Wednesday, May 28, 2008
[Last night I cooked in the kitchens of our local gastropub]
Torturers in faraway dictatorships probably already know this, but I can definitively report that raw garlic rubbed into an open wound hurts even more than red chili peppers. This little experiment was a result of just one little accident in my first, and last, day as a professional chef.
I confess that for the last ten years I’ve been a cooking bore. Just because you’ve taken a course with Raymond Blanc, you think you’re an expert. So my girlfriend organised the perfect birthday present for me: a whole day working in a real professional kitchen. No ordinary kitchen either, but one of the best gastropubs in Northumberland, the Queen’s Head in Great Whittington. Steve Murray was chef at a Michelin-rated restaurant in Glasgow before relocating to the North East and he’s brought with him a career packed with experience at the highest level. I brought with me a brand new chef’s jacket, and a few handwritten recipes.
I don’t know how Joanna persuaded Steve to put his reputation on the line, but he even let me add some of my own dishes to his menu: like spiced belly pork, scallops with sweet chilli sauce, and my famous (well, famous to my friends, they’ve had it so many times) butternut squash risotto. Add to this mint pannacotta and Gary Rhodes’ bread and butter pudding and you’ve got most of my repertoire. Also on the menu were regular Queen’s Head favourites like fillet steak sourced from the rare Galloway cattle you can see from Steve’s kitchen door.
You’d have thought twelve hours was enough to get ready for one dinner. However the time flew by as we chopped, strained, baked, reduced, whisked – and from time to time stopped to find another blue catering plaster for my cuts. We baked bread, rolled out pasta, and every ingredient was sourced locally.
It wasn’t plain sailing. The suppliers sent vine leaves instead of lime leaves for my belly pork; they sent one packet of watercress for our soup when we needed a boxload; we had planned a wonderful foie gras terrine, except it “split” as it about to be poured into the moulds. As it lay in the bin, we sadly wiped it off the specials list. But, as 7pm approached and the first customers could be heard in the bar, we seemed to be under control.
As the first scallop starters went out, topped with my very own chilli sauce, I cheered. But then a party of 11 booked at 8pm decided to have an extra drink in the bar and collided with another party of 10 who’d come early for their 8.30pm; three tables of two appeared from nowhere and very soon there was a line of little tickets stretching round the kitchen. That’s when the professionalism kicked in. In the tiny galley kitchen, in front of twelve burners and two giant ovens, Steve and his team coped with the mountain of orders, and a novice in their ranks. And not one Ramsay-type expletive all night. Well, a couple maybe.
There are loads of professional shortcuts which the amateur cook knows nothing about, like part-cooking the rice for a risotto and keeping it chilled until an order comes in. Except that when hardly anybody orders the risotto (I just wanted to run into the dining room and get everyone to taste it), and everyone wants scallops, and one person wants his steak well done at the same time as his partner wants it rare, there’s nothing to fall back on but experience and skill. Of which I have neither. Steve, DT and Charlie had asbestos fingers and, despite my inadequacies, kept smiling throughout. They certainly needed a sense of humour.
I learned so much last night. Like how to cook a blue steak. I had always thought that “blue” meant uncooked, except for waft under a flame at the last minute. But actually, a blue steak takes longer to prepare than a well-done one, because the middle of the steak should be warm but uncooked. This means the steak has to sit at the bottom of the grill (or in a very warm place) for a good while as the others, medium-rare and so on, go into the pan. The man who ordered it said it was the best blue steak he'd ever eaten. I sent his congratulations to the grill. By the end of the evening I felt like a blue steak myself. I was warm inside and glowed all over.
It all seemed to go down very well (people were still drinking in the restaurant at 1am, and the takings were three times the Tuesday average). Plus Keith Hann sent me a copy of his review for tomorrow’s Newcastle Journal. I was too originally too modest to publish it here, but I thought, 'Hell, I’ve explained that it was all down to Steve, so I’ll bask in his reflected glory'. And my scallop sauce.