California. Home of giant iced coffees, endless beaches, beautiful people and that amazing light at sunset. Last month I returned from a truly fabulous trip and on this rather grey London day am having definite post-holiday-amazing-light-at-sunset blues.
My Californian adventure came about rather unexpectedly. It started when some friends who were off to Coachella found themselves with spare tickets… and ended as an epic 10 day adventure that included a music festival in the desert, a road trip up the coast of California in a white Mustang convertible and many, many food highlights. Continue reading →
It seems fitting that I end 2016 writing a post on the blog I started almost exactly a year ago when I went to Ballymaloe. And now, 11.5 months later I’ve just finished my first ever 4 day gig as a Private Chef, working over Christmas for an extended family in the Cotswolds. Continue reading →
So many fun, foodie related things have been happening over the last few weeks and months. Sometimes when I stop and think about it all, about everything that’s happened in the past 7 months I think “wow, Fi, amazing! You’re really doing this”
After my stages at Violet and Ottolenghi, I knew I didn’t want to stop cooking but it was time to face facts. I needed to start earning some money. My days of cooking for unpaid work experience were gone; it was time to get a job. Continue reading →
Apparently it’s been 22 days since my last blog post. 22! But when the stats are there in black and white, you can’t really argue. That’s such a long time! And actually, I’ve missed writing. The daily download, the recapping of highlights and lowlights, selecting which pictures to post… and yet somehow it’s been easier than I would have liked to drift off course. The busyness of getting back into London life, catching up on social engagements, trying to actually sort out my life, a flurry of 6am starts, yoga, BBCiplayer (it’s Masterchef time, what can I say) etc. Life does, quite frankly, seem to pick up to a pace here which is go, go, go.
So perhaps it’s best to crack on with a quick summary and a whistle stop catch up on what I’ve been up to. Here’s a summary in numbers of the last 22 days and 3.1 weeks since I last wrote:
Weeks spent in the kitchens at Ottolenghi – 2 (and they were an amazing, full-on 2 weeks… more details below)
Weeks spent arranging my life and trying to figure out just what the heck I am up to next – 1
Boxes of aubergines cut (on a slight angle and about 1.5 centimetres) – somewhere between 100 and 200
Blue plasters – 1 (another potato peeler, not even a good knife story to tell. But still only 1, not bad going touch wood, touch wood)
Burns – many (see opening the oven doors, manhandling large roasting dishes, chargrilling pear slices or tuna or fritters)
Time spent rolling meatballs – hours and hours. (I’m probably not exaggerating if I say days)
Days of 20+ weather in London – at least 5 (Too nice to be inside and writing blog posts)
Cooking CV’s written – 1
Cooking agencies joined – 2
Number of times people have said to me “So, why exactly are you leaving your great sounding job to come and work in a kitchen?” – numerous
Catch up coffees with friends / family / ex-colleagues – at least 1 a day in the name of productivity
Days spent hanging out with my lovely niece and nephew (and sister of course!) – many, very happily!
Hours spent in the supermarket experiencing major cognition overload and decision paralysis – FAR too many. (Shopping at the supermarket is officially the most stressful thing about moving back. Everything is over-packaged. Nothing says what it really is on the label. Things are in season but not really (I’m looking at you English asparagus that’s really from Ecuador). But, it’s all so damn convenient)
Additional shifts done at Violet – 2 (woohoo! I love being asked back to go there)
Loaves of sourdough cooked – 3 (I’m on a pretty good 1 loaf a week rhythm)
Occasions I’ve made my excuses so I could go home and tend to sourdough – Once or twice. So probably once or twice to many 😉
I keep thinking “oh ok that’s my list done” and then something else pops into my head. A lot has happened in 22 days as it turns out.
My 2 week stint at Ottolenghi began at 7am on Monday 18th April in the Spitalfields restaurant. This is the newest location and the restaurant is lovely, light and upstairs above the also lovely and light restaurant. In the heart of the City it serves breakfast, lunch and dinner service 7 days a week.
Just like the Islington restaurant I’ve enjoyed so many delicious meals in, this restaurant has you hungry before you’ve even sat down. In fact you can see the beautiful displays of salads and breads and cakes and pastries before you even walk in the door. It’s designed to be beautiful, to show off the beautiful food in all it’s glory.
I was on day shifts, so in for 8am (which I’m learning is a pretty sweet gig) and done by about 3-4pm most days. For the majority of my time in the kitchens I was in the savoury section, so assisting with veg prep (chopping, blanching, roasting, chargrilling, frying etc), making up the large salad platters, making sauces, prepping the tuna and sea bass, making fritters, rolling meatballs… I got to experience so much. I moved around the kitchen to different sections and also spent a day in pastry, helping the pastry chefs create their beautiful cakes, tarts and other sweet treats.
Most of the other chefs in the kitchen were all slightly perplexed as to the fact I liked both the savoury and pastry sections.. this feels like a bit of a no-go in a big kitchen where everyone else seemed to be so clear about they type of chef they were. But why does it have to be one or the other, why can’t it be both?
I guess one of the biggest takeaways was seeing up close and personal just how skilled these guys are as they stay focussed and keep producing amazing food, be it prepping or plating or anything in between. And especially so, as the breakfast or lunchtime rush hits. The checks keep coming in, and coming and coming, fish, fritters, meatballs… the salads need to be restocked, more fritters or meatballs need to be made, the fish is late coming in… there are just so many variables to keep on top of. It’s not enough to just be doing what you need to be doing at that moment, you’ve always got to be thinking a step (or 10) ahead. Working efficiently is key, without thinking these guys have systems and ways of working so they get things done in the most productive way.
For the first few days I felt I was constantly taking way more steps than I needed to. Going to the walk in to get one thing then having to go back for the other bits I’d forgotten. Pulling out one tray when I needed 5, getting bowls, pots or pans that were too small and creating more dishes. Ending up with too many things on my station. But, this is all part of it I guess. And it’s getting into the swing of it, finding the rhythms and developing your own methods and ways of working, that’s when you start to feel like you’re getting there. Making progress. Learning, understanding and doing. And doing. And doing. Along with all of this, there is also a lot of repetition in kitchen work. Consistency is key.
I also said “yes chef” a lot.
And everyone I worked with in the kitchens was just so lovely to me. The Head chefs Shalom and Carlos, the ever patient Elaine who is a machine on the veg prep, the Chef de Partie’s Jason, Daniel and Mickey who kept it real, taught me loads and fed me delicious things. Tess who trusted me enough to let me into the pastry section. Sami who told me on my first day that my aubergines weren’t cut thick enough (oh no!) and then didn’t say a whole lot else to me but smiled a lot and is clearly just a great food man all around. The front of house, the catering team. What an experience.
I learnt so much. If you’d asked me 5 months ago what I thought I’d be doing after Ballymaloe I would not have every imagined “work experience at Ottolenghi’s” – and now I’ve done it! I’m totally inspired by the chef / food / restaurant life, even if I’m not sure in quite what state I want to live it in my future. I might not quite know yet, but I know I don’t want to stop.
Clissold Park in 25 degree weather
Right, that’s it for tonight. A plan for the what’s coming next is appearing…. I’m even in gainful employment this week! And food related too. More to come but for now, bed. My 5.30am alarm awaits….
Finishing work smelling of vanilla beans and buttercream. Weary feet. Icing sugar on my shoes. What an amazing time I’ve had over the past 2 weeks doing work experience at the seriously delicious Violet Bakery in Hackney.
Normal services have now resumed. Well, sort of normal.
Normal in that I am now two weeks back into the swing of London life. Normal in that I am not waking up and attending morning wine tasting sessions and eating 3-courses-plus-a-cheese-plate for lunch. Normal in that I am back in a double bed.
Being back here in London feels very familiar. Familiar faces, familiar smells, familiar tastes of London water… After 10 (I know, can you believe it!) years of living here, I think I can say that London is my city, my home. And with Spring most definitely in the air, I am happy to admit it’s been a lovely homecoming. So many blossoming trees. So many lovely light evenings. The anticipation of Summer is a strong one, waking up the city. There’s so much going on. So many different buzzings and murmurings. New places to visit. New food to eat and drink. Festivals, gigs and exhibitions to see.
It’s so wonderful being back and seeing friends and family. All of whom are very happy to be eaters and tasters. New mouths to feed! A perfect audience.
Harrison giving the seal of approval to my banana bread
The lovely Kate (housemate) and I enjoying bubbles and brunch
But as the same time as all this familiarity, it’s feeling very NOT normal too. I feel quite different. While London as I know it might not have changed much in 12 weeks, I feel like I definitely have. My perspectives, my habits, my interests and my thoughts are tending in a different direction to where they were when I was last here. I’m baking bread. I’m cooking every day and loving it and missing it when I’m not in the kitchen.
My 3 salads for Ladies salad night
Plus one of my favourites, pissaladerie
While I am not getting back to Service Design work immediately, I am keeping myself very busy. For me, April is another month of cooking school but this time my education is in the form of real work experience in kitchens. I figure I’ve gained some momentum and started down a pathway and so if I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it! And there’s nothing like putting all the skills and learning into practise. In fact, many would say this is the best way to improve, to learn and to figure out in what shape and form I want cooking in my life. And I’m lucky enough to have secured two places in two of the most amazing kitchens ever! First up is Violet Bakery in Hackney and second is Ottolenghi’s.
I could not be more excited. My experiences of each will be documented in blog posts all of their own. But the idea that I will be getting up every day to be a chef??!! Check me!
In other news; my sourdough starter is still alive and well and getting to grips with the wild yeasts of London and the even wilder London water. (I’m now making it with boiled water, not just straight from the tap which I think is an improvement on taste and texture)
I’m staying above ground as much as possible; minimal tube rides is a sure fire way to have a happier London life.
It’s great seeing friends and family and I’ve also been lucky enough to have Kate and Chuck from Ballymaloe over here doing their two weeks work experience at Ottolenghis and Nopi. With them we’ve explored some great London foodie places; Maltby Street Market, Nopi and St John’s Bread and Wine. It’s been so great to have them around and debrief after our days in the kitchen and readjustment to life in the real world.
So arguably I’m still in the honeymoon period of being back to London life, but it’s a honeymoon I’ll happily stay in.
This time I can’t agree with Dr Seuss when he says, “Don’t be sad it’s over, smile because it happened” What a load of tosh! I’m desolate it’s over. How could I not be sad that such an amazing, wonderful, immersive, joyous, frustrating and dare I say it… life changing event is now over.
The exams are done, the bubbles have been drunk, the recipes (Thank God) are filed, the Goodbyes are said, the cottages are packed up and our January 2016 Ballymaloe Bubble has popped; dispersing us back to the 4 corners of the world from whence we came. Continue reading →