From the moment I set foot on the property, I am working. Forget the myth about chefs taking breaks every 15 minutes to have a fag. If that’s the case, they don’t work in a good place. At the Victoria, there is so much to do; I’m lucky if I can find two free minutes to use the loo. Even if we happen to tick off all the boxes on the list, there are always more to add.
We have a staff meal, but no one chooses to sit down to eat. We eat and work. I’ve noticed two eating techniques amongst us: a) grab a plate and whilst making the four meter walk to the porter, shovel as much food into your mouth before dropping your plate into the sink or b) grab a plate then set it beside you and continue slicing, filleting, stirring, or what have you. Take one bite, get distracted by another task and leave your plate on the work table. One hour later, either eat or bin cold food and take your plate to the porter.
Are we all mad, OCD workaholics? Perhaps, but it has more to do with the ever impending clock and a formula. The kitchen revolves around speed and skill and the formula goes something like this: speed + skill = success. People might try and fake it, but speed + no skill = fail and no speed + skill = fail. And failing when you have 60 bookings staring you in the face is not a good idea.
One of the best foodstuffs that illustrates this point is a Bearnaise. It was one of my very first shifts, and I was working under one of the sous chefs. He was the son of a chef and had followed his father’s career all over the world until his family settled in England. He said that when Paul bought the place three years ago, he was the only person kept on from the old staff. As we got to work, he handed me a whisk the size of a badminton racquet and said, “Let’s give you a workout”.
I quickly found out I would be making the day’s quantity of Bearnaise sauce that would be the main condiment for the steaks. As you would guess, Bearnaise takes its origin from France which means you are already in for a ride when it comes to making it. It’s fussy. It’s temperamental. An all around pain in the ass. Bearnaise is the child of Hollandaise which has a foundation of egg yolks, an acid (in our case a white wine and shallot reduction), and clarified butter. This mix forms an emulsion or what I like to call the “bitch” of the sauce. So much as sneeze, and it may split. If you get that far and are still successful, add finely chopped tarragon and chervil and a Bearnaise is born.
Aware of the difficulty level; but having no idea what lay ahead, I was told to put some yolks and a splash of the white wine reduction in a metal bowl. Ultimate Bearnaise asked me if I had ever made this before. “I’ve made Hollandaise in a blender.” UB was quiet and instead lead me to a bain marie that he’d set up on the stove. “You’re going to whisk this until it’s really thick”. Right. This was definitely not the blender version.
While Ultimate Bearnaise heated a sizable quantity of clarified butter in a pot, I whisked my little heart out. As I watched those yolks slosh around the bowl, I kept waiting for something to happen. It seemed like ages before the yolks began to even hint at thickening. I whisked and whisked until my arm felt like it was going to fall off. And still those yolks needed more whisking. I quickly found out why chefs wear all that clothing. Every layer turned into a sponge that soaked up the liters of sweat that poured from my body. Even my legs were sweating, for Christ’s sake.
When the yolks were finally nice and thick, Ultimate Bearnaise came over and said, “Ok, are you ready for the hard part?” Uh, seriously? We removed the bowl from the heat, and UB said, “So, the thing about Bearnaise is this -if the yolks are too hot, it splits. If it’s too cold, it splits. If you pour the butter in too fast, it splits. If you pour too slowly, it splits.”
“Right.” I said, “So in other words, you’re saying this is going to be easy?” I watched as Ultimate Bearnaise, holding the large pot of butter with one hand, showed me how to send a slow and steady stream into the bowl of yolks. His other hand simply disappeared into a whisking blur. The entire time not one muscle in his face even winced. “Ok,” he said, “Now your turn”.
With my arm already throbbing from my previous technique, I prayed to God that the word “split” was not in the cards for me that day. There was no time to dilly dally. I needed to turn myself into a machine. I took a firm stance, and I began to whisk and pour. And then I whisked and poured some more. The mix began to quadruple in size which automatically meant that I needed even more muscle to whisk and pour. UB was like some Bearnaise whisperer, calmly coaching me through. When it looked like I might actually be successful, I forgot about the sweat and pain. It was all about keeping the flow because if it split, I would have just collapsed to the ground and wept right then and there.
When I came home later that day and told Tom about my Bearnaise battle, he mocked me and wondered why we just didn’t use a blender. I wasn’t sure at the time, but now I know why. We try to hold the Bearnaise or Hollandaise at the right temperature so it’s perfect come time to serve. But every once in a while, temps get too hot or too cold and the damn thing split on us. And when does it split? Right in the middle of service when you need it most. If we didn’t have the skills to do it by hand, we couldn’t save ourselves during those moments. Think of how much time relying on a blender would add? And what if the blender was broken or dirty, would you really want to have to walk out to the table of ten that has already been waiting for 15 minutes to explain the delay? No. Instead you grab that badminton whisk, add a little water to a bowl, slowly pour in the split sauce, and whisk like hell.
I think every chef has had a sauce split at one time or another. Although my first try was a success, I can say I did split it on another occasion. And I have seen it happen to Scotch Egg, to Tomato Half, and even to Ultimate Bearnaise right in the middle of service. So what’s the secret to keep everyone happy in the dining room? Speed and skill.