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Chris Ward

How I Became a Professional Cook in France

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Post 1: How I got into this

 

A long time ago, a lifetime ago in fact, I became a cook in self-defence; my mother was a school canteen cook. Head cook, in fact. She cooked all day at school - 1,600 covers! all from scratch! - and couldn't face cooking at home. My father was old-school, sitting at the table impatiently tapping his knife and fork for the food to magically appear. My sister was younger than me. So either I cooked or we starved. So I cooked.

And on through my life I cooked all the time, for friends and flatmates and everyone who came to my house. Lunch, breakfast, afternoon teas, dinners, snacks, whatever. I am the cook for everyone who knows me.

And then we moved to France and bought an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and then got divorced and sold the farmhouse and I got bored with the journalism career I'd been working at for 25 years. "Open a restaurant," everyone said. "You can cook."

Right.

The following is the start of a story I wrote a couple of years ago about how it all happened, a story which eventually became a book, a film, a major TV series starring Craig Daniel as me and Helen Mirren as Anthony Bourdain. Wait, some of that's not true.

Here's the start of the story. I'll post more when I get a chance and if there's a demand.

Prologue: Asking to be a plongeur
Posted by EAT SLEEP COOK! on JUNE 22 2014

Prologue
It all starts, as do so many lunatic ideas, with lunch. Because I had so much free time on my hands as a journalist I’d started a book club for local ex-pats and we met in my favourite local restaurant, La Grange de Labahou, in Anduze, Gateway to the Cevennes mountains.
We were discussing Toast – The Story of a Boy’s Hunger by Nigel Slater, and a right disappointing read it was too. And, interesting though the book club is, and good though lunch is (foie gras maison – well please, it was on the menu, what could I do? – fricassée de pintade au cidre, poire au vin) the best portion of the event came when I chatted with Isabelle about my upcoming inscription at Vatel, the big hotel and restaurant school in Nimes to further my dream of becoming a professional Chef.
Which, I told her, was going to cost a fortune – five grand a year and how am I supposed to earn a living at the same time? Well, erm, I added, I was wondering would it be possible to come here and work as a plongeur? Isabelle, who runs the front of house while her husband Franck cooks, laughs. I say I’m serious, I’d love to work as a washer-up in their kitchen if they’d have me, I very firmly believe in starting at the bottom and, come the glorious day when I get to run the People’s Kitchens at the palace formerly known as Buckingham, I don’t want to be ordering some former toff to scrape dirty saucepans if I’m not able and prepared to do the same myself. It turns out that they don’t actually need a washer-up, they already have one and he only comes in on Saturdays when they’re really busy, she says – the rest of the time Franck and Greg, his sous chef, wash up as they go along. But, suggests Franck, come along for a day a week and work here anyway, to see how you like it. Get a feel for the business and see if you like it before splashing out on the Vatel course.
Some short discussions later and it’s arranged: I’m to be given a foundation course in doing things in the kitchen Franck’s way in return for teaching them some basic English. Neat! So, says Franck, see you next Thursday, wear sensible, enclosed shoes, trousers that don’t matter (this doesn’t narrow down my wardrobe much) and I can borrow one of his sous chef Greg’s chef’s coats. Cool. What could possibly go wrong?


30140 Anduze, France

 

Chapter 1: Day 3
Posted by EAT SLEEP COOK! on JUNE 22 2014

 

Chef stands me in front of a big bowl of fresh, green French beans, haricots verts, a plastic cutting board and a knife.
“You can start with these,” he says before moving off to start doing something serious to the lumps of meat that have just arrived.
Now, I’m not daft. I’m not stupid. I’ve done French beans before, lots of times in fact. Since I was a kid on my granny’s knee in fact. Ha! You just sort of break off the tops and tails between your thumb and forefinger, trying to pull the string that sometimes peels down the side as you do so. Right?
But. But. There was the cutting board and the knife next to the beans, so obviously in proper restaurants one cuts the ends off beans on a cutting board. I mean, the one thing I’d learned since becoming a ‘professional’ chef was that everything I thought I already knew about cooking was wrong. So I set to with the knife and board.
At first I cut the beans one at a time but then – having thought about this – I realised that I could be more chef-like and cut several at once. Saving time, doing things quickly and efficiently is the other thing I’d learned since becoming a ‘professional’ chef two days ago.
I was just lining up my second lot of half a dozen beans when Chef passed casually behind me. He was very good at wandering by apparently casually, as if on his way somewhere else and not at all checking up on my stupidities.
“First,” he says, “we don’t use a knife to top and tail beans here – you do it with your thumb and forefinger, like this.” He demonstrated, showing me the bean top-and-tailing method I’d been taught by my grandmother 40 years ago in between her egg-sucking lessons.
“Well yes, obviously,” I blurted. “That’s how I’ve always done them but you gave me the board and the knife so I thought I was supposed to use them instead.”
“And secondly,” he continued oblivious to my blurtings, “that is not a cutting board. That is a sheet of frozen puff pastry I’m going to use to make the millefeuilles for dessert with when it’s defrosted.” Ah. Millefeuilles of green beans, anyone?
Ahem. This is the start of my third week – well, third day as I’m only here one day a week – in a restaurant working as a ‘professional’ chef. I say ‘professional’ like that because I’m actually not a Professional Chef. Not even a professional cook. I feel like a culinary tourist, peering into the real world of restaurant cooking as if I were a fat tourist poking my camera into a mud hut in some distant land. I’m here because I think I want to become a Professional Chef, open a restaurant and have a Macaron – a Michelin Star (us chefs call them Macarons because the symbol in the Guide Michelin looks a bit like a macaroon) – within five years. Three by the time I’m 50 in seven years time. Some hope if I can’t spot a sheet of puff pastry at arms’ length.
My desire to become a chef goes back to my childhood, when my school dinner lady mother said becoming a cook would be a waste of my public school education, and more recently to my 40th birthday party in Paris in October 2000. While everyone else was off seeing the Eiffel Tower and getting their portraits painted in Montmartre, I spent a morning watching a class at the Cordon Bleu cookery school. It was a blindingly revelatory moment, the sort that, were I driving towards Damascus, would have been accompanied by flashing lights and heavenly voices saying, “This is the life for you my boy!”
I wasn’t put off by the hordes of foreigners taking the Cordon Bleu class (mostly Japanese and American teenagers who had to have simultaneous translation of the French chef patissier’s instructions for making a red-fruit charlotte), in fact I hardly noticed them; I was simply entranced watching the chef working, how precisely and authoritatively he did every single thing and the beauty of the final product.
I was also entranced by the equipment he got to use, in particular the pantry cupboard-sized fast chiller he used to cool down the two cakes he’d made so they’d be suitable for tasting at the end of class.
And he looked so damned cool in his kitchen whites. Even his toque looked cool. This, I agreed with the blinding white light and the heavenly voices, was the life for me.
First, though, my future ex-wife and I had to move house, split up, get divorced and sell the old stone farmhouse dream home we’d bought in the middle of nowhere in the South of France, a process which took us through to just after Easter, 2004. By which point I’d worked out that I couldn’t afford to go to the Cordon Bleu school in Paris – apart from the €30,000 annual fees there were the questions of where to live for a whole year and how to earn a living whilst going to school full-time.
So I’d found the Vatel school 40 kilometres away in Nîmes, which would take me on for a more reasonable €5,000 or so. They did a one-year ‘Masters’ course which, most interestingly to me, included nine months of ‘Stages’, work experience courses during which I’d be paid a basic wage of about €450 a month (see, maths has never been my strong point – I pay you five grand so you can pay me a €4,000 salary…).
I visited the school and was warmly welcomed, the school director telling me that I’d have my pick of the Stages because most people doing this course wanted to be ‘future Club Méditerranée managers not cooks’. All the famous former pupils welcomed people like me into their restaurants, she said. It sounded good.
All I needed was five grand which, since we were selling our house and going to make an immense profit, would be easy. I’d have plenty left to live on and set up a fantastic restaurant – that Macaron was as good as mine and I was already well into choosing the china and cutlery.
A voice of reason did begin to intrude at this point though – I knew how to cook up a good dinner party but everyone said that restaurant cooking was completely different. Be careful, they said. People always say things like this because it’s what everyone says, and coincidentally they’re right.
So one day after a good lunch of foie gras maison, fricassée de pintade au cidre and poire au vin at La Grange de Labahou in Anduze run by Franck and Isabelle, in the Spring of 2004 I chatted with Isabelle about my upcoming inscription at Vatel and, er, could I come here and work as a plongeur (French for dishwasher and kitchen porter) to get a bit of experience?
My first day in my new life as a chef was, appropriately enough, April 1st. I had both great hopes and fears for the day – I hoped I’d adore it, I fervently hoped I wouldn’t make too many stupid mistakes and wished that the others working there would accept me as a potential future colleague and not see me as a culinary tourist. But I feared I’d find the work too difficult, too tiring and that I’d make endless, clumsy mistakes.
I’d managed to find some trousers that didn’t matter, although at the time I was 40 kilos into a giant diet which meant that my trousers kept falling down around my ankles. The 40 kilos I still had to lose meant that I could barely button sous chef Greg’s old chef’s jacket over my stomach but an apron hid the worst and helped hold up my trousers.
The first surprise was that that kitchen team in full was just Franck and Greg, with a dishwasher on Saturdays. Blimey. And the two of them do up to 100 covers a night. I’d eaten at La Grange before, and in their previous restaurant Les Terrasses d’Anduze in the centre of town, and I’d never guessed how they did it or that there are only two of them.
The very first thing I got to do was to peel five kilos of oranges to make marmalade, and the very first thing I learned was: Everything You Know Is Wrong. You don’t peel oranges by trying to stick your thumb nail into it, you do it with a knife. A knife? To peel an orange?
Look, says Franck, and he deftly cuts off the top and bottom of the orange then trims the peel off down the sides leaving no flesh on the peel, wasting nothing.Then it’s all cut into equal-sized pieces and goes into the pot. In about 10 seconds flat
That ‘equal sized pieces’ thing will haunt me over and over again over the next few years; any Chef who wants to have a go at an underling will watch them cutting something up. Then saunter over – Chefs do ‘Saunter’ very well – and pick up the smallest and largest pieces of whatever it is you’re cutting up apparently at random. They can spot them within half a second, and all they have to do is hold them up in front of you while raising one eyebrow for you to know what a loser you are.
And then there’s the whole ‘peel just the peel not the fruit’ thing. With orange marmalade it doesn’t matter so much since it all goes into the marmalade, but again Chefs have a way of pulling peelings out of your waste bin and explaining to you just how much you’re adding to their food costs by THROWING THE INGREDIENTS AWAY.
So here’s a tip if you do ever find yourself in a professional kitchen and don’t want to look like a complete idiot: EAT your mistakes. Even thick peel. And you may even get away with it, until Chef brings out the weighing scale and wonders how come you started with five kilos of produce and now only have four. Feeling hungry are we?
Franck, though, isn’t that kind of Chef and, once he’s over his initial reluctance at having any sort of tourist in his kitchen, is happy to chat about the differences between French and English cooking. Like the way he’s boiling the oranges first – I’m pretty sure Grandma never did that when making marmalade. Chutney comes next, with Franck making his famous Dried Apricot Chutney, the one he serves with the foie gras. The recipe is disturbingly simple, just vinegar, water, cinnamon, cloves, a few raisins and the dried apricots. Let it cook very gently for two or three hours and voilà, chutney.
During the preparations and the mise en place, a lot of commercial representatives arrive to show their products – they normally arrive on Mondays or Thursdays, says Franck. One’s selling pre-cooked dishes – no interest here where everything’s home-made; then a couple of chaps who sell kitchen equipment – one of them makes plates, bowls and other such things in, incredibly, Stoke on Trent in England, “The Limoges of England but bigger,” he explains. There are some very interesting things including sloping bowls, with one side higher than the other. And black ones, long plates suitable for fish but all expensive. Wait until next year, says Franck, they’ll all be half-price.
Talking of fish, he shows me his ‘bassin’ full of trout and crayfish; dozens of fish in a 10-metre square by five metres deep concrete basin. He’s in the middle of draining it – it takes four days – to refresh the water. Eventually the trout will be served in the restaurant.
Then a little washing up for me, and what a washing up machine they have here; the size of a regular domestic washer-upper but at sink height. You slide a plastic tray of plates, saucepans and whatever in, lower the lid and one minute – yes ONE MINUTE later everything is clean and dry…I really want one of these in my kitchen at home. Only five grand.
The other thing I want is the steam oven; you can control both the temperature and the humidity and voilà, everything is perfectly cooked. Incredible, and not badly priced either – just €30,000.
More work: I cut up the strawberries and give them a whiz in the robotchef, then add sugar. Then add more sugar to correct my mistake…
And then I put the potato purée in a giant tray – it’s called a gastro, short for gastronorm, I discover later because it’s a normal size for gastronomic cooking, 70×40 cms – scooped ice cream for the puddings and squirted red-fruit coulis. The day just got better and better. No really, I loved it. The only real mistake I made that first day – at least, the only mistake that I saw myself – was to break two of the poached eggs I served while cutting them into round shapes and putting them on a plate. Oops.
And then really before I realised it service was over and we dine together, Franck and Isabelle and I – the duck breast with pepper sauce from the menu then some cheese. You know, I could do this for a living…
 
30140 Anduze, France


Edited by Smithy Merged multiple topics about one narrative into a single topic; relocated individual topic names; gave comprehensive name to original post (log)
  • Like 17

Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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Keep it coming! 

 

I love the advice to eat your excess :D

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I love the cutting board that turned out to be frozen pastry, and finding out that your grandmother's method of trimming beans was the preferred method.  xD  And until now I never knew that there was a term 'gastronorm', although it makes sense that there would be.  And lots more! This is fun to read!

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Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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6 hours ago, Chris Ward said:

it’s called a gastro, short for gastronorm, I discover later because it’s a normal size for gastronomic cooking, 70×40 cms

 

Actually, gastronorms come in several sizes.

 

15 minutes ago, Smithy said:

And until now I never knew that there was a term 'gastronorm'


It's German.

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Post 2: Jumping ahead a few years....

 

This article from my blog brings together the culmination of my years of professional cooking - the ultimate difficult thing for most people is not searing the perfect steak or baking the perfect madeleine, but getting everything on the table at the same, correct time without making your dinner party guests wait half an hour between courses.

 

Recipe: How to cook
Posted by EAT SLEEP COOK! on AUGUST 18 2014
OK, hands in the air, this isn’t really it’s a recipe. It’s how to cook any recipe from any cook book. Anything.
Well, most of them anyway.
Look. I was a terrible cook who thought I was OK, but I wasn’t. You may be a great cook, I don’t know, but most people aren’t and know it. And many who think they are, aren’t, but won’t admit it.
The single most important lesson I learned becoming a professional cook was, “Everything you know is wrong.”
Everything.
That is not how you peel an onion.
That is not how you wash up.
That is, above all, NOT how you organise yourself.
And it’s that last one I’ll address here (peel onions quickly taking away the top layer; scrape and rinse everything first before putting it in the dishwasher – there, bonus!)
The real secret to working in a professional kitchen or giving a good dinner party is planning in advance – well in advance.
Say, for example, you want to give a dinner party this evening. You want nibbles, a cold starter (don’t torture yourself here), a hot main, cheese and a whimsical pudding. OK.
First, work out what time you’ll be sitting down to eat. Say, 8pm. Your cold starter needs to be ready, therefore, by 8pm. Your hot main course, say, 8.30pm, your cheese for 9pm and your whimsical pudding for 9.30 (we’re serving the courses in the civilised, French order today – not the heathen English version).
Let’s say your starter is a gazpacho of roast peppers and tomatoes, since it’s easy and I know how to do that. Your main course is poached fish in sauce bonne femme (see Chapter 7) with steamed new potatoes and French beans (topping and tailing details in Chapter 1…). Cheese is cheese, just remember to take it out of the fridge at about 6pm.
And your pudding is, I dunno, creme brulée.
So, first tip: start yesterday. Or early this morning at the latest. Yesterday is best. Make your gazpacho – roast the tomatoes and peppers with a little olive oil, peel the skins off, de-seed the peppers and, if you want, the tomatoes, blend together in your needlessly expensive blender (I recommend the €9.99 stick blenders from Lidl personally). Done. Slice up a baguette or two, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with herbes de Provence, bake at 180C for about a quarter of an hour, voila. Croutons.
If you did this yesterday you can think about your main course and pudding today. Well, make your creme brulées first. Get them baked this morning and pop them in the fridge, then all you have to do is brulée them with that expensive blowtorch you treated yourself to from that smart cookery shop. Lidl does them too, €9.99.
So now it’s 11am and you have all day left to do your main course. If you’re up to it, buy your fish whole and fillet them yourself; if not, buy them whole and get your fishmonger to fillet them and give you the bones. Most fishmongers will be happy to give you a few other bones lying around too, so get enough to make your fish stock and get that made – see the recipe after Chapter 6.
This, with a couple of finely diced carrots and onion, will be your fish poaching stock. You’ll need just enough to cover your fillets sitting in a shallow baking tray, a litre or so. You can add water if you don’t have enough.
And, if you’ve bought new potatoes all you have to do is top and tail your french beans and you’re good to go this evening.
So, 6pm. Take the cheese out of the fridge and put it where the cat can’t get at it. You could, if you’re a masochist, make your croutons at this point so the house smells like you’ve been working hard cooking all day, instead of lying in your garden hammock drinking rosé and reading the latest bonkbuster.
Set the table if your lazy, idle partner’s too lazy and idle to do it properly.
Have a glass of rosé.
Do your kitchen mise en place. This means, get everything out of the fridge you’re going to need to be warm, make sure you have all the utensils and pans prepared and the oven turned on.
7.30pm. Put your fish stock in a saucepan with your GA (garniture aromatique – carrots and onions) handy already in the poaching pan with the fish. Cover to keep the cat out of it. Boil the kettle and put your potatoes and beans in the steamer, ready.
In between welcoming your guests, turn on the oven so it’s nice and warm. When you pop into the kitchen to collect the gazpacho from the fridge, set the stock to boil, then cover the fish with it and pop it into the oven when you’re clearing the starter bowls. Put the boiling water in the steamer to cook the vegetables.
Depending on the thickness of your fillets they’ll take between 5 and 10 minutes to cook. Check after 3-7 – it’s easy to put them back in, not easy to un-cook them. You want them slightly underdone.
Take them out of the stock, put them in a warm place (NOT back in the oven!) and put the cooking juice into the original saucepan to boil it like mad – see the sauce bonne femme recipe after Chapter 7 for the details on making the sauce. You can flavour this sauce with, say, some chopped chives, dill or chervil – add the herbs at the very last moment just before napping the fish.
Whilst everything’s boiling and steaming you can spend another five minutes with your guests, just so they don’t get to finish off your rosé all to themselves.
Back in the kitchen spread the WARMED plates out (put them in the oven when you take the fish out), pop a fillet on each plate, nap on the sauce, add the strained vegetables attractively (towering displays are out this year, very 2007, as is smearing and foaming), serve.
Then the cheese.
Then brulée the puddings.
Planning and preparing in advance – write your timings down is a good piece of advice, I had to do it for my professional exam – is the way to go. Make sure you have everything to hand BEFORE starting any recipe or plating, too.
What could go wrong?


Edited by Smithy Placed original topic title into post, in preparation for topic merge (log)
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Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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Without a doubt, you've put your finger on my biggest problem: planning and coordination!  My friends are probably resigned to it by now.  On the rare occasions that I make the intended schedule, I am amazed. If my friends are too, they're too polite to say so.  ;)

 

I have the perception of French diners being more leisurely than American diners.  If that's correct, it is so in both home settings and restaurant settings? 


Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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The average French diner is usually pretty relaxed at home and in a restaurant. In restaurants it's very common for the Maitre d'hotel to warn the kitchen that 'Table six has only one hour to eat' to make sure we put a rush on their order. A lunch usually lasts 1.5-2 hours in a regular restaurant, 3 in a more gastronomic one. At home, my French family will say lunch starts at 12, arrive at 1 and spend an hour on the apero (aperitif drinks and snacks) and then finally stagger off home at 5 or 6. 

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Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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Post 3: I stuck at it, despite the mistakes

 

I kept going back to La Grange de Labahou every Thursday for several months, gradually getting better - or, rather, less worse - at the simple tasks Franck gave me. But I still made plenty of mistakes. This is a collection of some of the more memorable ones.

 

Only young people have the luxury of knowing everything, simply because they know so little. As you get older the day finally comes when you realise that not only will you never know everything, the amount of stuff you will never know is increasing exponentially.

Worse, there are things you didn’t know you didn’t know but thought you knew all along because they’re so obvious. Like, for example, how to wash a lettuce. Until I started working in a professional kitchen I’d never really given much thought to washing lettuces - rinse it under the tap, perhaps, pull off leaves, cut them up a bit without any method to the process.

And then one evening when I arrived at La Grange, Franck asked me to wash half a dozen lettuces ready for the evening service. Greg, the sous-chef, seeing me eyeing them suspiciously, offered me some advice: Fill the sink with water, rip the leaves up, rinse them well and bring them over to my workstation he said.

So I did.

Except when he said ‘rip them up’ he didn’t mean ‘into the small pieces I put onto plates for the starters’, he just meant ‘remove the whole leaves from the stalk, don’t bother using a knife’. So I shredded half a dozen lettuces and was in the process of stirring them in a sink brimming with cold water when Franck just happened to pass by.

‘Why have you ripped up all the lettuces?’

Erm, well, Greg said….

It turns out that ripping them up like that bruises and discolours them and now they’re no longer fit to be served. Ah.

Now, on one level this doesn't matter - half a dozen lettuces, total value about three euros, not many dead. Take it out of my wages. On the other hand it's 19h 30, the shops are shut and this is all the lettuce we have. Ah.

See? Even washing lettuce isn't easy.

There are plenty of other errors to be made: Washing up, for example - that’s not how you wash up. You scrape off the big bits and then put it in the machine. Sweeping the floor - you can’t use a broom because it raises dust and that’s now illegal in kitchens, you have to use a hoover and/or a wet mop which, in turn, is now illegal. You have to hose down, scrub with a stiff broom and squeegee; Beating eggs - where should I start? I can’t even crack open an egg properly, it turns out. For starters, you don’t crack them on the edge of a bowl because that can and will force small fragments of shell into the interior. And when you’re whisking yolks and sugar together your whisk should make a figure-of-eight pattern in the bowl, not round and round. And when you’re beating egg whites by hand the whisk shouldn’t go round and round the edge of the bowl in circles. Or in a figure of eight. It should lift up from the bottom, not vertically but sort of horizontally. Look, let me show you… When the waitress says No Chantilly she means No Chantilly on the profiteroles and not No Chantilly on the crème caramels as you thought, so now have to try to save an order of profiteroles with the unwelcome addition of whipped cream.

And then I opened another new door onto a whole arena of errors I’d never even known existed before when I bought a book on the waitering side of this business, because I thought I knew a lot about the kitchen and wanted to learn a few of the basics out on the other side of the swinging doors.

The book covered the CAP and BEP exams, roughly GCSE/High School level, with a suitably spotty youth in an ill-fitting DJ on the cover holding a covered tray, wearing slicked-back hair and a shirt two sizes too large. That sort of thing.

The very first question in this book is, "In the ninth century the culinary arts changed in five principal areas, describe them." What? There's more. "Name the eight cheese families and give an example of each." Yes, I know - cheese has families? My favourite question is the one that gets you to replace negative expressions with something more positive - so, 'Je ne sais pas' becomes 'Je vais me renseigner' - 'I don't know' becomes 'I'll find out' - and 'Impossible' becomes 'C'est difficilement réalisable' - 'That will be difficult to do'. The best, though, is that 'Non' becomes 'Oui mais...' - 'No' becomes 'Yes but....'

What it also tells me is that, in fact, I know sod all about cooking and kitchens. Sure, I know, now, where the ladles are kept in this particular kitchen and, yes, I can robot my way through producing a couple of dozen tiramisus. And to start with I was quite proud of my Tiramisu-producing abilities: In fact, I now make two dozen tiramisus every Thursday morning in an hour, down from an hour and a half back in May. I now also only use a dozen eggs, instead of the two dozen it used to take me - you have to separate the egg yolks and whites, something I didn't always manage successfully. If you have any yolk in the whites they won't rise properly. But then the only time my whites didn't rise properly was when Greg transferred them out of the mixer bowl into an ice cream glass while he used the mixer. I suspect the glass wasn't clean but luckily Chef had some spare egg whites about his person so I didn't have to crack another dozen. It's a sign of a good chef, don't you think, to always have a dozen spare egg whites about your person?

But this is not really cooking, as I’m starting to realise. What about Menu planning? Meat preparation? Portioning? No idea. How do you calculate prices? Filet a whole Cod? Negotiate with the baker to get them to give you, for free, all their day-old speciality loaves to serve toasted with the foie gras? Should I do my own accounts or hire an accountant? ‘Give up’ is the only realistic answer I could come up with.

So, I decided, I should do a proper apprenticeship and called whatever the acronym is for the French organisation which looks after apprenticeships. "You're too old," they said. "You need to be under 26". Ah, I said. So who looks after continuing adult education? This is, I think, the first time I've ever heard a shrug down a telephone line. Not their problem.

Bah.

 

 

To be continued....

 


Edited by Smithy Placed original topic title into post, in preparation for topic merge (log)
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Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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Thanks for the compliments, I'll post some more as soon as I can.

 

Yup, gastros come in several - many, even - sized. I believe they may be called 'hotel pans' in the USA? 

Ah. And I got the size wrong according to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gastronorm_sizes

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Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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Love it. Keep 'em coming.


Don't ask. Eat it.

www.kayatthekeyboard.wordpress.com

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Chris, can I make a suggestion.

Either number these memoirs or put them into one thread. It is getting difficult to follow in any coherent order without checking posting dates.

 

Otherwise they are fascinating and amusing. I am surprised at some of the things you say you "didn't know" - I suspect over modesty - but you have pointed out some I wouldn't have got. "Rip the leaves up" means tear them into little pieces to me, too. "Rip the leaves off" would be what he wanted. But you weren't working in English, I take it. Did something get lost in translation?

 

Looking forward to continuations

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16 hours ago, Chris Ward said:

The average French diner is usually pretty relaxed at home and in a restaurant. In restaurants it's very common for the Maitre d'hotel to warn the kitchen that 'Table six has only one hour to eat' to make sure we put a rush on their order. A lunch usually lasts 1.5-2 hours in a regular restaurant, 3 in a more gastronomic one. At home, my French family will say lunch starts at 12, arrive at 1 and spend an hour on the apero (aperitif drinks and snacks) and then finally stagger off home at 5 or 6. 

 

But how relaxed is the kitchen? A relaxed atmosphere, in my experience, tends to be hard work!

 

 

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The kitchen is manic or relaxed depending on the number of covers. Usually service (the period during which orders will be taken) is from 1200 - 1330, only 90 minutes, so cramming every order into that slot can be interesting sometimes. It's the waiters who get the worst of it, since the kitchen staff usually clear off at around 1400 (although the patissier may stay longer to do puddings) and the waiters have to hang around until the last clients clear off, often at 1500 or later. 

It's the classic swan swimming I suppose - serene on the surface, paddling like mad below the surface. I usually worked the starters station, so got hit first and quickest by the orders since people don't want to wait for their first course for too long, but I always enjoyed that. It was very good training for always having your mise en place spot-on ready, falter and need to do some prep in the middle of service and you're sunk.

This picture shows you the extent I'd go to sometimes for a large group or table, setting up dozens of plates with decoration (this is just the start) ready for, say, a terrine and some salad at the last minute.

mise.jpg

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Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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He probably said 'Dechire les feuilles' which means literally 'rip the leaves' but meant 'rip them off the stalk don't cut them' rather than 'rip them into little bits'. I will try the numbering thing, good idea.


Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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43 minutes ago, Chris Ward said:

He probably said 'Dechire les feuilles' which means literally 'rip the leaves' but meant 'rip them off the stalk don't cut them' rather than 'rip them into little bits'. I will try the numbering thing, good idea.

 

Yes, I thought so. I am half-French (my mother's side) and French was my first language.

Yes, the numbers help. Thanks

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Post 4: Moving on

 

WARNING: Contains some strong language towards the end!

 

I worked with Franck and Isabelle at La Grange de Labahou every Thursday - sometimes other days, too - for six months before I had the confidence to believe their urgings to go out there and get a proper, paying job.
During those months I'd come in every Thursday morning at 9 am and they would already be hard at work - they live in the flat above the restaurant with their two young daughters so don't have much of a commute. I'd finish at about 2.30, have lunch with them, drive home, sleep for an hour and then come back at 6 to find Franck and Isabelle already working hard. We'd work until about 1030 or 11 and I'd go home to crash, usually until midday the next day.
And I'd marvel that they did that day after day after day. They closed Tuesday evenings and all day Wednesdays and took a couple of weeks holiday every November, but had already been working to the same rhythm for 18 years when I first met them. This was back in 2005 and they're still doing it now in 2016 and show no signs of stopping before they retire in another 20 years or so.
Yet somehow the fact that I needed almost a whole day to get over working one day a week with them didn't put me off looking for a proper job as a cook, and it didn't take me long to find one.There are, I now know, a lot more jobs in French restaurants than people who want to do them.
I had sent off two CVs with accompanying lettres de motivation. Letters of motivation - cover letters - are more important than CVs in France; a CV lists bald facts - where you worked, when, how clever you are as measured by how many exams you've passed. The lettre de motivation explains - quelle coincidence! -  how this job, yes this very job is perfect for you and, what's more, how - quelle coincidence incroyable! - you happen to be the perfect, yes the very perfect candidate for which this employer has been so tirelessly searching! Amazing!
The Michelin gaff I applied to never replied, but I got an interview with a Traiteur-restaurant (caterer) in Nimes as a plongeur, a kitchen porter. When I recounted all this to Frank and Isabel at Labahou, though, they expressed surprise that I should consider myself a humble plongeur - why, I'm at least a commis chef in terms of experience and what I've accomplished with them, they say very flatteringly. I don’t feel that confident though, fearing that a chef would want a commis to be able to make him a roux sauce, perhaps, or fillet a salmon or something I’ve never done before. Pfft, says Franck, most commis I’ve met have no idea how to do those either.
Hmm. I go to see the traiteur anyway and, in retrospect, I can see that he was much too keen to take me on. I should have paid more attention to his story about how the person whom I was replacing - also, apparently, English - had to rush back home because of his sick mother, or his divorce, or something equally complicated and unclear. But at the time I was flattered by his attention, flattered at his interest and very interested in his promise to put me through catering college the following year whilst still working for him. Also, he knew a bit about rugby.
It went wrong, of course, almost from the first day. He was both an outrageous liar - there was never any chance of him putting me through catering college - and he had an absolutely frightening temper, the sort of temper that would make Gordon Ramsey quake in his steel-toed shoes.
In short, I got bollocked for absolutely everything I did. Everything. For example, one day as we were standing behind the counter of the canteen I ran for him in a large food processing company, he asked me to pass him a packet of paper serviettes from under the counter. I bent down and picked up one blue and one red packet, asking which he wanted? He chose the red and I put the blue packet back where I'd found it.
« Why are you putting those serviettes back there? » he screamed at me.
« Because that’s where I found them, » was apparently not a valid response. In fact, the simple act of putting serviettes back where I’d found them turned out to be a crime whose heinousness was right up there with putting cod in bouillabaisse or eating well-done steaks.
He also had his foibles, but they were the good part of the job. We were told to leave lights on and taps running because his deal with his landlord meant he didn’t pay electricity or water bills, but transport absolutely everything larger than a cheese sandwich on a trolley in case you drop it; peel kiwi fruit with a spoon; don’t use tea towels for anything other than taking hot stuff out of the oven and instead carry a damp cloth everywhere with you to wipe up and use paper towels to dry afterwards.
To start with I thought my duck’s back/water mentality would see me through, having been bollocked and shouted at by everyone from tabloid newspaper editors to Lord Lieutenants Of Montgomeryshire in the past.
But he wore me down. Him and his sous-chef who just didn’t like me for reasons never really explained, although I suspect he was jealous of my car (I still had my BMW from my high-paying days as a journalist on expenses) and annoyed by my lack of the talents they wanted me to have. Whatever the reasons he spent his whole day criticising, bollocking and carping at me, teaching me that, in fact, I can only take so much of being treated like an asshole all day, every day before I have to give up. Things like watching me do something and then, 30 seconds before I finish it, appear to tut that I haven’t already finished.
I started at 8 every morning - getting up at six - by finding seven or eight salads composés (either bought-in ones or something I made myself from whatever I could find) for the 'self' (self-service canteen) next door to the kitchen where we did about 30-40 covers a day. This wasn't as easy as it sounds as quite often there weren't any lying around and the S-C, who was in charge of these things, jealously guarded them for, well, for himself I guess.
I learned plenty of weird and useful stuff, too. Like how to peel a melon, for example. Peel a melon? Oh yes, peel a melon. Lay it down longways, cut off the two ends; stand it up on one end and, as always, using the HUGEST knife you can find (chefs here always work with the HUGEST knives they can find, as opposed to Labahou where they worked with the smallest) cut down the side, following the contour. Repeat with all eight melons you're currently peeling, then portion.
I learned how to make three gallons of mayonnaise at once, hard-boil 96 eggs at a time (hint: use a steam oven) and learned how to wash lettuce all over again. And how to stack lettuce leaves vertically in polystyrene boxes. I am not making this up.
And then there was the Vacuum Packing Machine, the second bane of my life; it was almost impossible to seal anything up and get it right and not wrinkle the bag - it once took me an hour to do four bags of veal in Sauce Forestiere, much to the S-C's amusement. The problem is that you mustn't have any oil or grease along the seam so I had to spend ages and ages wiping and wiping it with bits of paper towel. Which, of course, is a waste of my time according to Chef. And a waste of his good paper.
I ultimately discovered that both the Chef and Sous-chef had been away on a THREE DAY training course learning how to use the sous-vide machine, three days which translated into a two-minute lesson for me from the S-C. And a one-minute lesson contradicting all the major points by the Chef.
It was experience, and I was learning, learning a lot, not least about working with assholes. I learned how to work quickly and cleanly; how to spend nine hours a day on my feet; new techniques; new recipes.
And I was proud of myself for sticking with it - I even turned down an interview with another restaurant just over a month into the job, telling myself that the learning curve was flattening out. Pfft. It was Stockholm Syndrome. I realised one day towards the end of my second month when, over a traditionally short lunch break (we got about 10-15 minutes a day) I had an interesting conversation with Chef about Swiss rubbish collection methods (they weigh your rubbish there). I was pathetically, tragically pleased to have had a real conversation with him and to have made him laugh. I felt like a puppy-dog performing tricks, eager to please and coming back for second, third and fourth beatings afterwards.
The truly remarkable thing was that I still wanted to go on being a cook after everything he did to me, unlike poor Cedric the work experience ‘stagiaire’ who came down to Nimes all the way from Paris for a month learning how to cook. He left in tears after four days, bollocked beyond belief by Chef and the Sous-chef for, well, for existing mostly.
But I was not learning how to become the sort of cook I wanted to be with this traiteur so I started applying for jobs again. My first interview in Avignon, where I was now living for various ludicrous romantic reasons was, it turned out, for a job as a restaurant manager - sort out the ordering, make sure the chefs in the three (rather posh) restaurants the bloke owns have what they need, keep an eye on the table napkin levels, that sort of thing. Shame really, these are three very nice restaurants but this job was way outside my competency and experience, and it's not what I want to do at all, although the owner thought my previous life as a journalist suited me eminently to the task. What? OK, right. More jobs than staff in this profession, remember that.
The next interview went better, in one of the city’s posh gastronomic hotel/restaurants, La Table des Agassins a few minutes outside the city walls. Chef kept me waiting half an hour, giving me plenty of time to study the menu on the wall in reception - pigeon, Provençal and pyramid are the words that stick in my memory later. He seemed nice but I wasn’t sure he liked me enough.
So on Friday I was enguelé (I do love that French word: engueler, to bollock someone, to mouth off about them. Comes from the word 'guele' meaning mouth or throat - i.e. to give someone a right mouthful. Lovely) for taking more than five minutes to drive 25 kilometres; for putting too much vinaigrette on my tomatoes at lunch (the tomatoes I was eating myself, note, not the tomatoes I was serving to someone else); for cutting potatoes into exactly the same size and shape chunks demonstrated by the sous-chef; and for leaving at the end of the day before the chef himself.
I was tempted, when he demanded to know where I was off in such a hurry, to tell him the truth, but didn’t. In fact I was off for a trial evening as plongeur/aide de cuisine at the Table des Agassins in Le Pontet, just outside Avignon. Two minutes up the road from where my then girlfriend lived, in fact, and therefore dead handy in many respects. The cars parked in front of the hotel ranged from top-of-the-range S-Class Mercedes (the big ones that Voom! by you on French motorways) to Ferraris and Porsches. Yes, that sort of hotel and restaurant: gibier du saison, heavily-worked fresh foie gras, dôme de chocolat, pigeon something, a wine list which comes plastic-coated to make it easier to remove the dribble.
That sort of place. Gastro, as in Gastronomic and where chef Jean-Rémy Joly is regarded by his peers in the Disciples d’Escoffier group (entry by invitation only and no, I’ve never been invited) as one of the best in the region.
Anyway; park your rotten BMW round the back where no one can see it, says the chap in the chef's outfit who turns out to be David, the seconde de cuisine and a very decent chap, even if his chef's whites are black with white piping. Change over there and follow me into the kitchen.
Chef shows me round: this goes here, that goes there, and the other stuff goes (here we plunge through the bowels of the boiler room) here in the economat, the pantry. This is where the tins and jars are stored, and straight away I think I'm going to like him because he has laid in a large supply of Savora mustard. Yum, my kind of guy (I've loved Savora since I first ate it at the age of about 14 during my first stay with the Boisson family in Nice).
And on to the plonge, another good word. A plongeur is either a diver (as in scuba, deep sea, what have you) or a washer-up; the effects are much the same - you get soaking wet and go round the bend. Usual deal, he says, professionally speaking: two giant metal sinks already filled with pots, two giant plastic soak bowls already filled with plates, a couple of metal tables, an automatic dishwasher, a few scraps of cloth, the remnants of a green pan scourer and a few whisps of a metal scourer. Par for the course. This is the produit - washing up liquid-  this is the javel - bleach - make sure you give the silverware a good polish when you dry it and tasty morsels of meat left over go into this ice-cream container for the maitre-d's shitsus.
And oh, says Chef: very sorry about this but the management say I can't pay you for tonight as it's a trial - I understand if you want to go now. I stay. And oh, he says, the position isn't actually vacant - the young girl doing it at the moment won't make her mind up if she wants to stay, so I'll let you know. OK?
Hmm. OK.
So. Fill the sinks with the hottest water going and off we go, stopping only four hours later when it's all finished. I sweat buckets, really buckets, until the maitre-d' tells me it’s OK to open the window and that cools things by a good two degrees. The procedure is mechanical enough: soak everything as quickly as possible in boiling water, scrub with the metal scourer (except for the seconde's precious new non-stick pans), onto the racks, through the machine, out the other side for a good wipe and polish and then wander round the kitchen for 10 minutes wondering where the hell they go.
And then four hours later it’s all over, ‘On a fait un service,’ the seconde tells me and shows me where to find the disinfectant hosepipe (no ordinary water in the hosepipes of French kitchens you know), hose the floor down, raclette up the mess left by the previous plongeuse behind the cupboards and articles on the floor…and rest.
So, 11.30 and only me, Chef and the maitre-d' are left. Sorry I was so slow, I say. Not at all, he says, I expect the plonge to be finished between 2330 and midnight, you've finished at 2330 and, to boot, you've done a good job. In fact, he adds, you've done such a good job I've been going through the stacks of plates in the kitchen to add in the ones the current plongeuse hasn't cleaned properly so you could re-do them.
And, he adds, I'm going to pressure her to make her mind up and go so I can give you the job.
And oh, he adds, as he walks me back to my car, sorry again I wasn't able to pay you for tonight but you know management. Here, he says, take this - and he pulls 20 euros out of his own pocket and gives it to me.
I like this man. Not only is he kind and generous, he didn't come in once during the evening and shout at me for washing up the wrong way, or for putting too much vinaigrette on my tomatoes. I'd like to work for him - fingers crossed that woman ups-sticks and lets me have the job.
But I had to go back to the traiteur the next day, for more bollockings and a real kick in the face: we’d sprouted a second stagaire, a cookery student on work experience; such a post was promised me when I was first hired - now I'm told I can do it when they've finished - in two year's time. Ha. I don’t expect to be here in two years, I want to say. But don't. The second stagaire appears to be called Cyril - at least, he responded to that name when the S-C used it. Unfortunately for him he has my physique, not that of young Sabrina, so he isn't going to get away with everything like she does. "Doesn't she have lovely eyes," the S-C says of Sabrina, the female commis who hates her job so much she's almost always off sick.
Anyway. I'm still hoping the Chef from Avignon will call me and give me the job; he seemed nice enough, and I don't imagine many chefs reach into their own pockets to pay their plongeurs.
But then I think I'm coming down with Stockholm Syndrome, and I don't think Vitamin C is going to help with this one. I started making jokes with the S-C and discussed the football - even pretending I could give a shit about it - and, at one point, made a pointed remark against young Cyril.
Which is more worrying. The culture of bullying made me actually shout at the S-C yesterday, when he engueuled me because the chef engueules him for things he hasn't done.
"Both you and he are always bollocking me for things I haven't done," I told him. "The chef bollocks you, you bollock me and none of it's down to me! That's how life is here!"
I seemed to actually give him pause for thought, because instead of just shouting at me he said, "Really? Do you think so?" And since then he was actually quite nice to me, asking me to do things rather than shouting and asking my why I haven't already done them.
So I found myself feeling ultimately quite depressed when I realised this, and that I've started to fall victim to whatever the kitchen equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome is - Plonge Syndrome or something, perhaps.
But I did refuse to pass on a bollocking to young Cyril who had, in fact, caused me a lot of grief. He'd done the mise en place for the self-service cafeteria which I look after at lunchtime; or rather, he put together the trays of salads, puddings, cheeses and so on and I did the mise. However, he'd done no new puddings, no new cheeses and some pretty ropey salads.
So as I was sorting all this out, trying to bring out the hot dishes and do my other work too Chef found me in the middle of it with plates and trays and salads all over the counter - and punters already arriving. Now, if I'd been him I'd have plunged in, scraped together some desserts, smiled at the punters and gone and pulled the hot plates out of the oven.
Instead, he pulled me aside and bollocked me for the state of the counter. Who, he asked, is responsible for this? I told him I didn't know but thought that Cyril had done the trays that morning. So off he marched and I heard him bollocking the young lad, including the memorable scream, "You must reply to me when I'm talking to you!" Memorable because replies are the one thing he doesn't want to hear and, if you do start saying something, he'll hop from foot to foot with his hand in the air as if he were a schoolboy trying to attract teacher's attention.
So then Chef bollocked the S-C for not looking over the trays that morning and then the S-C came to bollock me for not putting them right sooner. Which is when I told him that bollockings for no good reason were a way of life here and I was surprised he wasn't used to it.
"Right," he finished, "so now you can go and engueule Cyril for dropping you in the shit."
I refused and said it wasn't my place to do that, that Cyril had only been in the job for three days and I remember very clearly, from just five weeks ago, how bloody hard it is to remember everything you're expected to do.
Then over lunch I said to Cyril, "I understand Chef may have mentioned to you how to improve the mise en place for the self?" He had, Cyril replied. "Cool," I said, and left it at that. I felt quite brave.
And then I let myself down by moaning to the S-C that Cyril had only laid out 20 desserts for 35 punters. I felt ashamed the moment I'd said it, but it was too late. And then the S-C said that was absolutely fine! What a wanker, I'm sure they're all really called Kafka and/or the place is lined with hidden cameras and I'll be the star of an hilariously stupid "How idiots fall down in kitchens" TV reality show any day now.
I was struggling by the end. The sheer relentlessness of the engueulements was like a tidal wave; they came so thick and fast, I couldn't believe they were happening myself - and I was the one standing there, trying to breathe through my mouth so I don't smell the garlic on Chef's breath as he explains, once again, how I'm stupid.
So Friday I walked into the traiteur shop we had in the centre of town after arriving in the delivery van from the kitchen (which was a couple of kilometres away on an industrial estate) carrying two trays of little dishes of mussels, prawns and something else in a yellow sauce, one on top of the other. Mme Chef took the top one off me as soon as I walked through the door, saying "I'll put this in the window straight away". On top of the second tray was the fiche explaining what was in it and what it was called, which Mme Chef had seen as she took the tray off me. It was there because it was windy and if I’d left it on the top tray it would have blown away.
Then a customer walked in as she was putting the dishes out and said, "Ooh that looks nice, what is it?"
Then Chef appeared in front of me and pulled me to the back of the shop. "Why haven't you told Mme Chef what's in the dishes? Now we're in the embarrassing position of not being able to tell a customer about a dish and it's YOUR FAULT!"
He didn't want to hear me saying that Mme Chef had already seen the the fiche and that it was there, RIGHT FUCKING THERE IN FRONT OF HIS FUCKING NOSE. Jeezus. If he'd taken the time he spent bollocking me and instead had glanced at the fiche - it had about six words on it - he could have taken two paces forwards and told the customer what was in the dishes.
But no. Engueulements are more important. "It's a question of communication, Monsieur Chris, you are the link between the kitchen and the shop, you are the one we rely on, it's up to you to transmit the information between us to ensure the smooth running of this place, to ensure that our customers who are the ones who put the food on our plates, who pay us - even if it's not very much (later in the day I delivered a pizza, a pain surprise - a country loaf stuffed with olives and grated carrots - and two boxes of sausage rolls to a customer, along with the bill for €107) - so we rely on you to keep them informed."
IT'S RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF YOUR FUCKING FACE YOU STUPID IDIOT. If you leaned forward your nose would touch the piece of paper. If I had a third hand I'd pass it on to you right now. If you hadn't dragged me to the back of the shop I could have told the customer myself.
Still.
Then he arrived at the kitchen at lunchtime in a really, really foul mood and screamed at everyone about how they weren't obeying "The rules". And I mean really screamed, worse than anything he's done before. Perhaps he just isn't getting laid enough or something. I hope so. Either that or someone's replaced his lithium tablets with acid.
Hydrochloric, I hope.
Then chef from the posh restaurant at Le Pontet where I did the trial I liked so much a few days before left a devastating message on my batphone; his young plongeuse had decided to stay on so he couldn't offer me the job but would be in touch if he needed someone in November. I rang him up that evening and asked if that meant his plongeuse wouldn't stay in November. He said no, she wouldn't as it would be part-time, busy for a few days with groups and then nothing for a few days. I told him I'd be available then and would call him in a couple of weeks.
Shit.
The next few weeks were very, very hard; some days I got strange compliments, but mostly it was sheer, unrelenting bollockings. Very, very dark days indeed.
I dropped my CV into the best restaurants in town in the hope that one of them may be looking for someone, but nothing moving.
I rang Le Pontet again two weeks after the trial and asked him if he was going to need someone in November. He didn’t - but he will need someone for December! And that someone is going to be me! Hurrah, I'm outta here! OK. December.
Shit.
I’d planned to work for the final month after giving in my notice in a polite and formal manner. I drove to work with my letter of resignation beside me early in November after speaking with Le Pontet, planning a little speech. And then I ended up quitting in screaming anger instead.
In fact, it all ended at ten to nine in the morning with a huge screaming match in the middle of his shop in front of the other staff and a couple of customers. With me hurling the keys to his delivery van to the ground and screaming that I'd had enough of his putain de job and his putain de bollockings, I'm off. I did all my swearing in French, too.

I'd planned to explain that I didn't like driving the delivery van half the day, that I want to do more gastronomic cooking, and that whilst I know I don't have to give any notice according to my contract, I'm doing the honourable thing here by giving Chef a month’s advance warning that I'm off.

It all started falling apart when I got into the kitchen and started loading the van; there were interminable extra bits to cram in and there was barely room for all that I needed, especially as the S-C kept coming up with more boxes to 'Pack carefully, mind you' and Chef called from the shop asking for a couple of boxes of the prawns I'd carried back from there the day before but which he now decides he needs after all.

But that was OK; what really started to piss me off was that the S-C kept calling me 'François' - even when I'd told him that my name is still Chris as it has been all my life. François is the other chef who started working at the same time as me and who quit on Thursday, the second person to go since I started on September 13, two months ago; the first one was one of the stagaires, the work experience students who only lasted a week. François crashed and burned after a huge row with Chef during which he, apparently, threatened the boss with a knife. Sounds cool.
Anyway. Into the van and up to the first delivery, the shop. I had the usual two deliveries in Nimes, the delivery in Vauvert and then back to the kitchen to pick up three further, big deliveries for the centre of Nimes. All the deliveries must be finished by noon when everyone wants to eat, of course, so time is tight and there's no room for mucking about.
It's not going too badly until Chef spots that one of the boxes I'm carrying is dripping across the shop floor; the S-C has packed those heavy prawns on top of a delicate carton of jus d'agneau. So, everything has to stop while Chef lectured me on how this had happened before, how it was my duty to inspect every single box I put into the van to ensure that this didn't happen, how the business is now ruined and we were all going to be put out onto the street because of my stupidity. I did try asking him if he could do the bollocking later on, sorry, I know this is a mistake but I'm in a real hurry now. But this was not a bollocking, it turned out, this was part of my training, my on-the-job education into how to be a better cook. When I protested that listening to this now, right now, was going to make all the deliveries late he shakes his head in exasperation and starts again at the beginning.
I’d promised myself the previous evening, after yet another day of Kafka-esque bollockings, that if he did it one more time I was just going to walk out on him. So I took a deep breath - and listened politely then went back to the van to collect the rest of the delivery. After all, the shop was full of customers and I didn’t want to upset them. Where did I get the strength to stay? I've no idea; the courage of the stupid, I guess.
After I’d got half the delivery carried in he told me that the dozen large delicate porcelain plates of charcuterie scattered across the walk-in fridge had to go back to the kitchen before I did the rest of the deliveries. Good grief. So I started tucking them into delivery crates and carrying them out to the van.
Back in to the fridge Chef had placed two plates on a large oven grill and was putting them into a cardboard box. But, he warned me, be careful because they will slide around like this, and he demonstrates how they can move.
Ah, right, I said and looked around to see if there's anything I can use in the fridge to wedge them in.
What are you doing? he asked. Look at me when I'm talking to you.
Sorry, I said, I was just looking for something to wedge them in with.
There is nothing in here like that, he shouted, look at me when I'm talking to you! This is important, this is how you learn!
So I look at him while he said hmm, perhaps we could put some film around them to hold them on to the grill, so I picked up the box and started to back out of the fridge. Where are you going? he said.
I'm going to find some film, I say. But I haven't finished talking! he shouted. Look at me while I'm talking to you!
Chef, I say, I'm sorry but I'm in a real hurry today, I've still got to finish unloading the van, I've got to get these plates in, you want them wrapped in film now, and I've got all those deliveries for midday too, I really don't have time to listen right now, can we do this later on please?
By now we're both outside the fridge in the middle of the shop. All four members staff are standing round watching, as are two customers. It is ten to nine in the morning.
But Chef, I protested, you know how we're busy today, if we discuss all this now then I'm going to be late with those deliveries and you're going to be bollocking me later on today for that, too.
IF YOU'RE GOING TO GO ON LIKE THIS THEN WE CANNOT WORK TOGETHER! he screams at me.
FINE! I shouted back. I put the box of plates down on the ground and pulled the keys to the van out of my pocket and offered them to him.
Here you go, I say, I resign.
Oh no, he said, not like this, we're not going to go on like this! and he threw his hands up as if I was pointing a gun at him.
I am fucking sick and tired of all this shit! I shouted back at him, and threw the keys on the ground at his feet and stormed out of the shop. He and his wife both shout at me to come back while the customers look on in bewilderment. I am sick and tired of this fucking job! I shouted as I went through the doors.
And then I was out on the pavement and free! Hurrah!
And then I realised that, while this may have been a cool moment and an Oscar-winning way to quit a job, I've done it six kilometres away from the kitchen where my car is parked. Oh well, a brisk walk will be good exercise.
Two minutes later my batphone rings; it's Mrs Chef and she's asking me to come back, I misunderstood, Chef wasn't bollocking me he was just explaining to me how to do things, don't leave us in the lurch like this with all these deliveries, come back now.
Ha! YOU LOSE! I wanted to shout down the phone at her, YOU need me more than I need you! YOU LOSE!
But I didn't. I said that there was nothing to explain, that I was sick and tired of these stupid no-reason bollockings every day, I'm not coming back.
She started to protest, but I say no, that's it and I hung up on her while she was still talking.
I was so proud of me. And I noted that, as always, this was all my fault, I was the one who had misunderstood him, I was the one who’d made the error, it was up to me to come back and apologise and learn the error of my ways.
Fuck that.
I did wonder what I would have done if Chef himself had rung up and said Sorry, didn't mean to get carried away there, let's start over. But then he's not that sort of person, he never makes mistakes and nothing is his fault.
It took me an hour to get back to the kitchen where the S-C could care less. Yeah, he admits, Chef has a problem with anger management, with controlling his 'nervosité' - it's because his missus bollocks him all the time, the S-C reckoned. She bollocks him, he bollocks us.
I changed my clothes and left.
And it did feel good.


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Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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I like the swan simile! 

 

I've marveled at the organization and artistry of well-catered affairs I've attended.  Thanks for showing a bit of what it takes. All those plates, neatly decorated and awaiting the next step, are a good illustration.


Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Post 5: Going to school

 

After quitting the traiteur I worked part-time, on and off, at Les Agassins as a dishwasher. At first it was cash in hand and then I got a contract for 6 months to work the summer season. The pre-season work was very interesting since it was mostly just the chef and me working together to do everything. So I got to work not only the plonge but also starters and patisserie, with a lot of prep for everything thrown in. 

 

This is what I wrote about it at the time.

 

Starting work at Les Agassins was a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’. The restaurant closed for Christmas and New Year with a few groups booked in here and there until Valentine’s Day, when the hotel and restaurant opened - still part-time - for the new season.

It wasn’t until towards Easter that it was open seven days a week, and by then I was really into the swing of things. Steve and Caroline, two professional cooks whom I’d met via the old Dr Keyboard computer help column I wrote in The Times, had given me some great advice on how to run my plonge - essentially, make sure you run it, not the waiters who will do the least they possibly can in order to get back out as quickly as possible. Act like a Chef de Partie de la Plonge, they said. So I did, insisting they, and not I, scrape their plates free from food (and bollocked them like a certain traiteur from Nimes when they didn’t), organised things to suit myself not anyone else, and made sure everything was thoroughly clean when it left; there’s nothing worse than having Chef come back into the plonge with a plate still encrusted with last night’s specials.

I’d more or less given up on the idea of going to any sort of catering college, the two I’d looked at seriously were demanding (a) all my money and (b) all my time giving me (c) no time to earn more of (a). Then Chef pointed me at the local school, l'Ecole Hôtelière d'Avignon (EHA) to give it its full name, where he did some work as an examiner. It had a decent reputation, I could go one day a week under their ‘Formation continue’ program and, best of all, it wasn’t ludicrously expensive.

Well, expensive enough that I ended up selling my beloved BMW to pay for the year, but meh. I had a pushbike and lived in the middle of a city where you can walk to anything interesting from my town centre apartment within a quarter of an hour, so a car was a needless expense anyway. Also, I had no money, earning minimum wage as a washer-up anyway.

So I signed up. Starting in September 2005, I spent every Monday from 8am to 6pm at the school, which turned out to be a 30 minute bike ride south of town. I could have Mondays off, Chef said, and Sundays too so that’d fit in well with my work week. Well, unless he needed me to come in to work, obviously. But that’ll only happen not very often. Promise.

Sorted.

The school sent the list of equipment I’d need to learn stuff there, some of it incomprehensible. A canneleur? Douille? Spatule en exoglass? And no one but no one, Chef at work, my future teacher Chef and the bloke at the knife shop included, knew what a ‘Cuillère à racine’ was.

We were to wear proper kitchen whites, safety shoes and ‘calot’ or hat (the sort they wear in McDonald’s) at school and the list of knives was sensible: Eminceur (25cm chef’s knife), Filet de sole (for filleting fish), désosseur (de-boner), Office (vegetable knife), Econome (vegetable peeler), Canneleur (for carving grooves in carrots - seriously), Fusil (steel for putting edges back onto knives). We’d need a Verre mesureur for measuring liquids and I added my electronic kitchen scales, scissors, the famous set of four ‘douilles’ which turned out to be icing nozzles, a paintbrush, scraper, the ‘spatule en exoglas’ which translated as a plastic stirring spoon, a fouet à sauce (sauce whisk), a fourchette (the sort of fork you use to hold down the Sunday roast while carving it), an Aiguille à  brider (chicken-trussing needle, now replaced by elastic bands), a regular spoon and fork and the famous Cuillère à  racine which, the consensus had it, was a melon baller.

I already had the clothes and Chef kindly gave me a vegetable knife, the needle and some other stuff. I bought a new Eminceur and désosseur from the knife shop in the centre of Avignon (Spanish Arcos knives for the knife geeks amongst you) and a filet de sole (Sabattier, rubbish) from Metro and I was good to go. Day One, bring it on!


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Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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Post 6: First day at school

After weeks of preparation, months of planning and a couple of years of thinking about it, my first day at cookery school finally came and, just like in the restaurant, went in a fast-moving blur of put your stuff here, cut that, boil the other and find yourself a saucepan.

The biggest disappointment of the first day was that we weren’t allowed to eat what we cook - it goes to the school staff canteen or college brasserie the next day. And not much technique was taught either – “slice those apples,” Chef said, as we made a tarte fine aux pommes this afternoon; I knew how to slice them nice and fine, but the chap sharing my workstation was basically just quartering them to fan out on top of his apple tart. “It’s quicker that way,” he said. Erm… peel, core and halve your apple, turn it flat side down, convert to slices using your biggest (or smallest, depending on what you have to prove…) knife.

So Day One, Lesson One is exactly what you’d hope from a French catering college - we started the morning making fond de veau, veal stock, a real mainstay of traditional French cuisine. Take five or ten kilos of washed veal bones (some even boil them, but that’s exaggerating in a kitchen where you have far too many commis), cut into 4-5 centimetre lengths (butchers with bandsaws are handy here), add some roughly chopped carrots, onions and any other bits of vegetables you have lying around, some parsley stalks and a bouquet garni of herbs (thyme, rosemary, a bayleaf all wrapped up in a bit of green leek leaf and tied around with string), cover with water and set to simmer very gently on the back of the flat-top of the stove for 5 − 8 hours. Don’t let it boil fiercely, you’ll emulsify all the scum and fat together and end up with grey stock. Skim off the grey scum and fat that collects on the surface from time to time. When you’re fed up waiting for it to finish, or you just have to go home, let it cool down (it helps at this point if you have a blast chiller), filter it and use it at will. You can reduce it down which helps with finding room to store it all. It makes a great base for soups and sauces - its gelatinous qualities will add a superb unctuousness to everything and really improve what we’re now supposed to call ‘mouth feel’, I understand.

We had our first classroom lessons today, too; an hour on cookery theory with School Chef, and an hour of, today, ‘hygiene’, which is apparently more than just ‘wash your hands.’ Microbes, in fact, are really, really tiny organisms which can breed very, very quickly. I know we have to make allowances for the fact that this content is normally aimed at bored 16-year-olds, but still…Next week we have ‘Droit’, Law. Let’s hope it’s more interesting.

We make tartes fines de pommes this afternoon, complete with that non-lesson on how to slice apples in a manner which could be called ‘fine’. My pastry, as usual, is just ‘meh’; I’ve never been good with pastry, my hands are too hot, but I can do the compote de pommes and the apple slicing and peeling with panache (which, it turns out, is French for ‘shandy’). The compote and nicely sliced and arranged apples cover up the horror that is my pastry, and we’re done.

We clean down the kitchen together, hosing the floor with the special hosepipe like in the restaurant - it adds cleaning solution automatically, then we scrub and squeegee clean after washing down all the work surfaces. Another group of us wash up the pots and pans - I try not to do this one since it’s what I do all day at work normally.

Chef catches up with me as I leave the administration building. A lean, worn-down sort of guy (lots of good chefs have this pared-down appearance) with a shock of once-gingerish hair, he seems nice enough but he tells me off for turning up in my cycling clothes – trainers, jogging bottoms, anorak – and said I should be arriving in a suit and tie after cycling 5 kms from the centre of town. “But it’s only 50 metres from the gates at the entry of the school to the changing room and we stay in our kitchen clothes all day,” I say. “Of course I’m gonna put on a suit and tie for that distance!” I joke.

“Well, I do,” he says - and it turns out, he does! He tells me that he lives not far from me in the middle of town and cycles down on his boneshaker, loaded with kit and books, in a suit and tie. And there he is standing in front of me in a jacket and tie, heading for his bike.

“It’s the school rules - when on campus you should at all times be either in ‘tenue de cuisine’, cook’s whites, or ‘Smart apparel’. My cycling gear, he informs me with a superior air, is not ‘Smart’.

“Yes, Chef,” I lie because you never say ‘No, Chef’. I’m not really going to do that. The only suit I own now is of the monkey variety, i.e. A dinner jacket and I’m not planning to wear that on my bicycle even for a bet. No one says anything else to me for the whole year, but Chef cycles past me in a stately fashion every week in his tweed jacket and tie, me in my scruffy track suit and trainers.

Perhaps I lack the dedication needed to be a really good cook, let alone chef; if I were better at this I wouldn’t hesitate to slip into a little something from Saville Row and cycle five kilometres in it, before donning my immaculate whites. Then again, most of the chefs I see on the telly are scruffy, bearded monsters wearing watches, of all things, in the kitchen (watches catch on saucepan handles and bring your precious ingredients crashing to the floor).

Both my chefs in Avignon are old-school; neither of them has hardly ever had the time to watch the cooking Channel, let alone be aware of celebrity chefs. And it’s an attitude I’m not against.

I just don’t want to cycle to school in a suit.


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Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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Post 7: Overworked at school

 

I was on quite a high after last week’s class, to be honest, despite being told that my jogging bottoms are not smart enough to wear in public. This week brings me right down with a large bump.
It didn’t help that I’d spent a great weekend welcoming old friends to Avignon, showing off my new cooking skills to them; they were all very complementary and I was feeling pretty good about my work. It didn’t help either that I’d woken up this Monday morning with an absolutely terrible cold,
Everyone was either off sick (six out of 17 of us), or should be off sick (me, Eric and David to name just three) or in a really foul mood (absolutely everyone, Chef included and especially).
We spent the morning from 9 to midday doing what should have been about half an hour’s work which we didn’t finish until gone 1215 because Chef decided at the last minute to get us to do some goujons of the merlan fish we’d been preparing, and make a tartare sauce to go with it. By ‘last minute’ I mean five to twelve; we’d spent the morning just cleaning the merlan and making pastry.
This meant that there was a HUGE queue at the canteen for lunch. Luckily I’ve mastered the art of queuing French-style, so I dragged Eric, David and Laurence along behind me and just pushed in at the front; luckily, again, we’re all elderly persons so the teenagers in the queue don’t have the courage to say ‘boo’ to us. Either that or they thought we were teachers. And anyway, we needed to be at the front to give us time to go and get a coffee afterwards.
Most of the pupils at the cookery school are teenagers going through their normal high-school years, just with added cooking. They do classes in maths, history, physics, English and so on and also spend a few half-days a week learning how to cook. We’re supposed to be doing their entire full-time, two-year curriculum in one day per week over one year, and in fact we learn that we do more TPs - Travails Pratiques or practical work - per week than they do. Sometimes they go a fortnight without lighting a gas burner, the poor things.
Every week Chef gives us an hour of classes about cooking - well, sort of, it usually descends into a discussion about whether or not Puy lentils are really superior, is Métro (a big restaurant wholesale chain) or Auchan (a regular supermarket) cheaper, and the best way to cook a coypu - and then an hour with another teacher, either about ‘hygiene’, basic catering hygiene, or Droit, business administration. This week straight after lunch we had ‘droit’ which is frankly the most boring class I have ever taken, and I used to get Old Tom for Physics classes, so I know what I’m talking about here.
Today, we had to fill in a stationery order form. Yep, an order form for stationery. I am not making this up: here’s a Post-It note from your boss saying he wants pens, pencils and stuff, so fill in the stationery order form. (OK get in the zone, imagine you’re a stagiaire in an office, right? OK, are you in the zone?) Absolute nonsense..
After that Chef clearly had Something Else he needed to be doing somewhere other than in the kitchen with us, so he loaded us down with a good five or six hours worth of work to finish between 2pm and going home time at 6pm, recipes and techniques we already knew so we didn’t need to keep asking him how to do stuff.
So we did lemon meringue tart and fish mousselines and braised endives and turned potatoes (pommes chateau, in fact; all the same size with seven equal sides) and made fumet (fish stock) and reduced it down for a sauce and peeled lemons ‘à vif’ and cooked who knows what else and didn’t finish until half-past six. Then Chef told me my sauce was a ‘funny colour’ and gave me a minus mark for it without tasting it - or anything else - on my plate, so I just walked away and left him to throw it in the bin. The sauce, let me tell you, was absolutely delicious and the EXACT same colour as David’s, which was ‘perfect’.


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Chris Ward

http://eatsleepcookschool.wordpress.com

I wrote a book about learning to cook in the South of France: http://mybook.to/escs

 

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Do you suppose the 'droit' exercise was too simple for adults but would have been appropriate to the high school students? It does sound too ridiculously simple for words. 


Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Ugh, that was harrowing to read! :S  There are definitely some chefs with anger management problems and substance abuse issues and somehow they manage to get away with it entirely too much.  Glad you got out of there!

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