A Chef’s Journey: Pardon my French

So 1st Commis had now ended, what we had considered slavery was now a thing of the past, we’d moved up to being the “top dogs” per se. No one else would be bossing us around. The hunted would now be the hunters. HA! That idea was soon kicked out of our minds by a simple 30minute “pep talk” from Chef Adele. Things about respect, hard work, failing and such were muttered. Yep, life was back to normal at that small white building in Centurion. Welcome back to the mad house.

Although now being called 2nd Commis meant not having to scrub pots and pans anymore it also meant we were now going to be serving food for actual paying customers. The way the kitchen in the academy is set up is in the traditional French way. A hot kitchen (for your hot soups, starches, main courses etc), a cold kitchen (for starters, cold soups, amuse bouche and charcuterie) and the pastry kitchen (for desserts, cakes, friandise etc). You were required to “work” a month in every kitchen and also a month as a waiter in the restaurant. Every week we were required to come up with a menu which was then marked by the chefs. Although this ultimately helped us with creativity in menu design…not even top chefs can kick out a full a la carte menu every week…we had to do it for 6 months! We’d often sit huddled in our little corner in the outside student area and grumble things like “paying to be slave labour” and such other niceties.

Similar to 1st Commis, we were all partnered up with a fellow Commis chef for the semester. Ruan, my lovely shameless partner for the last 6 months who’d gleefully eat leftovers, was moved to another partner whilst I was given Ero. A short Greek girl with an encyclopedia for a brain. She would rattle off all kinds of food items and recipes whenever anyone prompted her. When the chef would ask a question in a lecture, we’d often just whisper “ask Ero”. Full of giggles, she was voted in as another member of the SRC to assist Ruan and I. Now I’m super clean in the kitchen and when I work with food, to the point where I’d rather stop what I’m doing so that I can clean the dishes…my partner in crime was the complete opposite of this. I don’t know if it was a female link of some sort between her and the lecturers but I’d always somehow end up being the one getting the back end of the chef’s complaints. Oh well, it didn’t bother me that much, as long as I came out with my diploma I didn’t care whether I was marked down for cleanliness or not. So whatever kitchen I worked in I would always be partnered with Ero. It would be an interesting 6 months of madness and sometimes tears (as girls are prone to turn on now and then).

The restaurant at Prue Leith seats 40 people at its maximum. Although today I can manage a 40 person function by myself with an assistant, for a restaurant being run by students both in front of house and back of house, you can just imagine the madness. During service we were not allowed to speak unless it was to say “Yes Chef” to the chef’s on the pass. We also happened to be blessed with the strangest bunch of 1st Commis students we’d met.

Prue Leith Chefs Academy has 2 in-takes a year. In January and in June. What tends to happen is that the January in-take will be full of people fresh out of school…pimples and all. The June in-take will tend to be older people who have made career changes…and who sat for 6 months wondering if putting out this amount of money to be a student again was a good idea. So the January group tends to also be a bigger group as well. A big group of kids straight out of high school. As we’d started in June we had a smaller group (there were 15 of us…2 people had dropped out) and what would happen during service was that maybe 2 or 3 2nd Commis would be running the kitchen whilst there would be 3 and sometimes 4 1st Commis washing dishes. You can just imagine it. These 2 student chefs running around trying to get orders out…whilst 4 fresh out of high school students stood at the sink watching the spectacle. Little to say that there was more than a little animosity at times.

Although I was the head of the SRC I didn’t spend that much time with the 1st commis, maybe it was the age-gap or just disinterest but I’d often get Ruan or Ero to go speak to them. What I had loathed might happen when those bastard voted for me as SRC leader became reality during that semester. I had to organise events and team buildings, whenever there was something important happening at the school I would have to run around. It effected my performance as a student but I sucked it up. The SRC would publish a newsletter every month and we’d also have to organise team events every 2 months. We had to liaise with the lecturers if there were any student related issues and also when students would mutiny and put in complaints. I wouldn’t say it was fun but it definitely taught me to be more selfish with my time. It also made me appreciate the drama that comes with running a school full of young minds who think they rule the world. I finally understood why some of the lecturers were so grumpy most of the time. hehehe

My favourite part of 2nd Commis (besides actually cooking food for paying customers) was being a waiter and working in the front-of house. We had to learn how to set tables, how to clean and polish glassware, how to pair wines (and drink them) and also how one should be properly served in a fine-dining restaurant. We’d often get snobbish guests who’d act like they knew it all (like the pregnant lady who asked for rare steak) and those who say strange things that the ears of a waiter are quick to pick up (one guy, out to impress his partner, boasted about how the chocolate truffles contained real truffles). It was also one of the few fun parts of being a student at Prue Leith as you got to work with Jean-Luc, the eccentric Frenchman who didn’t believe in the whole seriousness of all this chef school nonsense. Happy to mutter a swearword or two about an unruly customer he’d let us have our freedom as long as we kept to his deadlines and rules. We learnt how to make proper cappuccino, classic cocktails (and sample them of course), learned about wines, aperitifs, digestifs and all things fancy and lardy-da about the fine-dining world. Although at the time it seemed weird to be learning such at a chef academy…its actually some of the most invaluable lessons I learned there. The art of good service is hard to find in South Africa, for one to succeed at owning a restaurant its those subtle things that count.

(I could add a whole lot of stories about what happened there and in the kitchens but I’ll leave those for another day.)

Around April of the same year the British High Commission happened to ask the academy to assist them with an idea. With the 2010 FIFA World Cup coming they had an idea for a competition. They asked the school to ask the students to design a pie that would be the official fan food for the visiting fans from Britain. At first a lot of us weren’t interested but then we were given the usual decree of “this is compulsory, do it or else you die”…or something to that effect. I was so not interested in it all I actually only entered my recipe entry at the very last minute around 7pm on the day it was due. I thought my concept would be laughed at by the chefs and so I paid it no mind.

As luck would have it…my recipe and concept was picked as one of the top 10. We were told we’d have to make the pastry and cook the pies so the chefs could judge. Long story short my pie ended up being one of the top ones and we were then told we’d have to cook it for Gary Benham, the representative from the British High Commission. On the actual day of the final cook-off I happened to get stuck with my bike about 10km’s from the school. We were meant to begin cooking at 10am…and present our pies at 1pm. I sat at the side of the road at 10am and resigned myself to not being part of it anymore. A passing biker saw me, did a u-turn and came to find out what the problem was. He then put together a tow-rope of some sort and proceeded to pull me and my bike to a garage close by. We were a spectacle for sore eyes, one bike pulling this other bike with a big black guy on it dressed in chef uniform. As I parked my bike and tanked my rescuer I received a call from our lovely loony Pom, Karen, she was speaking so fast but in between the confusing accent and hurried speech we somehow worked out where I was and that she would come fetch me. 10minutes later, she arrived to pick me up and get me to the cook-off. It was now 11am, the other competitors had been at it for an hour already. I told her it was pointless carrying on but the chef’s would hear nothing of it. Long story short, after much sliding around and spinning I managed to send my pie out with the rest of the competitors…and an hour later I was smiling into camera’s and speaking to strange people I didn’t know as I was declared the winner. That pie recipe is on this blog, its called a Kota Pie, a little silly idea that came to me as I was visiting relatives in Soweto. I submitted it at the last minute as a means to amuse myself…but that silly little pie won me a trip to London, a few days working at a Michelin Star restaurant and an experience I could never forget. I was interviewed by 702 radio for an hour and also by The Pretoria News. Funny how the simple ideas that you think are stupid are the one’s that work out best.

2nd Commis wasn’t as eye-opening as 1st Commis was but it was the period that turned us from learners to chefs. We honed and mastered our craft in those 6 months and were about to be unleashed into the world as apprentice chefs for the last 6 months afterwards. We were all split up and sent all over South Africa to different hotels and establishments to go show them what we’d learned. It would be a crazy experience….Image

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