What do you do when the 9 months of familiarity – of standing at the same steel worktops, cursing at the same gas ovens, washing up the same equipment in plastic basins, checking the same wooden drawers under your benches (knife, fork, spoon, 4 teaspoons, fish slice, slotted spoon, metal spoon, whisk, rolling pin, 2 wooden spoons: DONE), sitting in the same chair in the demonstration room (“oi, that’s my chair, get out”; “I can’t believe she’s sitting in my chair again, what’s she playing at?!”), eating lunch out of plastic bags with plastic cutlery which is guaranteed to snap in the dining room, drinking at the same pub every Friday, wearing the same whites (“do you think I can get away with wearing this apron again?”), finding an endless supply of tea towels strewn around the changing room, laughing with peers and teachers, crying over spilt milk, hospital visits for the more extreme cuts, burns and war wounds, of everything – is just gone? Done? Finished forever? What do you do?
Three weeks ago I graduated from Leiths. I passed my final exam two days before graduation, despite the fact that the gas turned itself off in the kitchen halfway through the exam (most stressful moment of my life), and then there were prizes, cheese, wine & a decamp to the pub. After an entire term and a half of not crying, this was the day where I started crying around midday and didn’t stop until that evening.
I said goodbye to teachers, I said, “see you soon” to classmates and “keep in touch”. I chased a couple of teachers around the pub demanding hugs (they gave them to me), I drank a lot of shots and lime, soda and gin cocktails, then I cried a bit more. As I was leaving a friend gave me a fierce hug and whispered in my ear, “I don’t care what people say, you’re an awesome girl and I’m really going to miss you.” That started me off all over again & really it was the most heartfelt thing anybody had said to me all year. I wandered into the bathroom to find more friends crying, a queue impatiently waiting, muttering about crying girls in the loos. I hugged more teachers, they told me they’d be following my progress on the blog and I blushed, embarrassed and yet proud at the same time, and then I left and had a quiet celebratory dinner at La Trompette with a couple of friends, got in a cab and went home. And that was it. That was Leiths.
For 9 months this was my life. Every day, Monday to Friday, I trekked across London to learn how to cook professionally, how to act professionally, how to be a chef. It’s kind of a weird concept, learning how to be a chef. I recently met and asked David Lebovitz for some advice about a job, starting my sentence with, “I’ve just qualified as a chef…” and he cut me off with a raised eyebrow and the question, “you actually have to qualify as a chef?” It’s a good point. How do you actually qualify to work in a kitchen? To call yourself “chef” when really you can’t claim to be one until you have your own restaurant? Until that point you’re just a lowly commis, or a chef de partie, or a junior/sous chef if you manage to work your way up the ladder to there. You’re just part of the brigade, another face with another knife, doing what you’re told, all in the hope that it’ll be good enough for Chef.
Leiths was very safe. If you screwed up it was okay, there was another egg, another lamb rack, another lump of butter to try again. The reality is that in the restaurant if you screw up you’ve just wasted x amount of money, you fix it but you know that you’re wasting time, running up costs, getting in the way and generally being useless; you don’t want to be useless in the restaurant. At Leiths if there was nothing to do you’d stand around, you’d do a bit of washing up, you’d chat to your friends, you’d go get a cup of tea; in the restaurant if there’s nothing to do you’d better damn well find yourself something to do – don’t get caught with your hands in your pockets or your arms crossed, watching the brigade – get involved, clean work surfaces furiously, peel girolles until your fingers are numb and feel like they’re about to fall off, just do something because time is precious and if you’re doing nothing with it, you’re wasting it.
Other friends had jobs lined up following Leiths, had found themselves positions during the year. I felt a little behind as I’d chosen not to stage in the evenings, knowing I would be useless and tired, instead waiting until I finished. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a job, that I was unemployable; I voiced my concerns to my teacher & he assured me that I’d find something, that I shouldn’t worry, it’d happen.
Two days after I graduated I had – what I thought was – a small catering job producing vegetarian food & baked goods for the annual Democrats Abroad American Independence Day Picnic. Assisted by a couple of friends from Leiths, we produced an array of freshly baked pressed vegetarian focaccia sandwiches, breads, my epic brownies, meringues, Chelsea buns, loaves of cake & vegetarian quiches. When we reached the venue I realised that the event wasn’t at all small and I was, in fact, the only vendor who had produced homemade goods. My one tiny stall, sandwiched between Big Apple Hot Dogs & Korrito, the Korean taco guys, was embarrassingly tiny. The others had canopies to shield them from the midday sun and grills, fired up and ready: I had a panini press and 2 helpers.
My heart sank when I realised what I was in for – I was convinced that I would be the joke of the picnic, but was so sleep deprived (by the time I went to bed that evening I hadn’t slept for 39 hours) I couldn’t stop laughing about the ridiculousness of it.
I shouldn’t have worried: we were a hit and basically sold out, barring a few loaves of bread and a handful of sandwiches. I even managed to make a profit, a tiny one, but profit nonetheless & the day was brilliant fun, not to mention the fact that a bunch of people took my card & asked about future catering (including an enquiry about the possibility of making a Divorce Cake!).
Following this, I ran off to Cambridge for a trial at the restaurant where I had the best meal I’ve ever had in the UK; after two days working there I felt like I’d been hit by a bus but it was entirely what I expected. I worked hard, I made some mistakes but by the end of my second day I was plating up alongside the other pastry chef and doing whatever else they asked me to do. At the end of my last shift I had a chat with the head chef, got some great advice and came back to London to complete the rest of my stages and trials, after which I’d make a decision about whether or not I want to move to Cambridge or stay in the city.
No rest for the wicked, the following week I was straight into my next stage, where I assisted everywhere I could and got fed a lot of little odds and ends; another week and I was into the next place, doing everything they could give me. I spent hours concassing tomatoes and finely dicing apples, even managed to slice into my thumb with a mandoline (ouch), but was allowed to help plate the pre-desserts and fed half the tasting menu in an act of extreme generosity by the head chef. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be trialling at 2 more restaurants, in October I’m scheduled to work at Le Manoir for a week and I can’t get enough of it, am loving seeing the different kitchens, talking to and working with different chefs. No 1 kitchen is the same, no chef is the same (though I have seen some of the same crockery circulating!) and they’re all turning out fantastic food with a real passion for what they’re doing. How’s a girl to choose what to do?
The main thing is that with every new kitchen, I’m learning a little more. I’ve discovered that in many kitchens you need to bring your own spoons in with you to taste and plate (they’re like gold dust, who’d have thought that in a restaurant you have to bring your own cutlery?), a spatula is also known as a maurice and I have no idea why (my first stage the pastry chef I was working with told me to fetch a maurice and I just looked at her with a confused expression; if you know why, please, enlighten me, and what’s the difference?!), speed and attention to detail are vital when working on the Michelin circuit, and you will mess up, it’s inevitable, just learn from the mistake, fix it, move on and then don’t do it again.
I’ve also learned that it’s okay to have the fear: before every stage I’m so nervous I feel a little ill before I get into the kitchen, I’m very quiet, quieter than anybody who knows me could ever believe I’d be, and I’m constantly afraid that somebody’s going to turn around to me and say, “hey! What are you doing here? You don’t belong here – get out!” So I work extra hard and watch everything going on around me. I’m learning to just say, “yes Chef” and get on with my task, I’m trying to overcome my shyness in asking for items from pot wash and calling for service from front of house, and throughout it all I’m a little terrified of being ‘found out’, of being called an imposter because I didn’t start in kitchens at age 15, because I paid to be educated, that I trained “to be a chef”, that I spent more money in 9 months than most of them make in a year, but that’s okay, the fear is a good motivator, the fear makes me work harder and strive to be faster.
When I’m not staging I’m working on private jobs and trying to catch up with friends and family I’ve neglected – this weekend I’m helping a friend with her stall at Matsuri Dalston and also working at the baking school where I intern, next weekend I’m catering a house warming in the city, the following weekend my brother’s getting married; there’s a lot to think about and organise.
So where do I go from here? Well, onwards and upwards. I have so much choice at the moment it’s proving a little difficult to whittle it down but, hopefully, by August I’ll know where I’ve settled. A month ago I was worried about the future, that I was unemployable and that I’d just wasted 9 months of my life training for a job I couldn’t find; now I have a seed of an idea for the future, a direction I’m moving in, and an industry who are apparently embracing me and what I have to offer. I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for yet but I know that when I find it it’ll be my “ah-ha” moment, I won’t care about the long hours or the sore body parts because I’ll finally be home.
So what do you do when one part of your life ends? You move forward, you chase the next dream. It’s a hard path but when you finally get there, well. That makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it?
Until next time, peace and love,