Monday, January 05, 2009

New year, new beginning

My my my....such a long time since I last posted, I feel quite out of practice writing! Today is the first day of my new life however, and I hope to mark it with regular blog posts as I explore an exciting new career in - of course - food. I've worked in professional kitchens on a small-scale previously - back at school I did my work experience in a lovely little Bistro/Brasserie, and as part of my University degree I worked both front and back of house at the open-to-the-public restaurant there. Both these experiences confirmed to me that as much as I love cooking, I'll never want to work full-time as a restaurant chef: the hours, the backbreaking pain of 12hour shifts on your feet etc etc. Not for a soft one like me.

Today however, I have taken a step closer to making my food-writing passion a profession, and started the prestigious Diploma at Leiths School of Food & Wine in London. Although a thoroughly competent cook in many ways, I lack the formal disciplines of proper 'chef' training, and Leiths is an excellent springboard to the future. Like many of my fellows who started today, I've skipped the first term (designed to turn people who haven't so much as picked up a wooden spoon into 'snow bunny' chalet girls in 3 months) and now start a week of orientation, which could also be described as an opportunity for the teachers to check you really do have all the beginners skills you said you had when you were approved to jump ahead ;)

It's big and scary reentering education when you've been away from it for a long while, although the age range of my contemporaries is so vast there are several who wont have been at University/College since I was born, and I had proper 'first day of school' nerves, so I can't have had it worst, even with butterflies in the tummy and clutching my bag rather tighter than necessary, as it it was the only barrier between me and playground bullies, or some such. I've never been great at starting conversations when thrown into a room full of people I don't know, but fortunately the course is full of people who are and by the end of the day I'd started to get to know a substantial number of them, which is good as we'll be working quite literally cheek-to-jowl for the next 6 months (space near the stoves is at a premium!).

A new course always means a lot of information to absorb, and there was certainly no lack of it for us today. The managing director and also the principal spoke to us for so long I felt sure their throats would give way under the strain and there were certainly plenty of surprises in what they had to tell us - like the 3 periods of work experience involved (not mentioned previously); or the group work, which could see me feeding the whole class (50-odd) with 3 almost-strangers for a team, in less than 2 weeks; or the fact that our theory exams require us to memorise such things as how many egg yolks make 150ml mayonnaise, or identify the 5 key criteria in browning meat. I suddenly began to wonder when I was going to find the time in evenings and weekends to do a part-time job to pay for the damn course, what with all this homework, on top of a 9-5pm daily schedule actually at the school!

Fortunately for me, Leiths is full of the most excellent staff, who I'm sure will help me muddle through. We were in the kitchens prepping after lunch - a great surprise to many who (like I) had assumed today would be mostly admin. This week is plenty of the more basic stuff - in order to let the staff assess our skills - so we did basic veg prep (onion - slice & dice - the proper way, carrots three ways - julienne, brunoise and baton, and chiffonades of herbs); we learnt to use the giant industrial stoves by sweating onions (not as easy as one would think, there were eight of us, using hobs side by side, with only enough space really for 5 at a time); and trimmed a rack of lamb - a very satisfying procedure including removing the hefty chine bone, skinning the joint and scraping the rib bones in such a vigorous manner the room filled with a screech not unlike fingernails on a blackboard. My lamb bones were pronounced 'beautiful' by our teacher B - always nice to hear - she manages a wonderful balance between serious professionalism and friendly approachability, but then I have yet to meet a teacher at Leiths who isn't like that, which is wonderful.

Tomorrow we are in the kitchens first thing, and I expect to come home with some really lovely food (we are making Quiche Lorraine and Herb-crusted lamb cutlets - the herb prep and onion sweating today will be used here). We get to eat/take home everything we cook and prep, and anything we don't want or use goes to a local homeless charity, so none of the students' waste is actually wasted, which I think is fantastic. I have a freezer full of all the lamb bones from today, which will enrichen many a stew and bolognese to come (I've found if you make a stew/sauce with beef, but include a raw lamb bone from the beginning of cooking it adds a wonderful rich flavour!).

It's a whole new way for me - cooking to a prescribed style, following a recipe without tweaking it, learning new skills - I can't wait to see how it goes!


Trig said...

Last year my friend Pete from This Edible Life did the same diploma course and it changed his life totally for the better. I hope it does the same for you. Good luck with the course and a very Happy New Year. said...

God, I am filled with incredible admiration for you! It sounds like a fascinating and brilliant course - if totally daunting too!