chef life © 2010 . All rights reserved.

Jen Still Cooks. My life as a chef in training.

People often asked me who it was that taught me to cook. Honestly, I can’t really say. I can’t pinpoint it to one thing in particular. Sometimes I make a conscious effort to learn. On an early morning with coffee in hand, I trade in reading the Sunday paper for the CIA textbook. Other times it’s unconscious. As a kid I’d watch my grandmother pull out a abnormally large metal case that looked like it should’ve been used for deep sea diving. Instead it steamed fish.

I’ve been working in television for the last ten years, and my work has given me the opportunity to not only talk about food but also work with some of the best chefs in the industry. I’ve seen a lot over the years, and even though chefs would let us into their restaurants and their lives for a glimpse “behind the scenes”, I always felt like there was an invisible curtain. It was as if these guys belonged to a club with its own secret language. They seemed to know something I didn’t. And it killed me. I didn’t want to just observe the madness, I wanted to be part of it too.

So while we bide our time in London before the move to Hong Kong, I’ve decided to press the pause button on my TV career and try something new. I emailed Paul Merrett, a chef who I had filmed with a few years ago. Back then he was opening a new restaurant on the edge of Richmond Park called the Victoria, and I was impressed with his attitude and effort. After that shoot day, I made a mental note that perhaps he’d be someone I’d like to work for in the future. Well after two years, Paul still remembered me and was open to letting me join the team.

Aside from filming, I’d never spent any time in a professional kitchen, so I’d be starting from the ground up. Keeping that in mind, I expected to be peeling potatoes for weeks on end. My first day, I arrived embarrassingly early. I was greeted by a chef who was clearly in the middle of doing something and had little time to spend explaining anything to me. That said, I could tell he hadn’t been the one delegated to give me the “welcome” chat, so I sequestered myself in the staff changing room, killing time by giving my hands an extra long wash in the loo and carefully reading and then rereading all the labels on shelves. All the chef jackets were neatly folded on the top shelf. One shelf down held the aprons. Then rows of fresh towels were stacked on the bottom.

People started to trickle in, and I introduced myself trying not to appear like the over eager dork I really was. A tall, lanky guy walked in and removed his motorbike helmet.

“Are you Jen? Yeah, I think you’re with me today”, he said. “Grab a jacket, an apron, and two towels”. I was finally happy to have a task, even if it was as simple as getting dressed. I quickly changed and made my way to the kitchen.

The chef quickly set up a workspace for me, and I was told I’d be making Scotch eggs. “Wow”, I thought. “This was exciting. And seemingly higher up on the list than potato peeling.” The chef showed me how to wrap the farce, or sausage mix, around soft boiled eggs which seemed easy enough. It was easy, but also a sticky mess. I was trying to not spread farce all over the kitchen, but quickly everything I touched became tainted with raw pork. And without a sink directly behind me, my obsessive compulsive habit of washing my hands or workspace when dirty, was impossible to satisfy. Why wasn’t it that when Scotch Egg showed me how to flatted the farce and shape it, his hands had not turned into giant pork gloves as mine were now?

I quietly dealt with my pork crisis, pretending as though I had been making them since birth and this was the way it was supposed to be done. The only reason I knew that I hadn’t completely fucked them up was because of Scotch Egg’s encouraging comments. I did, however, have to spend extra time sanitising my workspace after my expression of pork glee.

As we continued to work, Scotch Egg and I chatted about the States. He said he had been to Los Angeles once to visit his uncle. Apparently his uncle had revived “Pogs” popularity in the 90′s, but then lost his fortune to an extravagant LA lifestyle. He now lives somewhere in the jungle in Brazil. I also found out that Scotch Egg was only 21, but had been cooking in restaurants since he was 15. Already, I was impressed with his ability to teach and delegate. Most 21-year-olds I have dealt with are lucky to leave the house in the morning without their finger up their nose.

Someone turned some music on, and everyone in the kitchen settled into a task. Every once in awhile, someone would sing out a line of a lyric. The energy of the kitchen was great, and I instantly felt comfortable. I’d later find out that this was just the calm before the storm. Because in just a few hours, service would begin.

9 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Awesome, I am happy, and shhh, a bit jealous of your adventures!!!!

    I would love to be in HK as well, I know you will love it!

    Wheels

  2. The Grubworm

    Agh – ending on a cliff hanger! Great intro to a very brave (on your part) foray into the world of professional kitchens. I am waiting with bated breath to hear how you got on. I mean, you're typing so you haven't lost too many fingers yet, so i guess it's all going well. Can't wait to hear more.

    And, good on you for chasing a dream, it's a courageous thing to do.

  3. Mr Noodles

    I can only echo what Grubworm says ! Good for you !!

  4. dave

    My year working in kitchen after many many years of many over jobs was the best time of my life. Even with the double shifts 3 times a week (normally on the trot).
    Best of luck to you. It's such a great feeling, I just wish I had done that when I was 16. But I got to do it.
    Also I am soooooo jealous that you are moving to my favourite place on the planet. Enjoy ….. :-)

  5. hk

    I've been following your blog for quite some time now, and its really great to hear about your adventures. I'm actually from hong kong, and I sincerely hope that you'll continue posting even after your move! There's a wealth of restaurants there that I'm sure you'll love exploring, and I've always felt that the food blogging scene in hk, ad least the english posting one, really can't measure up to the one in london, no offence to any hk bloggers out there! Looking forward to the second part of this post.

  6. Emma

    Congratulations Jen – great to hear that you have entered the world of the pro kitchen. I look forward to reading more about it. How much longer are you in the UK for? Is the HK move imminent?

  7. Jen

    Wheels -I will be seeing you in September! Let's catch up before then.

    Grubworm and Mr. Noodles -Glad you enjoy reading. Many posts on the wonders of cling film and how to cut a tomato to come.

    Dave -the hours definitely take getting used to, but I agree it's the best feeling being in a kitchen.

    HK -yes, we will continue the blog in HK, and we are very excited to discover its amazing food culture. Stay in touch with us. Perhaps you can introduce us to your favourite places.

    Emma -Thanks Emma! I'll be heading to HK at the end of July. We are staying for at least 2 years, so plenty of time to try as much amazing food as possible.

  8. gastrogeek

    Wow Jen this is supercool!! I can't wait to hear what happened once service began….

  9. Su-Lin

    Briliant – congrats on your current career change!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked:*

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>