Please see the previous diary entries about this trip….
London, Day 4
Woke up this morning without a voice and coughing badly. The English spring time really has affected me it seems. Being in a strange country without a voice was rather interesting. I managed to get some medicine from the chemist yesterday and it seems the medicine I took has affected my memory because I completely forgot to mention that I went out to dinner and a movie with a friend of mine from London. We decided to watch a movie first. Iron Man 2 was the choice. We headed to the Odeon theatre, I’d tell you where it was but I’d probably be lying. Although I’m pretty clued up on how the bus and train system works here remembering what the places I go to are named is another story altogether.
So once again I found myself doing sums in my head when I heard that the price of ONE movie ticket was £12. I smiled when I saw my friend reach for her purse! There’d be a national strike if that was the price of movies in South Africa. So being a gentleman I paid for the popcorn and drinks. Just 2 popcorns and a coke came to £11. Yes, I shall appreciate Ster Kinekor from now one.
We didn’t do dinner as the movie came out around midnight but it was interesting to note the buzzing London nightlife. Restaurants were still busy and the streets were packed. Back home in Gauteng as soon as 5pm hits there is a mass exodus out of the city. The busses also run all day and night here in London and if you get no joy from the busses you can catch a train until around 1am.
Back to today, so being voiceless has its little quirks. A mixture of sign language and a low throaty grumble seems to work well as a means of communication. Knowing I was to work at Corrigan’s tonight though made me decide a solution had to be found. I explained my dilemma to Anthony at breakfast and it was decided that a Dr or a Chemist would need to be found.
We left the hotel to go visit Borough Market. Apparently something I couldn’t “leave London without seeing”. After a short train trip we arrived at a station I forget the name of. It started drizzling as we exited the tube, a perfect London farewell it seemed. A short walk away I saw the busy corner that leads to Borough Market. Anthony stopped to get his daily fix of caffeine whilst I wandered around trying to figure out why so many people were walking down the small street. It was on further inspection that I realised the actual market was a place that held many wonders that would fill a chef’s dreams for night and nights. Razor clams, lobster, scallops the size of my palm, hams, pies, vegetables, all kinds of cheese, different types of potatoes, home brewed beers, sausages…you name it and it was being sold there. I mentioned to Anthony that I couldn’t leave London without having tried a pork pie. After much gasping and sighing at the price (I bought it for £3.50) I bought myself a real English pork pie. I was told to eat it cold. After a few bites I soon realised I’m not a real fan of cold pork pies. Maybe if it was warmed I’d change my mind but honestly I just couldn’t appreciate it well enough. Perhaps it was my excitement at seeing all the other produce available.
We had a chat with a potato farmer about the different type of varieties he had and explained back home we weren’t as lucky. Our potatoes are labelled ‘baby’ and ‘large’. We tasted different cheeses as we made our way around the market. I so yearned to be a resident of London so I could do some shopping and go cook the many treasures being sold but such is the pain of being a tourist. We left the market with my rather disappointed look on my face. One day Borough Market, one day.
We then headed to Mayfair and to Corrigan’s. A rather subtle restaurant at the bottom of a hotel. Walking past an Aston Martin dealership to get to the restaurant gave testament to the type of neighbourhood we were in. We were greeted by a friendly and talkative hostess at the door who called the chef for us. Whilst waiting Anthony and I walked around the restaurant admiring the deco. Although rated as one of the best restaurants in London the restaurant was very subtly decorated and nothing was over elaborate.
I was met by the chef and Anthony bid us adieu. I croaked my name, he looked at me like I had just sworn at him and I was them christened ‘Jim’. I entered the kitchen area and what was to become ‘home’ for 12 hours.
On first appearance the kitchen seemed small to me, having been used to the huge kitchen we have at the academy. There were just 8 chefs in the kitchen including the head chef. 2 chefs were looking after the pastry section, a small corner at the back of the kitchen, 1 chef was in charge of the vegetables, one chef in charge of sauces, another in charge of the seafood. One chef handled the meat and another the starches and the head chef took care of the plating. There were also 3 scullers who would clean the kitchen floor every 15 minutes or so and collected the dirty dishes and utensils regularly. Although small the kitchen was surprisingly clean and neat. As we were still doing prep for the dinner service the conversation was lively but the pace of completing tasks was quick.
I was basically a commis chef and would do whatever anyone else needed me to do. I portioned and cleaned beef, I cleaned and sorted mushrooms (very expensive ones as I was told by the chef), I sealed off some sirloin and clean lobsters. I also got to brunoise and chiffonade some vegetables for sauces. In the pastry section I helped fill some macaroons and chop chilli for one of the desserts. What struck me about the pastry section was the size of it, although isolated from the rest of the kitchen it was a small corner but the type of desserts presented were of a top class quality.
All in all we did prep for 100 pax, the restaurant is said to hold over 160 people when both sections are used at full capacity. The produce used by the chefs is personally selected by Richard Corrigan himself and it was evident in the flavour of the dishes we tasted that only the best produce is utilised. There was an alley at the back of the kitchen where all the veg was stored in large bins and 2 walk in fridges where meat and other fresh produce was kept. The chef knew how much of every single ingredient he had left and any cries of ‘chef, we’re out of…’ were received with disbelief and would be quickly met with an ‘are you sure?’ response, where upon on a more thorough search what was finished a minute ago was suddenly available.
The chef brigade was very young, made up entirely of men and I noticed that it was full of different nationalities. Due to my lack of a voice they all assumed I was French until I managed to whisper later on that I was from Johannesburg, South Africa. It was at this point that I was told about how bad our cricket team was doing in the T20 World Cup. I should have remained French it seems!
The service staff came in around 2pm and we had staff lunch/dinner at around 4pm. It was interesting to note the rather significant difference in ages between the service team. There were also different roles. Some were trainers and waiters whilst others were head waiters, there was also a sommelier and a manager. There were 2 barmen as well (the bar takes up most of the restaurant floor space actually, testimony to the owner being Irish I thought to myself). There were only 2 women on the service team making it only 2 women in the entire staff compliment on that night. Staff dinner was some really good burgers and roasted potatoes prepared by the chefs. I don’t think I’ve tasted a better tasting burger before. Although just staff dinner the chefs take pride and put effort into preparing it.
After eating, the service guys proceeded to get changed into their service clothes whilst the chefs went back to finish completing preparations for the dinner service. An hour later the first table arrived.
As I hadn’t seen any of the plating before and since I was only there for the night I took a backseat during service. I observed and where needed I lent a hand. It was interesting watching a dinner service in a top class restaurant for 100 people. One thing I discovered was that guests were not afraid to send food back to the kitchen when not happy with their plates. I counted 5 plates being sent back through the night. It would annoy the chefs but they were always treated professionally and the problem looked into and solved.
Another unique thing that I had only seen on tv was the use of a private dining room inside the kitchen. The room is called The Lindsay Room and tonight 8 guests had booked it and it would mean all the chefs would have to be on their best behaviour.
The portions at Corrigan’s were surprisingly large. I was expecting dainty portions, the kind we’re used to seeing in a fine dining restaurant but according to the chefs, Richard Corrigan specifically aimed to keep things as hearty as possible. The products used are all sourced locally and the portions are generous.
I noticed how the once vociferous chefs were now all silent during service. No one said a word unless it was directed at the Head Chef. One unique thing I also noted was how the kitchen responded when an order was sounded. Instead of the industry standard of “yes chef!” the brigade at Corrigan’s shouts “oui!”…but with an English slant to it, it comes out sounding like “where!”. It was rather amusing to hear that the whole night.
The service guys, although very professional and polished, were regularly caught on the wrong side of the chef. Whether it be pulling of the plates on the pass of not taking care when caring the plates. A smooth process is needed between service and the chefs to keep such a large restaurant working like clockwork. I think the large numbers of trainees was starting to annoy the chef as he had to constantly yell at the service team. The fact that customers were sending some dishes back didn’t help either but at the end of dinner service all was well again.
It was eye-opening and interesting seeing just how a top restaurant works. I wish I had been there longer so I could get a chance to plate and actually work a station but someday soon…I hope. I could go on and on about the dishes I saw and the health and safety processes followed by the restaurant but I’d probably never stop writing. There was just so much I saw and discovered in that one night that a diary entry would not do any of it any justice.
As I wasn’t feeling well I managed to sneak out of the chef after service ‘sips’. I’d heard quite a lot about chef antics after service in London and I don’t think my liver nor my rather escalating fever would have been amused much.
On my way back to the hotel in Paddington I managed to get myself lost…again. The trains had long stopped their daily service and due to construction a lot of them had been shut down for the weekend anyway. Trying to figure out the busses whilst not being able to ask anyone was rather frustrating to say the least…but I made it back home, after a quick stop at Burger King, another one of Ruan’s suggested visits for me to try whilst in London. I can’t say it was gastronomically astounding but it scratched a hungry itch.
That was my 4th day, although filled with one trip and 12 hours of work it was also very interesting and probably my favourite day of the trip. There’s nothing that can ever replace the sheer educational value of what I saw and learned at Corrigan’s. As I didn’t have my camera with me I promised the chefs that I would return to take pictures and hopefully some day in the future see if the possibility of me being added to their foreign legion of chefs could become a reality. We’ll see. Good night London. Tomorrow, time for the hope over Africa and back home.