I forgot to write down the names of everyone at The Fat Duck. Am busy getting them, so I will incorporate them in the post. May take a while, so I decided to put the post online anyway.
Staff lunch at The Fat Duck
Months of waiting. At some point I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to see the restaurant, taste the food, talk to the chefs, explore the food lab and in general get away for a couple of freaking days. Not so long ago, the 27th of July, it was finally time to head out to Bray. I packed bags full of food and drinks, printed the Eurotunnel tickets and hopped in a car with two friends, Isabelle and Dion, and my brother David. To save everyone from a boring car trip report here are the key points: car, food, music, Calais, scary tunnel, Folkestone, funny reversal driving, Holyport, Moor Farm, a welcoming, extreme (unfulfilled) desire for a pint, some jokes, tooth brushing, sleeping dreaming of Fat Duck food (actually I have no idea what I dreamt of).
An alarm rings. Time to get up!!! Staff lunch at The Fat Duck, tour of Braymenthal, interview with Heston and dinner at The Crown are all waiting. We drive to The Fat Duck. It was obvious from the drive over and more so after entering the village – it reeks of money in this part of England. The cars seem to stem directly from the wishlist of little kids. Approaching the restaurant we decide to crash it with all four. To our surprise it is absolutely no problem if we all have lunch and take the tour of the kitchen, prep kitchen and lab together. Lunch consists of pasta with a meat sauce (sous vide) and a fresh iceberg lettuce salad. We sit down and a cook is so kind to bring the food, which as he jokingly says, he normally does not do. Normal situation: food = fight for it.
After lunch we are told to move our business to the lab, especially since the mayhem of the hour before lunch is about to start. Leaving the restaurant we are picked up by Ivan, one of the key figures of the lab/prep part of the restaurant and directed to the lab. Ivan turns out to be the friendliest guy you’ll ever meet. The building is just across the street from The Fat Duck, a few steps into a narrow street to a parking lot. Stepping inside he makes quick work of the cooks sticking their heads out from their workbench, turning their heads in swift motions, with wondering faces who the hell those civilians are. ‘He’s the crazy guy who made all the recipes from the Fat Duck cookbook’, Ivan says. A quick glance from the cooks and with the same speed they spotted the odd ones out from the kitchen, they turn their heads downwards, proceeding with the tasks at hand.*
Making our way up the narrow stairs Ivan leads us into the lab part of the building. It’s the space often portrayed in the In Search of Perfection series, where ducks have been inflated with straws, sorbets have been set on fire and bananas have been frozen with liquid nitrogen (and god knows what else). Ivan explains he worked in almost every part of the Fat Duck empire, but never worked harder than he does now in the lab. It has evolved from a place of food experimentation to a filter where every new food item, technique or piece of equipment and more, passing through the outlets of Blumenthal is scrutinized. It’s a bit like giving out stamps of approval, labeled ‘Fat Duck certified’. During the talk of Ivan I get distracted by all the familiar items (but don’t stop listening) and start to snoop around. Cans of spray-dried apple granules, crystallized violet petals and malic acid are laying around and in the corners there’s a big green egg, liquid nitrogen, a dehydrator, a vacuum machine and tons of pans. No really funky machinery.
Leaving two development chefs behind we step through a small hallway to the chocolate room. Actually there are two rooms and let me tell you, they are extremely small. The smallest room (tiny!) is used for the Mandarin Aerated Chocolate and, I think, the BFG. The other for the remaining petit four items. Seeing the space I wonder how the three cooks crammed in the dark chocolate area make it through the day. I get claustrophobic just looking at them work. Observing the rooms Ivan continues his talk of this part of the lab. Leaving the room we are quickly intercepted by the lovely Deborah. She’s the PA of Heston, my contact at The Fat Duck during the planning of the trip to Bray. She reminds me I have to be in the kitchen ASAP. Ivan leads me back to The Fat Duck, ready to spend the lunch service in the kitchen…
* (A special thanks to all you guys at the prep kitchen. I know the mind numbing work some of the recipes require. Thanks! I mean it.)
Inside the Fat Duck kitchen
Johnny Lake, the chef of the restaurant, is waiting for me at the kitchen. Is this kitchen even smaller than the chocolate room or is my mind playing tricks on me? You can’t even walk to the cold section, you have to crawl under a counter. My god. Looking around it is obvious Johnny’s the chef. Older than the rest, possessing a calm presence, he’s thé guy in this small space. After a quick glance he mentions it might be a bit hot in my outfit and directs me to the garden where I lose my blouse and put on an apron. I step back into the kitchen and Johnny gives me a quick ‘tour’ of the kitchen. I use quotation marks, because you can stand in one spot and see all of the kitchen. Take one step, two at most, from any given space and you’ll hit a wall. In the worst-case scenario you’ll hit the menacing, looking dishwasher, ready to tear you a new one (I kept my nose out of their business). Johnny instructs me to keep close by, so he can let me taste stuff, explain the proceedings and most importantly keep my ass from wondering the tight spaces.
(Not my photo of the restaurant and the cooks in the photo no longer work there. This is the small hot part of the kitchen: foie gras, mock turtle soup, salmon and lamb is finished here)
At the beginning of lunch it’s quiet and I ‘walk around’ the hot part of the kitchen, firing questions at the cooks. I learn among other things that the mint dressing for the lamb takes 3 days (!) to make (involving gelatin, a PacoJet, 2 days of fridge hanging and much more). Or that there are 4 water baths in this part of the kitchen, 1 for the salmon, 1 for the foie gras and 2 for the lamb. And that the beetroot amuse is made by reducing beetroot juice in a frigging expensive machine (which reduces liquid without blowing flavoured filled vapours in the air), then whisked until the liquid becomes foamy, before placing the beetroot air in moulds and a dehydrator. Silly me thinking they were made with beetroot juice and powdered egg white. Really should have known better. Johnny hands me one and I get a first taste of The Fat Duck. Needless to say it was one hell of a small bite.
With all the cool stuff going on I put my camera to my eye and start shooting. I’ve only taken three pictures before I hear: ‘No!!!!!!!! Sorry but you can’t take any photos.’ ‘What, why?’, I ask. The chef explains no one, no journalist, not even the Queen (not his exact words) can take pictures of the kitchen. Damn. I try to convince Johnny for a good 5 minutes to make an exception for me, but he won’t budge. Reluctantly I put my Nikon in the corner, resting there unused. After half an hour my hands start to twitch uncontrollably and with the risk of being punched bring up the subject of my camera. Johnny says it is not his call and I should talk to Deborah about it, probably thinking that would shut me up or at least stop me from pestering him about it. ‘Could you call her’, I ask. ‘Sure.’ The chef picks up the kitchen phone, dials the number of Deborah and hands me the horn. Deborah picks up and I ask about the photos, probably sounding like a 8 year old boy, not getting his way: ‘Mamaaaaaa, uh, Deborah, they don’t let me take any photos. Am I really not allowed?’ Not even answering my question she quickly says she’ll be right there and hangs up. Oh, I may have a shot! Work a little magic.
I can already see bemused faces on some of the cooks. ‘Watch out, she’s small, but very strong, she can kick everybody’s ass’, one says. Deborah arrives. She’s quick to explain, like the chef, that no one can take photographs and only the PR department decides what sort of images are send out in the world. Thinking I can still convince her I start a friendly banter and say I’ll be very selective with my photos and only put up a small number of photos. ‘No’. What if I sign a document to ensure you can can look at any photo before I’ll put them online? ‘No’. Ok, what if I hand over my SD card after service and you can delete all the photos you don’t like? ‘You’re a persistent fella aren’t you’, Deborah says. ‘I’ll say it one more time: it is not possible to take any photos.’ Sensing I’m about to unleash the famous ass-kicking potential of Deborah I give up and stop with the request. Deborah leaves. When she’s gone, the chef looks at me with a smile and says: ‘Good reading of the situation. One more time and she would have punched you.’ Another cook jokes, ‘guess where that would have landed with the height difference.’ So, no photos. Too bad.
As service is picking up Johnny becomes more and more focused and the kitchen picks up a gear. If I was allowed to move around before I’m now told, mostly by eye contact, to keep clear and stand in the small doorway between the two parts of the kitchen. It’s a narrow space between the hot and cold part of the kitchen, characterized by a small, but noticeably, especially after a few hours, slope. It’s hard to stand at ease with one leg slightly bend and cooks, the chef and dishwashers (keep clear!) moving around me. With nothing to do I try to decipher the flow of the kitchen. I try to track the tickets with the accompanying dishes. I try anticipating what everyone is going to do next. I fail miserably. My kitchen awareness is as good as my ability skin a duck. Worse actually. So I stand there, in a world foreign to me, with nothing to do. The best I can come up with is watching all the actions closely. Take all the plating and last minute cooking in.
What I get a glimpse of is incredible. To attention to detail and finesse is awe-inspiring. I thought I replicated some dishes pretty close to the original, but seeing food fly by I realize I couldn’t be more wrong. The ham for the snail porridge is cut in the most delicate julienne it’s transformed into a piece of art. All the pieces of salmon look exactly the same. I wouldn’t be surprised if they weighed the same to the gram. The Fat Duck smear of the barberry fluid gel for the Roast Foie Gras dish is perfect each time, applied with such ease I feel completely incompetent. I do a little math and estimate he does about 80 a day, 400 a week, 1600 a month. A lot of smears! The chef does not lag behind when it comes to attention to detail. He instantly spots a little dirt on one of the spoons when a dishwasher hands him a bucket of them. He immediately spots anything out of the ordinary and lets the cooks know about it in a calm, but effective way. Eyes like a hawk. Life would be so much easier if you could get glasses to get the same vision. We, the humble home cooks, can never, ever, ever, ever get to the same level. Maybe we can become good cooks for the home environment, but who cares if an onion fluid gel for a dish is perfect or not. Maybe me (I actually practiced the smears with a batch of onion puree), but definitely not someone I cook for.
It makes the few hours that remain a bittersweet experience. Seeing the strive for perfection up close is a unique experience, but knowing I couldn’t be further removed from it is depressing (just a bit though). To compensate I try to bring the cook of the barberry smears of his game. I try to mess with him. ‘Your smears are beginning to look better’, I say. He laughs. ‘At the very end they are a bit pointy, not as round and smooth as I’ve seen them in the book. Aren’t you worried someone takes a photo of the plate in the restaurant and you’ll have to live with an imperfect smear for the rest of your life?’ What’s he saying a cook from the back asks? ‘He’s just trying to mess with me’. Trying to mess with someone is a fun distraction, but pointless as hell. Barberry fluid gel #12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 etc. are all perfect. Kicking my ass without words.
There is one thing that puzzles me in the few hours I’m there, but it is commonplace in every restaurant and every place selling food items. Everything that does not meet the exact standards gets binned immediately. And I mean immediately. No preserving it or trying to rescue it. The bin. Without blinking. The best example is the foie gras. After being cooked in a water bath you have to pinch it to feel if the texture is right. Even cryogenically frozen foie gras is not perfect and the responsible cook is not impressed by quite a few. The solution. Toss them boys in the bin with such a speed they almost fly right through the plastic. Couldn’t you save the costly and delicious foie gras for a mousse, where they are pureed anyway, and serve it to the staff one day? Maybe it is not fair to critique the restaurant, while at home I regularly throw stuff away. Watching from the outside inside the kitchen though, something didn’t feel right. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. All the squares, circles and what not in top restaurants result in a lot of scraps. If you put it in perspective of food sold with an expiration date and the mountains of foods that gets tossed when it ‘expires’, it does seem unimportant. Should you hold a restaurant to a different standard? I don’t know.
My observations are interrupted by the chef as he presents me with the Roast Foie Gras dish. I can try it outside and am escorted by a cook. In the garden, where we had staff lunch, I happily eat the foie gras. A different and more solitary décor than a restaurant, I’m alone in the freaking Fat Duck garden eating a dish with a glass of wine, but somehow I like arrangement. Peace and quiet and an incarnation of my favourite recipe of the book.
Stepping back in the room of utmost precision I resume my active duty. Standing in the doorway and make myself as small as possible. Not long after I get a second dish to try, the Mock Turtle soup. Another cook, someone I only saw from behind up to this point, leads me back to the garden (are they trying to get rid of me?). He has to spend hours hunched over the garnishes of the soup. It looked like on of the worst jobs of the kitchen. I wouldn’t be surprised if they regularly change turtle duty to avoid chronic back problems of the cooks. Anyway, outside we are joined by another cook who fills in the details of the dish. Super friendly again. Eating the soup I’m relieved to taste the same flavour profile as the consommé I made for the Gold, Frankincense and Myhhr recipe. A delicate (in contrast to the other stocks I later learn), slightly sweet, crystal clear broth. It works wonderfully with the turnip, suede, pig’s cheek and lardo. It doesn’t hurt I would kill for a well-cooked piece of cheek. In all it hasn’t got the otherworldly flavour from sea urchins, a royale, egg yolks, cardamom and langoustines. Still a very good dish.
I happily return to the kitchen and find the pace is slowing down. The rush is over. Johnny is joking around more and in an altogether different mindset than a little time ago. It’s also approaching 4.30pm, the time of the interview with the man himself. I ask the chef if I can position myself at the cold section, to watch the BFG and the Macerated Strawberries from close by. Unfortunately he leaves me with a gentle ‘no’ and I’m again confined to the space I have started to take roots. Maybe they’ve put up a sign by now that says: ‘Here stood Albert.’**
At about the time I’m leaving for the interview, the part of the kitchen I watched for hours is cleaning up. No more hot dishes. I take a quick look at the BFG’s leaving the kitchen, turn around, and see a completely different setup. Water baths are thrown around, all the dirty pans and plates are gone, everyone is scrubbing like their lives depend on it and there is not a trace of food. Holy fuck. Can you hire these guys to clean your kitchen? A switch is set and bam the kitchen is clean. It probably has to do with the time off before evening service depending on how long the take to clean the kitchen. I hastily take my absence from the kitchen and walk outside, where I find Johnny talking to the maintenance guy that earlier in the day fixed the dishwasher in the kitchen. He, plus one other, are employed fulltime by the restaurant and all its sister companies in Bray, which goes to show what an enterprise it is. Johnny explains who I am and why I’m there and all I get from them is a strange look and a ‘why?’. Feeling I could never convince them of my sanity, I smile and say I had too much free time.
I’m ready to say goodbye and leave for the interview when Johnny suggests taking a photo with all available cooks, the ones not busy preparing the desserts. I didn’t think of it and am glad for the suggestion, to have a memory of all the guys in the kitchen. Notice the little detail in the photo, put there by the chef. I say goodbye to everyone and walk with Johnny through the busy dining room floor to the Hind’s Head for the interview with Heston. It’s a day of interceptions and this walk was no exception. Deborah picks us up an directs me to the Hind’s Head for the interview…
Just like seeing the strive for perfection up close, my hours in the kitchen were two-sided. I loved observing all the food fly by, see the actual restaurant space and get a taste of the menu. It is however not how I had pictured it in my head. Before coming to The Fat Duck the most exciting prospect was getting to taste a lot of stuff, including a lot of off menu items (to every dish there is at least one back-up or variation). I was so eager to compare the Fat Duck dishes to my own, I felt a bit disappointed I didn’t get the chance to dive into all the fridges. I learned from the few times I stepped into a kitchen, that your experience depends on your attitude. Get stuck in there and you’ll get what you want. Here it was clear I couldn’t really move around and Johnny told me to stick close-by, because he would give me tasters as the hours passed by. He is however the head chef of The Fat Duck and at some point he obviously needed to direct the orchestra and wasn’t really available for a nagging visitor (did a good deal of that at the beginning of lunch). Maybe I should have made it clear from the get-go that I really, really appreciated the invitation, the tour of the lab and the interview, but the single most important thing, what I came there for, was the food. Poke it. Smell it. Taste it. It was a shame the most exciting prospect never really materialized. I’ll stop now before anybody thinks my time there sucked. It didn’t!***
**All in good fun of course. I loved the experience, and had the warmest welcome.
*** Never interpret this paragraph as me being ungrateful. I really appreciated the invite and warm welcome. I just think it was important to write about all my experiences, even if it means whining for a few lines.
Topic of another post. What I can say I loved talking to Heston, but felt a bit rushed and didn’t have that much time for the talk.
After the all-too-soon-over interview I see my friends sitting in the pub area of the Hind’s Head. I’m still slightly touchy the interview was so short and felt an urgency to move along during the talk instead of a relaxing hour firing away questions. There is only one solution: beer. The cool beer works wonders and I tell about my day in the kitchen. The next few hours are as interesting as the car trip, so again a very short description, a sort of before and after if you will. We leave the Hind’s Head, go to the B&B, chill out for some time, and head to Bray again. This time the destination is The Crown, a traditional, local pub recently taken over by Heston. The menu consists of classic pub dishes, of course sprinkled with a bit of magic from Heston. Or as I understand it a bit from Ashley (Palmer-Watts), the former executive chef of The Fat Duck, now executive chef of Dinner in London.
Hind’s Head, the view from inside and Moor Farm B&B.
Entering the pub we bump into Ivan, who gave us the tour of the lab and is always a pleasure to meet, at the bar. We talk about my experiences in the kitchen and decide to meet a little later on at our table. When we sit down at the tables outside the pub, a waiter comes and immediately asks: ‘Which one of you is the Fat Duck guy. The one who made all the recipes?’ Bewildered he knows about it I say that it’s me and Isabelle and Dion helped with some dishes. ‘Ah. How did you do it? What did you do about the equipment?’, he asks curiously. I explain my budget solutions for the equipment. ‘Oh, great, great. I’ll leave you to it now.’ When he leaves Isabelle jokes I am a local celebrity. Five minutes of fame in Bray.
One thing was for sure before visiting The Crown. We were gonna take the hamburgers, at least Dion, David and me. Dion owns three burger joints in Amsterdam, called Burgermeester (a play on the Dutch word for mayor), which serves organic burgers. They are by far the best of any burger joint in Amsterdam. Naturally we were extremely curious how the, locally well-known, Crown burger would match up. It did great in the meat department. As Dion explained it is very difficult to teach employees (easier to do in a restaurant), mostly student part timers, the importance of consistency and following exact instructions. He told us one employee had a tendency to put tons of onion on burgers. When he ‘caught’ him doing it Dion asked what the deal was with the onions and the employee replied: ‘Because I love onions on burgers!’
The texture of meat is a whole other, even trickier concept to explain and then imprint in the brains of his employees. You don’t want to stomp the meat to death. You have to keep it light. You want a brittle burger, not a spongy disc. This is where the burger at The Crown excelled. The texture and flavour of the meat was impeccable. The bread, a dry brioche, worked ok and the garnishes were the classic lettuce, tomato and cheese. I’ve come to love the different garnishes and bread of Burgermeester, resulting in a bit of a disappointment at The Crown. Good burger. Not a great one. Definitely not a perfect one.
To have some variety Isabelle ordered the sirloin steak with béarnaise. All came by the way with fries and they were by far the best chips I ever had. Extremely crunchy, blasting sounds waves through your head while eating. It reminded me that I could count the number of times I had really good fries on one hand. A bit like the number of times I ate really good tomatoes. Or strawberries. Funny thing is that 2 days later in London I had some of the worst chips of my life, but more on that later.
I don’t really want to talk about the starters, because it involves me, a dainty little basket, a colourful napkin and raw vegetables. I don’t want to relive the shtick I got when it arrived or did I make fun of myself to stay one step ahead of my dining companions? All I needed was a forest and a fabric over my head and I could hop around in a children’s book.
Desserts were nice with two tiramisus, a bread & butter pudding and an Eton Mess. Tiramisu is a dessert, along with crème brûlée, I always order when it’s on the menu. I think this tiramisu was a variation on the one featured on the Feasts series: a mix of the classic Italian dessert and a Viennetta. It was crunchy, bitter, big and creamy. I arrogantly like my version, with an airy, vanilla infused mascarpone mousse, and dipped-but-still-crunchy-in-the-centre cookies, a bit better. Normally I’m not that arrogant about my food, but when it comes to crème brûlée and tiramisu I am. Even if it is because I could never admit another one is better with all the variations I’ve tried to get to the one I make now. Fuck it. A bit of arrogance doesn’t hurt anybody.
After dinner we had one more pint and some wine and went off to the B&B. Lunch at the Fat Duck was on the agenda the next day and we weren’t about to go there with a hangover…