It was pitch black when I left The Waterside Inn after the first of my two-day stage at Alain Roux’s three Michelin starred restaurant in Bray. And when I say pitch black, I mean it. City dwellers often forget how very differently lit a little country lane is in comparison to pretty much every single nook and cranny in a bustling capital.
Bray has no train station, despite not only holding the 3* Waterside Inn, but also Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and his pub, The Hind’s Head. That’s seven Michelin stars between them, with Bray having only around 20 buildings in total. An extraordinary little town, and one 2.5 miles away from Maidenhead with the nearest station.
I had arrived that morning on the early train from London and trekked it down to Bray via winding lanes and fields full of cattle. The pavements left long before I arrived, with the only sounds from cars sounding their horns as they took corners.
Upon arrival, I was quickly directed into the kitchen where I was met by the head chef, Fabrice Uhryn, who had one of the commis take me to the staff quarters across the road to get changed.
I returned, looking the part, and took my place with the twenty or so other chefs milling around the sprawling kitchen for the last few hours of morning prep. It is by far the largest I’ve ever been in, and despite its size, every single corner had in it a chef hard at work.
It was tough to know where to stand, and I put myself by one of the sinks to wait for Fabrice, who had retreated to his office briefly. Next to me was a whole cow’s head soaking in the basin.
After a quick introduction to the two sous chefs in the Waterside kitchen, Raj and Alex, I was given my first job in a three star kitchen, which was to pick red vein sorrel for a set of canapes. I was on the pass and I could see the wait staff preparing stunning crockery for the tables on the other side, with glimmering cutlery following soon after. Everything they carried seemed either gold or silver, and they were all dressed to the nines.
I was on the pass with a commis named Simone. He was soon to be promoted to a CDP and was very enthusiastic throughout, clearly proud of his progression. And with my sorrel picked, he asked me to wind marinated snails in string and Clingfilm, as well as peel and chop carrots. I managed everything thrown at me with little fuss and I felt very much part of the team.
On my second day, however, I was given a colander full of boiled potatoes. This was when things took a turn for the worse. Alex, one of the sous, said that he wanted me to scrape the potatoes of their skin, so I grabbed a paring knife and got to work. I raced through, hoping my speed would be appreciated. Alex came back to check on my progress soon after, and this is when the shouting started.
“What are you doing?!” he shouted, grabbing the bowl and going through the ten or so skinless potatoes I’d done.
“I said scrape! What are you doing!?” he repeated, even louder.
Having been given a job and settled down with it, I had relaxed. Big mistake. By scrape, Alex had meant literally the careful removal of skin from the potatoes, keeping the shape completely intact. Having used a paring knife to prep a whole lot of vegetables during the ten-odd stages I’d done up to that point, I figured trimming the potato down a touch wouldn’t have mattered.
“These are useless now! Look at the shape of these! Why didn’t you ask if you weren’t sure? Dudley, come here and do the potatoes. Now!”
My misshapen potatoes met the bin, I said goodbye to the paring knife, and a commis called Dudley took the reins. Alex didn’t talk to me again for the rest of my stage. A day and a half.
The arrival of lunch service was announced to my surprise over a tannoy system in both English and French by Fabrice on both days. Being a classic French restaurant, it wasn’t surprise to see plenty of French chefs in the kitchen, but there were also English and plenty of Italians mixed in.
Fabrice always ducked back into his office just before service to fetch his tall white hat.
On the first day, Alain Roux himself joined Fabrice at the pass as tickets began to come in. I put myself just on the edge of the meat section and hoped I would be called upon to help in any way, just as any stagiaire should. Almost immediately I could see the care, attention and superior skills of the Waterside chefs as they launched into action.
It was loud and boisterous, with a touch of arrogance about every chef on every station, and it was mightily impressive. Fabrice called every ticket without the use of the tannoy, and his voice rang out to every corner of the kitchen.
Soon I was invited to come to the pass to watch dishes be plated. Under the direction of Raj, a number of chefs helped to plate. The other sous, Alex, prowled up and down watching the brigade beyond. It was clear that this was a good sous, bad sous situation.
I saw a whole courgette flower filled with wild mushrooms be plated with spring vegetables tossed in a warm olive oil, with chopped perigord truffle added by Fabrice before being sent away. I also watched as a flaked Devon crab dish with a smooth cauliflower cream and Oscietra Royal Belgian Caviar also found its way past Fabrice and to the diners. Everything that went out was more striking than the last.
Lunch lasted from twelve to two, and it flew by. Staff lunch followed, which was pasta and tomato sauce on day one, and beef fajitas on day two. I was one of the only few chefs to actually sit and enjoy my meal both days, with the majority inhaling a few things, having a smoke and hurtling back to work. This is something I’m seeing more and more of.
After more prep, dinner service roared into action. I had watched through the back door as all manner of supercars parked themselves outside, with the dining room packed out on both days.
Much like with lunch service, the dishes coming out of the Waterside kitchen were exquisite, and I was actually allowed to help plate one of their signature dishes: Grilled tender rabbit fillets, celeriac fondant, glazed chestnuts and Armagnac sauce.
Marcus, a commis who had been promoted to the meat station, struggled with the amount of orders during my second dinner service there. He became bogged down and looked flustered and irritated. He was also refusing help and had started to blame other chefs for his mistakes. Alex – bad sous – had noticed this and was circling him like a vulture, waiting for his moment.
Soon enough, the shouting started. Marcus hadn’t incurred his wrath for being slow, however, but rather his increasingly poor attitude. Fabrice soon waded into the fray, explaining to Marcus that he’d better pack his things if he didn’t immediately sort himself out mentally.
And, to Marcus’ credit, that’s exactly what he did. The fear of losing his position at one of the country’s most respected restaurants, and a three star one at that, must have hit him hard when Fabrice looked him dead in the eye and told him the score, the ferocious Alex watching behind.
He started accepting help, focused on one ticket at a time, and soon enough he was right back with the other chefs, finishing service with a flourish of oil and smoke.
Fabrice, taking off his tall white hat, threw me a wink as Marcus thanked the rest of the brigade for their patience with him. I realised that both Fabrice and the volcanic Alex had saved Marcus from self-destruction by being so very stern with him from the get go.
It’s a lesson I’ll always remember. I’ll certainly never rush a scraped potato again.