand new kitchen, I challenge any chef to be able to point out the apprentices from the current brigade. Bristling with endeavour and positivity, I came across six of them in the haystack, benefitting hugely from John Williams’ love for helping the next generation.
Chefs are chefs through passion; they endure for their art. They want it, and that’s the attitude that needs to shine through every hour of every day. Andrew Jones won the Roux Scholarship in 2004, having produced the winning dish despite being in the throes of a crippling head cold, leaving him practically without both taste and smell.
Now at his restaurant, Chamberlain’s of London, his new young pastry chef, Ben, is adored by his brigade. He’s been there three months, straight from France, and when I spent my stage there, he was coming in on his days off to practice his bakery.
‘Mon ami?’ the chefs would call to him during busy periods, and he came running over to help in any way he could, plating, slicing, before hurrying back to his chocolate tarts and homemade ice cream.
Kitchens can’t survive without a fully switched-on brigade, especially the most famous. Consider my stage at The Hand and Flowers, where they relied on me and my whitebait during dinner service. Though a small cog in the big machine, the whitebait, like any stagiere or commis, is an essential part of not only service, but the kitchen.
With the right attitude, you’ll find yourself at home and valued in no time, regardless of where you are.