It’s a Friday, 9am. I’m stuck somewhere just outside of Stratford, been there for 20 minutes, should have been in London 15 minutes ago. I start to panic, I have a big day ahead, I can’t be late. If you get an invite from a chef of the stature of Jeff Galvin, you don’t refuse it and you certainly don’t want to be late. Just as I’m about to dial the restaurant to advise I may be late, the train starts trundling forward and shortly arrives in Stratford. Okay I’ll wait, I think to myself and sure enough ten minutes later we’re in Liverpool Street. I breathe a sigh of relief and make the short walk to Spitalfields.
As I walk over, my heart is pounding, I feel both nervous and excited. I actually asked Jeff Galvin for a day in the kitchen last year at the Hix Obsession event and didn’t really expect it to happen. You know, I’d been drinking, Mark Hix had been handing out martinis to his guest chefs and I thought that would be the last I’d hear of it. However, after being given Jeff’s email by Restaurant manager Alex, I (some weeks later) pluck the courage to ask again (no drink inside me this time). The replay came and after a few exchanges, the date was set, I then had a month and a half to wait until the day and I feel I may have annoyed a few people with my excitement. And so I find myself outside the restaurant, a deep breath and I walk in.
Jeff isn’t in yet and I’m introduced to the Soux Chef. I’m given a uniform, change and enter the kitchen. I feel like people will see me shaking, I’m so nervous. I’m introduced to everyone in turn and guess what, I cannot remember any names. I am the worst with names at the best times, when I’m nervous, forget it. This is no slight on the guys, I really am terrible at remembering names and I had 9 to remember to their one. First thing I do remember though is being surprised at how small the kitchen is. Nine chefs, really? In there? It obviously works and they all have their stations, they know their borders and if you wanted to get poetic I guess you would say they dance around each other as they work. But these are chefs, real men, no dancing, more just getting on with it.
You may feel I am jumping around a bit, I am, it is hard to tell you about this day without reverting to being an excited little boy. The whole time I was there I couldn’t help but think, “this is a Michelin Star kitchen, what the hell are they doing letting me in here?” Well, I’ll tell you what they let me do, no cooking for a start, but would you really expect that? I started by quartering some globe artichokes (already trimmed), scooping out the “hairy shit” as it was described to me. Maybe now’s a good time to note there were no women in the kitchen. I was then asked to butter some rings. I would say I buttered some chef’s rings but that sounds even worse.
There was plenty of leek chopping and then we left the kitchen while the floors were cleaned. We had soup, bread and returned to the kitchen. Service was getting close, I move over to help with the starters, quartering some button balsamic onions. The two chefs on this section were constantly talking to me, showing me the various starters and teaching me a few tips, like cutting the edges of the foie gras before cooking it to make it look nicer.
Over to the pass next just before service to fill and cut a delicate pasta. This is where I realised more than any point how much I was shaking, still shaking after nearly 3 hours with these guys. We are still finishing off the pasta as the blind goes up and I can see customers being seated. I was out there once, I think to myself and that does nothing for my nerves. I remember how good the food was and am pretty glad I’m not cooking.
We finish the pasta off and clear the pass. Jeff approaches and says they would like me to plate up the cod dish. Trying to appear confident, I say no problem, I can do that. Not so much butterflies in my stomach as a heard of rhinos having a rave. I’m shown the dish once and expected next time to plate up. Piece of cake, honest. So who reading this believed that last bit? I probably plated up that dish at least five times slower than I was shown. It did improve though, after a couple of tips and hints about how much sauce to put on (I was a bit stingy at first).
After quite a few of these, handing the orders to the chef and expertly toasting some brioche (oh yes, if you need brioche toasting, I’m your man), I moved over to the pastry section. I am shown how to plate up the chocolate fondant dessert and now have new found skills at putting doyleys and a small jug of coulis on a plate, oh yes I do. I enjoyed this part as I got to try some of the ice cream, brilliant banana ice cream and a milk ice cream. Really should have stolen the tubs.
Service is coming to an end and my wife is in the bar quaffing champagne waiting for me. My experience is over, I go to change, getting out of the way so the chefs can concentrate on prepping for the evening. Another thing that makes you realise how hard these guys work. Next time you go for a meal just remember that. I have a chat with Jeff, gaining more advice and tips and getting a bit of a potted Galvin history which is leaving me waiting for the book with baited breath (am I allowed to mention the book?). Finally dressed as a customer again I head to the bar for a beer with my wife.
I have to say I was knackered, my feet were pounding and I truly do not know how these guys (and girls) do this every day. I helped run a bar for two years and had forgotten how hard the shifts are but that is nothing compared to serving at this level. So much work goes into providing your meal, the pressure of providing that quality in every dish is immense.
So, what did I learn? I guess the main thing I learnt is that I know nothing. Okay, I can cook a bit, I have a basic knowledge of flavours, but really, truly, I know nothing about being a chef, I know nothing about food, not in comparison to these guys. For all of you, who like me, cook a lot at home and eat in fine dining restaurants, you are nowhere near being a chef. I guess now you’ll be asking, “So Simon, do you still want to be a Chef?” Well, that question is yet to be answered by me and I will leave you to draw your own conclusions from that.
Before I leave you though, I have to thank a few people for this amazing day. First, Olly Smith, yes the wine man off the telly. It was Olly that recommended Cafe a Vin and introduced me to the wonderful world of Galvin restaurants. Next is Sara Galvin, wife of Chris Galvin and hostess of Galvin La Chapelle. Sara advised asking Jeff face to face. Finally thank you to Jeff and the team for allowing me into your domain and putting up with this intruder. I hope I wasn’t in the way too much and really cannot thank you enough.
Please visit http://www.galvinrestaurants.com for more information on Galvin La Chapelle and the other wonderful Galvin restaurants.
With thanks to @Julia_GalvinRes for the photo.