So last week I spent every waking hour in the kitchen of The Latymer restaurant at Pennyhill Park, a 340+ room 5 star hotel in Surrey. The hotel boasts an awarding winning spa, golf course and is home for the next 3 years to the England rubgy team whenever they need a base for a home rugby game.
I arrived on my first day and was met by the sous chef who hurried... and I do mean hurried me back to the kitchen, something I felt to be quite rude as at the time I was enjoying the opulent surroundings, log fire, mahogany panelling, candle holders with actual real life candles in, paintings of old people in ornate gold frames etc etc. Quite Lovely.
The Latymer restaurant - one of 4 dining options at the hotel.
I met the head chef who briskly asked if I had whites with me, to which I reported that I did and was told to get changed so we could get started. I felt like maybe I should have turned up in my whites ready to go to save 3 minutes, but not sure what the paying punters whom were loitering in reception would have thought about back room staff being in plain sight. So distasteful don't you know. The time was 09:30 and some of the chefs had been in for 3 hours already since it was Tuesday their first day of the week after closing Sunday and Monday.... lots to be done apparently!
As one could imagine the time before and after lunch are spent with prepping the various components to dishes... and boy are their components, some of the components even have multiple components that needed to be made in order to fully assemble the completed component of components... lost? Welcome to my world!
The old part of the hotel
Without boring you too much about every step and every slice I made I will sum up some of the areas that stand out in my mind when I think about the experience. Days started at 8am (which actually means 07:30 if you are silly enough to come in a bit early).
No matter how early I came in there was always bread proving in giant bags on the pass... who made this bread... does the hotel employ magical bread making pixies, or does that miserable French guy over in the hotel pastry kitchen make it? And yes he was miserable, on one occasion I was sent to “pastry” to get a tray of eggs from the fridge. I walked into the kitchen and was greeted by the grumpy face of the Frenchman who enquired not so politely as to what I was doing there in his hallowed breathing space. I informed him I needed eggs and was wondering which of the two big doors in front of me was the fridge in which I could find them. “well zis eez aye frrriiiige, an zis eez aye freezaaarr” I was told curtly and sarcastically as I starred at the two identical doors ahead of me... silly me for not knowing which is which I guess. I asked him to repeat himself as "courtesy costs nothing" in my book, and mainly because I knew it would annoy him to do so... and so I could laugh internally at his marvellous pronunciation. I grabbed the eggs and hastily left, with a hearty “Mur-chi boo-coop mon-chore”... something the other 4 pastry chefs found quite amusing.
The indoor pool and jacuzzi... not too shabby!
Anyway I digress somewhat. It was an amazing experience to see food being prepared which I struggled to understand do to the complexity and intricacy of dishes. Some contained El Bulli elements such as “truffled marshmallows” and “pear caviar” etc all of which was eye opening for me to see done in front of me, rather than to have just read about it. Is it the kind of food I want to cook?... not on your nelly. Though I respect the work that goes into it, I like to cook food that can be easily understood and then fill that dish with as much flavour as possible so the “wow” factor comes in the tasting and not so much the presentation and complexity of the dish.
So some key things I learned are as follows:
- If you have to shell huge box of peas and then a huge box of broad beans, always shell the broad beans first. The is no other reason than reserving you sanity for this. Peas come out of their pods very easily, broad beans (the ones I had at least) do not, so after doing a bucketful of peas quite quickly it saps your will to live to have to struggle and fight for every single broad bean. Also if I were hungover and had the choice of being a vegetable I would be a broad bean, what a lovely soft and silky home they live in! But what a wild night it would have to be to be woken up and given such an option!!!
- Clams, once cooked and shelled, can be peeled. Yes I said PEELED! You look for that little tongue like part of the clam, grip it between your fingers the using your other hand pull the rest of the clam away from it. You end up with a piece of meet about 1/3 of the original that is quite pretty to look at compared to what it looked like before. Nothing wrong with the other bit other than its a bit ugly!
- A bucketful of raw octopus skin that I removed from 3 large octi's, feels disturbingly pleasurable when you put your hand in it. The 'goop' feels like a mixture of snot and cling film. I dare say it would make a far better toy for children than that bright green slime in a jar we (well the boys reading this at least) had when we were kids. Does stink a bit though!
- When slicing white truffles on a truffle slice (tiny mandolin), the faster and more confident the slicing motion, the larger, more even and perfect the resultant slices are. Going carefully and slowly results in partial slices that myself and the chef can eat. Use each method dependant on what the need is that needs to be satisfied.
- Chicken skin can be made into a tasty alternative to glass... and yes it is see-through!
Another amazing looking dish with more components than the Apollo space craft.
- French maitre'ds dont like to be informed of the fact that English sparkling wine is beating all comers from Champagne in blind tastings the world over. If you do decide to take this route of conversation expect a similar response to this “I don't decide where the best sparkling wine comes from, there is a God and this God decided to make Champagne the perfect place to produce the best sparkling wine in the world. This is a fact. Your English wine is a gimmick and has no history.” Maybe so... but it seems to have more flavour according to the punters, and why are all the champagne producers buying up land at an alarming rate in southern England?!... now walk away before he can respond and listen to the glorious sound of an exploding Frenchman. C'est magnifique!
- Chiffonading (cut into a very very fine strips) 2kgs of curly kale may cause you to lose your sanity and all feeling in your knife holding hand. Constantly picking through what you have just sliced to remove the odd piece that was too big also saps the soul.
- Don't cross the Polish pot-washers, they look like they could tear you a new arsehole in about 2 seconds, what with their bulging biceps, solid looking backs and well defined forearms.... and that's just the chicks!
- Using sharp smooth bladed knife results in less a less fragmented shell than using a serrated blade when cutting through the shell of raw quails eggs... even I can teach Michelin star chefs something ;-)
The Ascot Bar - Perfect for a spot of afternoon tea methinks.
Wholemeal flour can in fact be sieved despite what I have been told at school.... but then it does achieve what we have been told in class, that you remove all the goodness (the husks). However the resultant flour does have that wholemeal taste and when a small amount of the sieved matter is added back to and sprinkled on top of the bread, one ends up with a fabulously light and airy wholemeal loaf.
That's about all that springs to mind right now. Most of what I learned was more ideas and concepts for flavours and presentation, how the kitchen functions, how much my pain my feet can actually cope with etc. You see after our early start our first “break” was at around 17:00 when we would hurry to the pass to grab some food that had been produced by the banqueting kitchen. We would fill a small bowl and hurry back to our station and hurriedly shovel our faces and then carry on working... lets be generous and say a 2 minute break! Next break was usually somewhere between 23:30 and 00:30... and that break was classed as home time. No lunch, no ciggy breaks (not that I smoke), no afternoon tea... just hard graft. Damn my feet are contorting in pain at the very memory!
Good times, and I'm already looking forward to getting more experience somewhere else in the future... my feet however aren't!