Food critics and writers: when they have an agreeable experience they have a way of describing a chef’s work as though behind the swing doors of a restaurant, some kind of alchemy has been wielded in the kitchen, working its wonders, conjuring up some phantasmagorical platter of perfection.
They are fond of painting a culinary picture that portrays the romantic idea that the chef (aka as ‘the sorcerer’ or ‘the master craftsman’) builds each dish as if it is the only one to be served that evening.
A plate of wizardry: something unique, to be served only to the paidgastronome.
In fact, we chefs all subconsciously like to think that this is indeed the case. There is a yearning for an element of this idealised interpretation lurking deep within us to actually be a reality.
Unfortunately, the truth is that behind the swing doors, the experience is very, very different.
I’m pretty sure that in many industries a certain amount of clock-watching is going on all the time.
Is it time for morning break yet? Lunchtime? Afternoon break? Yippee! Home time! Whoop! The weekend?!
This is certainly not the case for a chef.
On the contrary; a chef is constantly chasing time, praying for more. We work alongside our imaginary friend (whom we’ll politely call the ‘f-up fairy’) who playfully whispers in our ear “you’re not going to make it”.
In a kitchen there are only ever two deadlines. But they are ominous, they happen every day without fail and they cannot ever be missed: lunch and dinner.
I once helped out a good friend of mine while he was searching for a suitable sous chef.
The restaurant was a very busy high street bistro. Robert had taken the helm as head chef a few weeks before.
One midweek morning he received calls from two of his chefs to say they were sick and unable to work. There were no other trustworthy chefs available to come to our rescue so that left just the two of us.
The greatest skill a chef acquires with experience is the ability to cut corners when such things are thrown at them.
When compared to the average food hobbyist, cooking, creating, tasting food all day, every day, should give a chef a superior pallet and upper hand when faced with the obvious difficulties of being short-handed.
So, this was not a day for the ‘master craftsman’. It was a day for just getting on the best we could. We worked a steady lunch. We then endeavoured to set ourselves up for 60 evening bookings with inevitable walk-ins. Not an impossible task certainly, but not a comfortable affair either.
Fortunately, front of house kindly offered to help serve desserts which is doable because while the pastry section requires preparation before service; the rest is piecing the puzzle together, making it look sophisticated and delectable, a work of art.
See romantic vision in paragraph one.
Service began. Rob on mains and myself on starters, with a watchful eye on pastry. We were flying, banging out food with gusto, verging on frantic, but with acceptable precision.
Then the floor manager asked for a quiet word. He pointed out Table 15. The customer sat there was the city’s most renowned restaurant critic: revered and feared in equal measure.
Our hearts sank.
With slightly bruised morale, we pushed on. What else could we do?
At this point, I had lost my watchful eye over the pastry section. Although, I do remember seeing a ‘humble, autumn berry crumble with English custard’ being manhandled gracelessly into a bowl and out of the swing door before I had a chance to intervene.
Service over, Robert and I shut the kitchen down and dragged our ruined selves out to the yard for reflection.
We had successfully filled the bellies of 76 guests without complaint, but as far as pushing the boundaries of gastronomy while fully embracing our ‘master craftsmen’ titles went … we had been unsuccessful.
Of course, that humble berry crumble had been destined for the critic. My pain was with my good friend and awesome chef, Robert.
It would be his name attached to next Wednesday’s restaurant review.
The infamous ‘humble berry crumble with English custard’
1. Momentarily poach English berries in a rich, fruity, kind of mold wine with syrup. Hold in a thermos ready for service.
2. Toasted crumble mix. Similar to a homemade granola, with cinnamon sugar and caramelized pecan nuts.
3. Freshly made custard. Held in a thermos ready for service.
4. Spoon the berry mix gently into the bowl and place the crumble mix on top of the berries
5. Flash under the grill to ensure crunch and to add heat.
6. Serve custard in a matching self-pourer on the side.
How it was served
The berry mix, crumble and custard were dropped into a bowl together, then microwaved and served. Inevitably the crumble must have been steamed, losing its crumble texture which of course is an integral part of a crumble.
The custard may have ended up set or scrambled. Its new description should have been: the curious, autumn berry soup with a moist pecan island and coagulated golden nuggets of sweet egg.
As its title suggest, the crumble should be humble, not a gastronomically groundbreaking dessert. Even so, it needs to be prepared and served with a bit of love so that it offers up its comforting delights.
Wednesday came around. The restaurant received four and a half stars out of five. The critic’s description of the meal, in brief, was: a sumptuous, epicurean’s journey deeply layered with profound flavours and textures.
He especially loved the dessert.
A critic’s worthiness to rate and slate restaurants is a story for another time.