What do I want to learn? That’s the question I always ask myself before looking for a stage. It’s the first and only real question a budding stagiaire should ask themselves.
When I started going into kitchens about two years ago, I wasn’t a chef. I was a journalist in chef’s clothing. And my fellow journalists outside the kitchen always had the same response when I explained what I did:
"Why do you do that? Why don’t you just talk to chefs and write about what they tell you?"
At first, it was because I wanted to learn what it was really like for a chef in a kitchen. I’d had no previous experience and that made me the perfect trainee. I had no prior knowledge, habits or mind-set. I was utterly a sponge, reporting back on what I found in my chef newspaper, The Commis.
But after my first phase as a stagiaire – 15 different kitchens, seven with Michelin stars - it struck me. I no longer just wanted to learn what it was like for a chef in the kitchen. I now wanted to learn how to be a legitimate chef myself.
I wanted to see if the skills I had learned on 15 stages had rubbed off.
So I took a part time job as a chef in a gastropub in South London. It was a small kitchen serving classic British pub food. There was only three chefs and a KP when I started and the same number when I left a year later. I was paid minimum wage and worked from 9am to midnight three days a week - which worked out as 45 hours-a-week.
The most important of those days was always Sunday when we had our roast dinners. We had pork, beef, chicken and lamb with individual dish trimmings and I soon realised that I knew very little about cuts of meat or how to prepare them, which led me to the next thing I wanted to learn.
Aubrey Allen is one of the most highly regarded butchers in the whole of the UK and they supply a number of Michelin starred restaurants. Their head office and main factory is in Coventry and a short taxi ride from the station.
My day there was spent in chainmail and a beard snood, for safety and hygiene, while tackling an entire lamb carcass. I was taught priceless knife skills and details on all manner of meats – both of which made me so much more confident during prep for roast dinner back at my gastropub in South London.
After a few months, I started to yearn for the pass. During my 15 previous stages and at work, I had been on the larder, meat, fish and even been the KP. I had never plated - hell, I hadn’t got near the pass in those 15 kitchens – and I was dying for a chance.
This led to two stages, the first of which was at one of London’s most exciting restaurants – The Palomar in Soho.
The Palomar’s menu is inspired by modern day Jerusalem with influences from Southern Spain, North Africa and the Levant. But I went there to learn what it’s like for a chef to operate in an entirely open kitchen with the majority of diners sat right along the pass - the ultimate pressure when running it.
I found myself as the sous chef for the evening, with the actual sous giving me his trademark hat and leaving me in the hands of the head chef, Tomer Amedi. He thought it would be interesting for me to call out the tickets, which I thought perfect. Little did I know that the tickets needed to be shouted out in Hebrew..!
It was a huge boost in terms of me being both confident and competent in operating a pass and this was further reinforced by my stage at Pierre Gagnaire’s two Michelin starred restaurant, Sketch, where I learned how to plate.
It must be said that plating was certainly not the only thing I learned during my five-day stage there. It was actually one of the most comprehensive stages I have ever done, starting with simply working hard in order to be accepted into what was an almost entirely French kitchen.
It was very tough and with very long days but, step by step, I gained the confidence of my fellow chefs and moved from the larder to helping on meat, then over the feuiletes - a collection of seven intricate amuse bouches that are sent out to every table.
On my last day there I was asked to join the chefs at the pass. I’ll always remember what Daniel Stucki, one of the sous, told me after seeing me worry too much about keeping every dish exactly the same.
“This is our story. Gagnaire is art and we chefs don’t feel restricted. After following the sketch of the design, we can express ourselves. Lots of dishes, lots of love.”
While this may be not entirely true to say with every restaurant, the principle is the same: Don’t panic.
The chefs at Sketch taught me well as, when I arrived back to my gastropub, I was asked to show off what I had learned by plating at the pass for the day. That is where I remained for the rest of my year there.
During the rest of the year, I staged with Jesse Dunford Wood at his restaurant, Parlour, learning how to operate a magnificent chef’s table. I also visited Phil Fanning at his Michelin starred restaurant, Paris House, to experience his tasting menu – as staging doesn’t end when the chef whites come off.
In the summer, I staged with Kenneth Culhane, the 2010 Roux Scholar, at The Dysart in Petersham. With his tasting menu at the time revolving entirely around tomatoes, his menu is one of the most seasonal and most interesting. I also took away an ability to create a Thai green curry sauce made of over 30 ingredients.
That summer also saw arguably my most prestigious stage to date as well as my first foray into Europe – at the three Michelin starred Hof van Cleve in Belgium, named 50th in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Award 2017.
Everything about it, even the trip from London to Kruishoutem via Lille, made up what was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The consistent quality of the food, all under the leadership of Peter Goossens, was nothing short of enlightening. The chefs were a credit to their trade, talented to a man, and I was even taken, step by step, through their summer tasting menu by Peter himself.
And how did I get the stage? I asked. I emailed them and they said yes. Simple as that.
My last stage while working at the gastropub was at Heston Blumenthal’s The Perfectionists’ Café at Heathrow Airport. I wanted to learn how chefs operated in an airport and my day started at staggering 3am. Under the stewardship of Julian O’Neill, formerly the executive chef of The Wolseley, the chefs worked tirelessly right from the off, with every one from a different chef background. In terms of how a team operates, it was just invaluable experience - and they sure know how to make a cracking breakfast.
I felt more than just a twinge of sadness when I packed up my things and left my part time chef job at the end of the year. But having arrived as a curious journalist, I now left as a chef.
I had hit 26 stages which included working in a three star in Europe, at another two star, in an airport, under another Roux Scholar, in an outrageously open kitchen and at a prestigious butchers. I had been fortunate enough to work with even more of the most interesting and famous chefs around this past year and have now even written for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Award’s inaugural scholarship program.
The way of the chef is a never ending journey. Now, what do I want to learn next..?