Restaurant Stage: Tom's Kitchen, Chelsea

Anyone watching must have thought me a seasoned chef in the kitchen, and I loved that.
— The Stagiaire
 the stagiaire with Dean Baker, the head chef

the stagiaire with Dean Baker, the head chef

After spending literally minutes in Tom’s Kitchen in Chelsea with the head chef, Dean Baker, I was asked to make a caper and raisin vinaigrette from scratch. Enough for 44 portions, both lunch and dinner services.

It was a big ask for me, as so far on my travels, I have largely been prepping veg and picking garnish. But here I was now, with Tom Aiken’s recipe of ten ingredients and a detailed walk-through, including multiple measurements of vinegar and sugar, reducing times, and temperatures. Dean and the rest of the kitchen had also started calling me ‘chef’.

The first thing I did was make friends with the brigade, as I really needed help finding some of the ingredients. Dean had kindly taken me up and down the winding stairs to show me the dry store and walk in fridges beforehand. But after hurtling up and down in search of ingredients for my vinaigrette, I was left without golden raisins, cider vinegar, mini capers, white wine vinegar and grape juice. Half of what I needed.

I managed to rope in Kahlid, a demi chef de partie, and he ran round with me for a good 15 minutes before only the grape juice remained. He didn’t know where that was either, so I decided to prep my existing ingredients and hunt down the juice at the end.

 the open kitchen at tom's kitchen

the open kitchen at tom's kitchen

The kitchen there is shaped like a big ‘L’ and is open plan so all the world could see me counting out too many lemons and dropping sugar everywhere. I had put myself on the larder section and it wasn’t long before Dean came over to see how I was doing. While the whole idea of me making 50kg of vinaigrette continued to leave me concerned, the thing that worried me most was my grasp of measurements. Or rather my complete lack of one.

Dean said that was very normal for chefs, young and old, and thought I should run down to pastry and grab a digital scales, which I gratefully did. Pastry asked me to bring it back when I was done, looking now worriedly at indeterminate piles of flour and chocolate.

I pressed the lemons for juice, thanking the bar who lent me their squeezer. I measured out the vinegar, caster sugar, and olive oil into separate containers. The mini capers and golden raisins were also given their own bowl. Then came the shallots, which needed to be finely diced.

Despite my new-found grasp of knife work after my stint at Chamberlain’s of London, I somehow found myself bogged down.

Dean saw me eyeing up the chopping boards and helped me get set up, giving me one of his own knives to use. I asked Dean if he had any tips.

He said to get a rhythm, and to take my time. To use a knife properly in this situation, you have to use a stroking motion, tilting the blade so as to start from the top and end and the bottom. He was, of course, very quick and perfectly straight when he showed me. I knew I had to work on my basics.

Dean was, I soon realised, a natural teacher. He never criticised what I was doing and there was something about him that made me feel very comfortable going to him for help. He even let me practice more delicate knife strokes on pieces of plaice that he planned to use for staff food.

Soon enough, with very little difficulty, I found my shallot-cutting rhythm. I took my time, knowing quality always comes first. Anyone watching must have thought me a seasoned chef in the kitchen, and I loved that.

 dean preps fish

dean preps fish

With everything ready, I returned to the recipe book. A photo of what the end product is meant to look like leered at me at the bottom. Tom Aikens is all about the fine details. This was obvious from the book, which he had typed out for his staff with real care.

After grabbing a suitable pot from the KP, I added shallots in with the olive oil with half of the sugar and a dash of salt. I had six to eight minutes before the next stage, and I returned to the recipe book.

Grape juice.

I had completely forgotten about the last ingredient. My shallots had been in a few minutes, and I really couldn’t stop the process for long. Embarrassed, I shuffled over to ask Dean what to do, and if we even had any grape juice! To my surprise, he told that he had just sent a runner out to get some. He arrived back in time to keep my first batch going. Beginners luck, but it’s just so easy to lose your way under pressure.

 the finished vinaigrette

the finished vinaigrette

With the rest of the ingredients slowly going in, I was finally in need of 24 grams of pepper. Dean handed me a pepper grinder and the scales back. After seven desperate turns I had barely a gram. Only when my arm was dead did he pass me the large pepper container, grinning widely.

He told me he had once sent a new commis downstairs for a bucket of steam, only for him to return 15 minutes later in a blind panic, unable to find the impossible item.

With my vinaigrette made and resting, Dean and I both took a spoon to try. Even though I had followed Tom Aiken’s recipe to the letter, I was really surprised to find that it was excellent.

The whole brigade drip fed over to try the stagiaire’s concoction, and they were all happy with it. Sheer relief.

As I left, Dean told me to ask a chef during my next stage if they have a leg of salmon.

- Click here for our interview with Tom Aikens -

 tom aikens in teaching mode

tom aikens in teaching mode