About this time last year the local NCT branch of which slightlysurburbanmum is a member held their annual ‘Big Push’ sponsored toddle. At the end was a raffle with prizes and one of these prizes was a ‘Kitchen Experience’ morning offered by the local restaurants Sam’s of Seven Dials and Sam’s of Brighton. I bought “quite a lot” of tickets on the strength of this and won…….
…..a membership to a baby development club we were already members of. Oh well.
It clearly stuck in slightlysurburbanmum’s mind though because, when I opened my Christmas presents six months later there was a voucher for the very same Kitchen Experience. How exciting! Now all we had to do was find a free Saturday morning that didn’t clash with a) the football b) the NCT or c) a birthday party that wasn’t already booked. Also a day when my mum could come down and look after the kids (for while I was going in to the kitchen by myself the end part consists of lunch and a glass of champagne and it was probably only fair I chose slightlysurburbanmum to come with me). Thus is was I finally got to go yesterday (16 June).
A brief history of me and food. I am not a conventional ‘foodie’. I’ve always liked eating tasty things of course but when I first left home I had three ‘from scratch’ recipes in my repertoire. Cheese sandwich, bacon sandwich and tuna pasta. I had had food revelations on family holidays in France (I can still taste my first bowl of moules marinieres like it was yesterday) but on first moving out all my money went on rent, beer, cigarettes, football and clubbing. Food became an optional extra.
However, having met the aforementioned slighlysuburbanmum a few things happened. One was we ate out together. A lot. Two was with joint incomes and me going out less we had money to spend on food and try new dishes. And then my job moved overseas. The Mrs had bought herself ‘Kitchen Confidential’ by Anthony Bourdain and once finished she lent it to me. I read the whole thing on a flight from Heathrow to Sydney and suddenly I was hooked on the world of the kitchen (or at least reading about it). When we moved to Taipei I regularly went out drinking with a Kiwi pastry chef who swore more than Gordon Ramsey and made deserts that were prettier than than Scarlett Johansson. I was starting to cook a bit more and we would eat out at least 4 times a week. Then I got the wife pregnant. Then the pregnancy knackered her back. No more eating out. If I wanted tasty food I would have to learn to cook it myself. So I slowly learned to make meals until we are now at the point where I make most of the evening meals, all of the weekend ones and I have a virtual season ticket to shows like Great British Menu and Masterchef.
All of which sets the scene for the fact that my rapid interest in food and it’s cooking and preparation lacked any form of basic training whatsoever. I am – still – Mister Self Taught And A Bit Clumsy.
I lay in bed fretting about this the night before. Here are the top five things I cook:
1) A Sunday Roast, everything from scratch (including gravy and where appropriate Yorkshire Pudding)
2) Citrus risotto with Spicy Prawns (my wife’s favourite)
3) Steak (to temperature) with mini roasts and tomato salsa
4) Mediterranean Chicken and Chorizo with Tagliatelle (shop bought).
5) Pork chops with mustard and shallot sauce and baby leaks.
In other words big, hearty man-food requiring the minimum of fiddly technique and presentation but with maximum flavour delivery (think of Gregg from Masterchef yelling ‘BIG, BOLD FLAVOURS’ before looking disapprovingly at how I’d served it).
Here’s what I never make:
2) Fiddly things
Surely, I thought as I cogitated in bed, they would not give me the pastry section?
The next morning I was dropped at the door of the Seven Dials restaurant and introduced to Mark the Head Chef. Mark introduced me to Andrea the pastry chef (Italian male not English lady). Yep, I was doing pastry.
At this point I was glad I’d read the Bourdain. I could embarrass myself with my lack of technique but there were three things I had promised I would adhere to.
1) Turn up on time (already achieved)
2) Do as I’m told
3) Don’t fuck up service
These became my guiding principles. First I made bread. I learned quickly to stretch the dough and fold it back on itself but less quickly to flour my table, making a mess of it and Chef’s nice clean sink. Eventually I got the dough right but then had a nightmare shaping it like Andrea had shown me (I made 12 loaves and probably only got the last 2 correct – even then I saw Andrea having a sneaky adjust and he wasn’t wrong). Then I had the best coffee I have ever had at work and learned banana tarte tatin. Again in both cutting the bananas properly (WHY are bananas not straight, the bendy little bastards) and shaping the pastry over them my later efforts were far more impressive than my early ones. Then I did the easy prep for a strawberry soup, sectioned some oranges REALLY badly (“sorry chef I appear to have butchered your oranges”) and started on breading some fish goujons before my wife appeared and gave the chefs their kitchen back minus the idiot.
One thing to note about a pro kitchen. Both the heat and smells are amazing. A particular smell was driving me INSANE with desire. It turned out to be chef’s summer piccalilli that he was serving with mackerel that evening. It was amazing. Why I didn’t sneak some there and then I do not know (actually I do – rule number 3, do not fuck up service). From early on LOTS of things are going on and Mark’s kitchen is clean and organised (and did I mention smells amazing) and it was an eye-opener to see how organised and calm the team were.
I moved to ‘the other side’ for a glass of champers and a three course meal I didn’t do justice to. Partly, I think, because I had been surpressing my appetite due to the smells and not wanting to eat everything in sight. Also, since I’d made the bread I ate 7 slices of it with tapenade before the amuse bouche arrived.
I’d like to thank Mark and his team and particularly Andrea for showing me many new techniques, none of which I quite did justice to. I AM going to attempt to make bread at home and certainly I will try the banana tarte tatin. I would recommend the Kitchen Experience to anyone – the four hours of prep flew by.
*(Note I have not been sponsored to write this post. I just had a good time).