After completing the first 6 months at Prue Leith Chefs Academy you are then given the fine honour of being labeled a 2nd Commis (please see my previous post A Chef’s Journey: ‘The swear words begin’ for an explanation about Commis). Woop woop! This meant less theory, more ego and actual cooking for paying customers in the school’s restaurant. It also meant no more washing of dishes and a license to be bossy over some poor kid who was now the new bottom step on the ladder.
Before I detail being a 2nd Commis let me reflect back on some of the highlights of being a 1st Commis.
During 1st Commis you are basically everyone’s minion and with the strictness of being trained in the classic French way you couldn’t argue nor give back what you got. A group of chefs is called a brigade for good reason, its based loosely on the same hierarchical system. At the beginning of the course we were all assigned partners within our group of 1st Commis. My partner was Ruan, we would do all 1st Commis duties together for the 6 months of being at Prue Leith. From washing 2nd Commis dishes to cleaning floors, he was also voted in as my 2nd-in-command in the SRC. So we got to work together for quite a lot of hours.
See the thing with Ruan (our Stan) was that he had no shame. Willing to do anything for a dare he would always somehow be getting up to nonsense but unlike Joggie (our Cartman) he was also a master at playing the chefs and 2nd Commis so he’d almost never get into shit. He also had a love for gross things. If I ever ate an apple for lunch he’d always ask for the apple core and wolf it down like it was the finest cheese. He also always seemed to be broke, so mix that with being uninhibited and willing to do any dare and you have a chaotic partner. For 6 months I endured gross jokes and farts and how his last toilet visit went whilst washing dishes in the upstairs kitchens. I would be the one to deliver serious talks to our 1st commis group about the SRC which I had fought against being a part of whilst he would stand next to me and look angelic. He claimed to have an allergy to ginger kids and midgets. *sigh*
During the 6 months of 1st Commis we also went on a huge discovery of food. We did a wine certificate course that lasted a week. 16 students tasting 5 different wines every day in a warm pre-fab class was a bit of a silly idea. You can imagine the chaos of that week. Half of us don’t even remember most of it. The lecturer “recommended” we spit out what we tasted…we laughed at him. At the end of the week we wrote a test about wine…the hardest exam we’ve all written at Prue Leith and by some miracle (or the lecturer taking pity on us) all of us passed. We also had a week of doing a hygiene course and first aid and fire rescue courses. All this before we actually started cooking. A rather funny way of readying one for a profession and not scaring them. During the fire course, as usual, the South Park bunch went crazy on the mannequins used to simulate CPR. I slowly came to realise just how tolerant of madness I am.
One of the many tasting sessions we did that I won’t forget is when Chef Adele (the school Principal in effect) bought us Beluga and Sevruga caviar. Caviar is the roe (eggs) taken from a Sturgeon fish (which only swim in the Caspian Sea). The fish has to be 7 years old before it can be harvested and the fish is killed for the caviar to be harvested. The stuff you get at Woolies and what some restaurants put on canapés is NOT caviar but the roe of (usually) Salmon. When I was at chef school a 50g tub of caviar cost R6000. Beluga caviar is the finest caviar you get, its that deep dark black one, followed by Ossetra caviar and then finally Sevruga is the lowest in quality of real caviars. Now Chef Adele had managed to get us 2 containers of Beluga and Sevruga caviars. It was a big deal, a whole tasting session was organised and each student was allowed to take a bit and taste what some people will never ever taste in their lifetimes. A lot of us stood there perplexed at it all, it just tasted like oily salty sea water. No need for me to add that Chef Adele was not amused by us at all. With time we’d grow fond of her and her ways. She would name all her cheeses and refer to them in gender terms and say stuff like “she’s a strong one this girl, treat her gently” whilst staring at a round gorgonzola cheese. What really impressed us though was her knowledge of ingredients and food. Most chefs can walk past book shops and get away with maybe contemplating buying a cooking book “next time”, she would come out holding 2 or 3, every time. I remember one lecture we spent just tasting various olive oils. Seriously, we spent the whole lecture sipping olive oils and discussing their qualities. Its detailed stuff like that that I came to realise distinguished Prue Leith Chefs Academy from other chef schools, the love for the art of cooking and the detail involved.
It wasn’t always serious though, Chef Adele was the Garde Manger (or Cold Kitchen) head chef and taught us how to make sausages, boerewors, jams, preserves, pies and most of the pretty delicacies most come to associate with TV foodies and chefs, it was Chef Ryan, the head chef for Hot Kitchen (the section that actually makes a restaurant the most money) who taught us the passion and the madness required to be a chef. A short bald man with a sharp wit and a walking stick he wouldn’t hesitate to wear his emotions on his sleeve. He taught us how to use chef knives properly and was never afraid to tell you that you were “fucking up”. If he saw you doing something stupid his signature catch phrase was “How is that working for you?” and then he’d hobble away leaving you standing staring at your chopping board wondering what just happened. He also used to whisper that to you during practical exams and it would leave you spinning trying to work out what the hell you were doing wrong. Having worked in Michelin Star kitchens before the South Park group had the most respect for him. He’d lose his temper quickly if we messed up but he’d also be more than ready to pull people aside to give them a pep talk. He was also always full of nonsense whenever Chef Adele wasn’t around. If we’d had a rough night in the kitchen he’d single out the Commis who’d done the worst and make them stand on a pot at the end of the night and cluck like a chicken whilst shouting “pew pew”. He referred to rough nights as “being raped by a Nigerian”. If the academy’s restaurant was fully booked he’d happily shout “the Nigerian is coming!”. I remember one day whilst he was running the pass (the area between the kitchen and the serving area where orders are called and received) he started shouting out one of the chef’s names like it was a serious emergency. After continuous shouting the chef eventually came to the pass to see what the drama was about just to find this short bald man holding up his middle finger with a smile. He’d often do this to us during service too, just pull zap signs at us out of the blue. He was really really passionate abut his food though and hated when we’d make mistakes. A real chef puts pride in every plate of food they send out to a customer and he would make sure we had the same level of pride in our food too. He’d tell us to not cook for the school or for marks but for our own satisfaction. He’s also stop during lectures and tell us to follow our passions in life and if we felt we weren’t growing as chefs we should quit and move onto other places. I think he’s part of the reason why some of us have remained chefs for this long. Its a grueling industry which one has to put a whole lot of graft and emotion into. A lot of people quit after 2 or 3 years and move to easier office jobs for better pay and sanity even after paying the crazy fees that a good chef diploma costs.
The last kitchen and lecturer we had was Chef Debby. She was the head chef of the Pastry Kitchen. The kitchen that all the girls loved because of the pretty things we’d make there. Wikus (our Kenny) loved Pastry with such a passion we’d get tired of him talking about chocolate and bread. He even took a trip down to Cape Town to study at Lindt’s chocolate school. I’ve never seen him as pissed off as on the day he saw his Pastry kitchen mark and saw how many of us had done better than him. Chef Debby was also the liaison between the school and the students. She’d have a monthly meeting with us SRC members and I think somewhere the lines became blurred. Anyway, I won’t get into all that political stuff. She taught us some of the coolest things. Most Prue Leith qualified chefs somehow turn out as pastry chefs. I don’t know if its because of the number of girls who study there or if its because of the level of detail we had to go into during the course and the discipline instilled in us. To be a good pastry chef one needs to be precise with numbers and can’t be messy. Our uniforms were white but it would be rare to see any of us covered in stains. We’d bake and make things every day and leave with our creations. I got so sick of cakes and biscuits and sauces and ice-creams but my neighbours’ kids loved me (I wonder why). One thing I must admit to, although making the dish that would put a smile on the customers face and which had the most creativity in it, I found pastry kitchen to be the least passionate place at Prue Leith for me. There was no sense of fun and I think that stuck with me as I became a chef. I’ve sadly associated baking with seriousness. Unlike Adele and Ryan, Chef Debby didn’t have funny quirks and strange ways. She was the chef I spent the most time with due to my being an SRC member…and also due to my winning a pie competition and the client requesting 5000 of my pies to be made, I saw a lot of the pastry section at Prue Leith. I will admit that if it wasn’t for the discipline learned in that kitchen I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have as a chef. In the industry most kitchens tend to be chaotic and with under-trained chefs I’ve had to turn back to those fundamentals we learned there very often.
Friendships were forged in the first 6 months. After a long night of being bossed around we’d all gather at the local pub called Blackwood’s and talk nonsense over beers and bad food. For a year we’d come to know that place well contemplating how we’d treat the new 1st Commis as we became 2nd Commis and were allowed to run the kitchens of that white building in Centurion…and also serve customers in the restaurant as we worked as waiters and waitresses.