Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Back soon...

I have to leave San Francisco earlier than expected to go back to the UK, but hope to be back in 2010 with more food, photos and news...

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

First course...

Chez Panisse continues to amaze and teach me more than I could have ever hoped. The chefs I work with are utterly inspiring, making the most incredible food night after night, with smiles on their faces and minimum fuss. Why aren't all restaurants this way and how on earth did I get lucky enough to be here? I have been really fortunate that they have so much faith put in me, as they not only let me help prep the meals with them - teaching me about the fantastic produce they use and showing me lots of great techniques - but the head chef Jean-Pierre and and sous chef Jerome (yes, I am back in with the French) have put me on the line each night, which means that I am actually part of the team of cooks getting to execute and serve the dishes to our guests each night.

As the set menu changes every day, I am constantly seeing new dishes, from amazing fish such as Catalina spiny lobsters served in a ragout with leeks and chervil or grilled Monterey squid and scallions with grilled peppers, aioli and salad, to wonderful locally-sourced meats, like grilled Sonoma duck breast with roasted fig relish, green beans and turnip and potato gratin or grilled rack, leg and loin of Elliott Ranch lamb with autumn vegetable tian and rapini. It's a masterclass in the best of Californian-French cuisine. Although I don't work on the pastry section, the girls work alongside us, always happy and proud to show me what they're making and offering samples. I didn't think I had a sweet tooth, but they are doing a good job of changing my mind...

But it's the core restaurant family to whom I will be eternally indebted: patient, wise, talented, brilliant and gracious (even with the relentless mocking of my English pronunciation, which seems to cause constant amusement, especially to the boys when I am calling out orders to the front-of-house team). Only a team of cooks as devoted to great food, to each other and to the restaurant that they love so much - and as confident and secure in their collective ability and experience - could be so generous with their time and energy. I am one very, very lucky line cook right now.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Back in the Bay

I'm back and have found San Francisco (and its inhabitants) as gorgeous as ever. Sunshine, beautiful views, wonderful people, great food and a few days of rest and fun before heading into my first stage at Chez Panisse. One of California's best-loved and most-respected restaurants, it has an impeccable ethos, serving the finest sustainably-sourced, organic, and seasonal ingredients, prepared with love, talent and unwavering care. Simple, yet brilliant - and representative of everything I admire and aspire to as a chef. So, it wasn't really a surprise to find myself shaking with nerves and excitement at the prospect of spending a fortnight in their kitchens. I had been assigned to work in the restaurant, which serves a set menu each night (as opposed to the upstairs café's more informal, à la carte menu). At 1.30pm, I arrived to meet the restaurant team, who were relaxed and friendly, whilst awesomely knowledgeable and passionate about food. With one chef off sick, I was truly thrown in at the deep end - Jerome, the chef in charge that night, assigned the starter to me, which - under his guidance - I prepped and served up to 100 guests:

Monday, November 2, $60
  • Frisée and rocket salad with confit gesiers, hearts, pancetta, green beans and liver toast
  • Poulet à lestragon: spit-roasted Soul Food Farm chicken with tarragon, crème fraîche, wild mushrooms, and fried potatoes
  • Meyer lemon meringue tartlet with huckleberries
I'm learning that Chez Panisse not only makes its customers extremely happy, but it seems that you'd be hard-pushed to find a happier workforce, too. Unlike the grim-faced, ashen, exhausted creatures who inhabit some of London, Paris or New York's leading restaurant kitchens, the cooks here genuinely love their work - this isn't some ordeal to survive in order to bolster their CVs and to prove they can hack the worst that can possibly be thrown at them. Many have been Chez Panisse for two decades or more and obviously take enormous pleasure and pride in their work - and each other. I didn't here a single raised voice or cross word - just encouragement and gentle, constructive criticism where needed, which was always received with grace. Split shifts (where you work two shifts back-to-back with a short break in between) are totally frowned upon as it's genuinely understood that cooks working longer than a 9-hour day are too exhausted to work properly - and, more importantly, to have a life of their own outside of work. All very sensible, but sadly, all too rare in most restaurants. (The café chefs doing the early shift start at 7am, but go home at about 4pm, handing over to the evening team). Too perfect to be true? Time will tell, but it's not just the food that they seem to be getting completely right here.