The Final Stage

‘Simplicity with quality comes first, great details are just beneath.” The Relae ‘Manifesto’ should have sounded alarm bells. Surely I have worked in enough joints to decode restaurant hyperbole? Quality comes first? I don’t doubt this for a second, after all Relae was recently voted one of the best restaurants in the world. But the details beneath part can only mean one thing: behind that open kitchen, there is undoubtedly an army of chefs working their bollocks off for 16 hours a day. I was one of them. And blimey it was hard work. Of all the kitchens to date this was the closest I had reached to giving up. Perhaps the mental fatigue and physical exhaustion of working long hours in 50 back-to-back jobs was in some way to blame? Regardless, I only had two to go. The end was in sight. I was not going to give up now.

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Copenhagen was always an easy decision for my penultimate stop. No, not because it’s only a short cheap flight from home. Nor did it have anything to do with rumours that Denmark is the world’s finest ‘Tinder’ destination (seriously, did you not read the bit above about the 16 hour shifts?). But rather, since 2004, with the publication of the New Nordic Cuisine Manifesto, and the rise of Noma to the world’s best restaurant, there has been no other city more influential to the world culinary scene. The Danes’ preference for a style of cuisine that focuses on purity, freshness and simplicity, as well as seasonality, ethics, and well-being sounds hardly revolutionary eh? And yet it is the way to which they execute these beliefs which has led many of the world’s greatest restaurants looking to the Copenhagen food scene for inspiration. I could not ignore it.

Founded by Christian Puglisi & Kim Rossen, Relae closely follows the principles of New Nordic Cuisine. This is well documented. Google Relae and you will struggle to find any article that doesn’t discuss the restaurant in relation to Noma and the New Nordic Manifesto. However, during my time at Relae, I had a different sort of Manifesto on my mind – Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, and in particular the idea of ‘sprezzatura’ – or in other words looking effortlessly cool. (Look, I didn’t spend three years in and out a dingy Oxford tutorial room for all that information to go to waste, I had to use it someday, somehow!) And Relae is just that – sprezzatura…The laid back atmosphere, the minimalist interior, the courses that often only use two ingredients. The team at Relae work bloody hard to seem so nonchalant, except only those behind the kitchen wall perhaps realise this.

Take for example a course I worked on – ‘onions and seaweed’. Excluding the dash of cherry vinegar and birch oil this is a two ingredient dish. And yet preparing the plate left me needing a Valium sandwich at the end of the night – only the assistance of Chef Tonga, with such cheer and vigour, stopped me from going completely deranged.

We roasted close to 80kg of onions, cut them in half and extracted only the finest shells. When it came to service these were seasoned, stuffed with söl (a type of Icelandic seaweed), rolled into spliff shaped pieces and finished with a dash of cherry vinegar, birch oil and sol powder on top. Sounds straight forward enough but it took the two of us 10 hours to make this dish. Add to this the stress of service… You can’t plate up too far in advance as the onions dry and seasoning becomes unbalanced. Each plate takes about 6 minutes to assemble. You get 8 orders in at once which need to be finished in 6 minutes. There are two chefs. You do the maths. On top of this you spend 4 hours a day tasting seasoning on red onions, a snacking regime I would not wish on anyone’s stomach. If I never see a red onion again I will be a happy man.

You may now be expecting some more elaboration on the other Relae food but this onion course was so demanding, I had little time to observe anything else. On occasion I was offered a brief respite once the first sitting was complete and I ran to aid the pastry section before the second sittings started ordering onions again. Just like the onions though this dish consisted of two ingredients only this time rhubarb and almonds – an almond milk ice cream, rhubarb sheets, almond flakes, a rhubarb compote and rhubarb juice to glaze. It tasted amazing. As did many of the other dishes that the chefs sent back for the trainees to sample a mouthful of.  However I wouldn’t feel confident in talking too much about the other food served, so you’ll just have to cope with the pics below.

Not too long ago, I was in conversation with a journalist of a mainstream UK publication. A feature had been vetoed because the editor believed my experiences sounded too much like a ‘jolly holiday’ and not enough like hard work. I wish he had been there during my week at Relae. I have never worked in such a labour intensive restaurant, where the other trainees (stagiaire) and I were right at the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy, performing the most remedial of tasks and drilled in such a way not dissimilar to a military like environment. Saving our one brief break to eat, we were not allowed a single idle moment, and were always pushed for speed and progress. As one stagiaire so delicately put it “us guys, are idiots for coming here to wipe arse for free.”

But while the above may not sound like the most enjoyable experience, it was nonetheless a positive one. I set out last year to work in a variety of kitchen atmospheres from those that molly-coddle young chefs like members of the family, to places like Relae, where hard work and tough love are expected as a necessity for success in the kitchen. I certainly left Relae, feeling a better and more confident chef than when I arrived. More so than any restaurant experience to date. Maybe one day I will return to Relae, to sit on the other side of the pass and taste the food outside the chaos of the kitchen. I hope I do because next time I will know how hard it is to seem so effortlessly cool. Let’s just pray for the sake of my new-found anxiety complex a plate of red onions doesn’t make it my way…

Le Chateaubriand

My time is running out. 49 weeks ago there I was scrubbing the floor of a brewery, distracting myself from the hard graft by day dreaming about what the following year may hold in store. Now just three jobs remain.  This calls for a grand finale. Paris calls.

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For many chefs there can be few more crowning achievements than cooking in a 3 Michelin starred restaurant. Not so long ago I was one of them. But as my travels progressed I met a number of young chefs who when I mentioned my ambitions looked at me with deep filled dread. They urged me not to make the same mistake that saw them learn only little while they worked and were treated like dogs. I’m pretty sure this isn’t true for all kitchens. I did hear of some positive experiences, but you see all that pomp and ceremony makes me feel terribly uneasy.  As a Northern lad I would only end up making a ‘reet twat’ of myself by mispronouncing ‘Chablis’ or when asked to ‘cut the veg julienne’ assume that they were bestowing on me a new nickname.

Make no mistake, I’m sure time at such an institution would’ve been an unforgettable experience, but such staid restaurants feel so out-dated against the way in which the world fine dining scene is moving. Out go the shiny cutlery, linen tablecloths, and bank breaking bills and in comes haute cuisine in casual settings at affordable prices. Good food should be accessible not intimidating. I have asked many a chef who they inspire to be. Rarely do they say the Passards, Gagnaire and Ducasses of the kitchen. Instead it’s the Redzepis, Atalas and Dave Chang leading the way. Young chefs want to be seen as rock stars not Michelin stars.  With this in mind, there’s only one place in Paris I really should go, Inaki Aizpitarte’s Le Chateaubriand, the highest rated French restaurant on the S Pellegrino Top 50 list.

The man himself!

The man himself!

I’m sure Inaki cares little, but critics were quick to label his at Le Chateaubriand as ‘bistronomy’ – haute cuisine in a bistro environment.  The menu consists of a 6 course taster menu that changes daily, with optional booze pairings. The food is based on French technique but draws influence from international cuisines. It costs just €65. If you don’t want 6 courses, those queuing around the corner for your seat definitely will.

Stepping inside the LCB kitchen at a leisurely 2pm (gotta love the French working hours), there is a youthful vigour in the air and a party like atmosphere. Coffees dished up, hangovers shaken off and whites slipped on; it isn’t long before some classic hip-hop anthems blast from the kitchen stereo. The chefs are laughing and joking as if they were mates prepping up a supper at home. Inaki struts in pulls out a scrubby bit of paper, dumps a bag of greens he’d foraged on the way to work and reads out the day’s menu.

I have no idea how the chefs are able to change the menu daily. I sit there trying to recall the menu with some difficulty. Ingredients dart about from course to course over the week, which despite extensive notes confused me no end. Thankfully some consistency was kept with the amuse bouche and starters with cheese gougeres, followed by deep fried shrimp in raspberry powder (I know, I hated the sound of it too but it worked surprisingly well), a ceviche; sea urchin with cucumber, samphire and seaweed, and finally a cleansing cup of hot bouillon with radish and coffee flakes. 

But the more substantial courses rarely stayed the same. Astoundingly, each plate, despite being new to the chefs, is cooked to perfection (and I’ve seen a fair few disasters caused by menu changes on my travels).  The chefs are constantly creative, always adapting and always learning. This gives for a kitchen education like no other. Take these dishes: a lightly confit piece of skipjack (a cousin of the tuna fish) with onions, potatoes and dill; pan fried cod, with sorrel emulsion, broad beans (lovingly peeled by yours truly) and fleur d’accacia; and guinea fowl, with red orach (a type of red spinach) and rhubarb. There are restaurants that would’ve taken a long period of time to evolve dishes of such quality and yet here they are read out on the morning and perfected a few hours later.

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One dish is so bloody good the chefs at LCB were forced to keep it on the menu for fear the French diners may go on stirke. And after a nectarine sorbet with finely sliced beetroot, comes that dish – Inaki’s tocino del cielo. This dish meaning ‘bacon of heaven’ is a classic Spanish custard dessert that originated in Andalusia, when there was need to use up yolks after the whites were used for clarifying wine. Inaki’s has a modern twist. He soaks the egg yolks in a sugar solution that forms a skin on the yolk. It is then placed on a meringue with a caramel sauce, before being coated in sugar and blow torched. Diners are instructed to eat it in one. As soon as you bite in, the yolk oozes out a richness that dances with the sweet caramel and crunch of the meringue. There are few greater desserts I have encountered on my trip.

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On my last night I was dragged out of the kitchen to help Colin behind the bar.  Little did I know that this involved Colin playing his favourite party trick of getting you drunk on the wine pairings all while trying to dry delicate glassware. Drunken bull in a china shop springs to mind.  But working on the bar gave me a rare treat: to see life beyond the kitchen walls. The restaurant was raucous with diners having a good time. I have seen nothing like it. The dining area feels like one big party. I turn to the kitchen to see the chefs, cranking up the volume and opening up some beers. Colin starts to pour me a large glass of 20-year-old calvados and the good times continue to rock n’ roll. Who needs 3 starred restaruants when you could be enjoying this?

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If this year has taught me one thing it is that at every corner of the earth, you will find Italian food. The food travellers saviour, it offers brief respite for the palate from whatever local cuisine you have been habitually enjoying for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sure you could track down a ropey Indian. Or sneak in for a sly McDonald’s (look it was just the once ok?). But it is the ‘generic’ Italian, with its homely middle-class environment and canon of recognised dishes that warms the traveller’s soul. Plus it’s almost impossible to mess up a pizza right? Even the bad ones are edible and admit it, you enjoyed it really.

Prior to my arrival in this world my parents spent the best part of ten years in Italy. Son of two Italiophiles, it was perhaps inevitable I developed a fondness of all things Italian. The good news? Through them I acquired the nation’s unrivalled passion for all things foodish. The bad news? That passion came with a heavy dose of criticism. So when the odd plate of pasta showed up on my travels it was most certainly welcome but I couldn’t help but think “this is not how they do it in Italy” (especially in the case of a ragu sauce in China consisting of crumbled up bits of burger with ketchup squirted on top). By the time I returned from India, I was in need of a serious Italian food fix. I was ready for the real deal. Sicily called…

The happiest boy alive. Concerned parents please note - the Peroni was not mine. I hope.

The happiest boy alive. Concerned parents please note – the Peroni was not mine. I hope…

Within moments of arriving in Palermo, I felt like I had returned to a second home. After 3 months in Asia, Europe can feel very comforting. But despite the familiarity offered by my surroundings this would be a week like no other, as the fate of finding kitchen work lay in the hands of my host Michaela, a local fireman and true Sicilian gent. Any attempt to exert control over my destiny and I was told, “Alex, tranquillo, tranquillo” and after every question came the same response, “hey, Alex, Alex! Non ti preoccupare!” Clearly I had to just sit back, relax and let Sicily come to me.

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The first morning in Palermo we darted in and around the downtown traffic stopping to meet a parade of Michaela’s acquaintances, with each meeting involving a little something to eat or drink. After a morning coffee and a few local pastries, it was on to the nearby bar where old Sicilian signori took pleasure in offering me some morning prosecco and some of the local Nero d’Avola red wine.

Already at this early stage I had a suspicion I was unlikely to put in any hours today at a kitchen as Micheala beamed with pride in feeding me the food of his land. A trip to the market to sample the local produce: Sfincione (a Sicilian style deep pan pizza) by the sea front, a long lunch with ample beers, yet more coffee and of course cannoli. The only respite came later that afternoon when full to the brim and slightly tipsy I had an afternoon nap. And even then I was woken for a huge family dinner followed by a night on the tiles with Micheala’s sister Dani, which involved yet more beers and street food in the Vucciria including frittula (deep-fried battered tripe) and panella (chickpea fritters).

The following day, still full and a little hungover, it became immediately clear our adventures around town were to find me some work. Unbeknown to me, I had not one but three trattorias to work in over the coming days, each of which began the same way – I would walk into the kitchen to be greeted by a confused band of chefs. Michaela would explain I was a friend of [insert tenuous link here] and after a few strange looks that seemed to express “how on earth can an Englishman cook Italian food”, I was put to work.

Such little time in a kitchen would not normally allow me to get to grips with the demands of the job. Thankfully this was mitigated as I was not only familiar with Italian food but the three trattorias shared the majority of the menu repertoire. My short stints were also helped by the fact that Italian food is relatively easy on the chef. But that’s what I love. Nowhere else in the world have people such a mastery in expressing the produce of their land in such a simple way. Perhaps they have history to thank? Pizza, for example, has evolved to perfection from chef to chef over 12,000 years. That’s almost 25 times longer than Mexican cuisine has existed.

You may wonder why, in contrast to most jobs, I chose somewhere in my comfort zone. But Palermo offered one of the rare moments on this trip where I could make tweaks to my pre-existing knowledge, such as the Sicilian way of making pasta with no eggs, rather than learning something from scratch. I also came across some dishes unique to Sicily that were truly mouthwatering such as spaghetti con ricci, a sauce made from fresh sea urchins, and spaghetti con la sarde, the beautiful marriage of fresh sicilian sardines and wild fennel. And let us not forget some of better known dishes – arancini (deep-fried rissotto balls), caponata (known as the King of Sicily and often made used battered swordfish pieces), and my personal favourite pani ca meusa (calf spleen simmered in lard and served in bread with a squeeze of lemon).

For all the amazing food in Palermo there was one last ingredient missing that completes every meal: family. In between the kitchen shifts and mad biking around, I was welcomed in Michaela’s home as one of the Randisi family. After 10 months on the road, this was my first return to family life. There I sat, 12 of us around the table. Michaela tops up my glass of wine, a huge spread lies in front of me and ‘mama’ brings me a plate of steaming hot pasta. There is a brief silence as everyone tucks in before a gradual crescendo to a loud and passionate debate. You can probably guess the subject…food.

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Heartfelt thanks to the Randisi Family.

A Postcard from Palermo

If you were in Sicily recently you may have caught a glimpse of a certain individual holding on for dear life, as one of the locals, Michaela, darted in and around the local traffic, stopping to proudly show off the produce of his land. I’m pretty sure we broke the record for the world’s fastest cheese as I balanced a two kilo bag of ricotta in my lap as his bike sped across the Sicilian hills at 135 kmph. Thankfully, I lived to tell the tale and share with you some pics of the finest produce I’ve encountered on this trip. Who wouldn’t get excited about the below… especially the sea urchins! Deliziosissimo!

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Delhi Belly

My last week in Delhi and I was feeling a little odd. Having worked my way around the world, it was just days before I returned home briefly before my final five jobs in Europe. As the big homecoming slowly approached I became worryingly introvert. There I lay, sprawled across the hostel’s hammock drinking chai, staring at the sky, lost in a world of thoughts. Even the sprawling mass of Delhi with its many sensory overloads did little to shake me from my zen like state. But for all the joy of achieving so much over the past 47 weeks and the excitement to be seeing my friends and family soon there was a deep dread and worry about life after job 52 and the end of Foodish Boy. How was I ever going to do something so fulfilling with my life?

It wasn’t long until it dawned on me that there I was moping around when really I should be in some Indian kitchen spluttering from the spice that fills the air. Surely I wasn’t going to return home and have to dig out an old 80s edition of Pat Chapman’s Curry Club every time I wanted some Indian cuisine. Then at the very last-minute, after some help from my friends at GranturismoI received an invitation to spend some time in one of Delhi’s finest restaurants, Indian Accent.

After feeding the 5,000 a few days earlier, I now found myself in the Indian Accent kitchen where arguably a similar amount of chefs served only 80 people. Head Chef Manish Mehrotra‘s food is so widely influenced it’s difficult to summarise. French techniques with Indian ingredients, Indian techniques with French ingredients, odes to street food, twists on royal banqueting dishes, regional cuisine and very jazzy modern presentation. I suppose if you really cared, you could say his food was conceptual. But all you really need to know is (cue drooling)… this man puts applewood smoked bacon in his kulcha. Need I really say any more?

My time at Indian Accent was split across the cold section, the curry section and the tandoor station. Naturally, the cold section was a joy with its ample opportunities for snacking on poppadums and various chutneys. But it was the deep fried potato spheres, a take on chaat street food, with a white pea ragda that ensured whatever work was to be done was to the tune of dip, dip, crunch. We plated a range of dishes including pommelo with murraba (a North India chutney) and puchkas (think a spherical poppadum) that you pour different sauces in to.

Working the cold section proved easy to master, copying the assembly work of my co-chef plating up. The curry section, however, was tricky to say the least. Even with a pen and paper to hand, it is almost impossible to put together several dishes of over 20 ingredients simultaneously without making a few fuck ups (and by few I mean lots). The chefs humoured me in the quieter periods letting me fire a few dishes such as chicken tikka meatballs with chopped tomato makhani (makhani implying the sauce is butter based) and minced chicken curry with tandoori foie gras. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – my waistline is expanding by simply writing about this.

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But of everything I learned at India Accent, there was nothing more enjoyable than my time spent on the tandoor. Consider this: 1) you get to play with fire, 2) you use rather large implements suitable for sword fighting and 3) throwing dough on the tandoor wall, while you watch it splat and bubble in blistering heat is a joy like no other. The only downside of my time on the tandoor was the inevitable greed that caused me to bite into a molten hot naan (butter glaze can do bad things to men).

Food Porn...

Food Porn…

The Indian Accent chefs really treated me with a staggering amount hospitality and generosity, sneaking me out for long lunches of some of the regional Indian cuisine, driving me to see the markets and even allowing me several hours to peruse Manish’s cookbook collection when admittedly I should’ve been downstairs giving them a helping hand. And when they heard this was my last stop before England, they insisted my night would be spent the other side of the pass feasting like a Maharaja.

What followed was a meal truly befitting of a last supper…Blue cheese and caramelised onion kulcha, foie gras stuffed galawat with strawberry green chilli chutney, soft shell crab, flame roast coconut, tomato pickle. The starters kept coming… Meetha spare ribs, sun-dried mango, toasted kalonji seeds, khandvi (an Indian ravioli made with flour and yoghurt), and baked fish, masala butter and white bait papad – a dish so good I had to ask for a second helping.

When my main course arrived, I could barely manage any of it. I apologised to the waiter. “I’m not surprised Alex, most people eat just the one starter not seven!” Somehow, of course, I found room for a pudding of warm doda burfi treacle tart and vanilla bean ice cream, although by then I was worried for my well-being. As I bid farewell to the staff I joked that I looked like a pregnant man. “Never mind Alex, when you get home you can show off your Delhi belly!”

Feeding the 5,000

Job 46 and I headed to Delhi’s Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh temple to feed the 5,000 from their kitchen Langar. Here are a few pics from my time there…. And yes pouring steaming hot dhal down a slide is as much fun as it looks (although my knees are yet to recover from the 6 hours squatting while rolling out chapatis).

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A Postcard from Ambootia

During my last few days in I Darjeeling I visited the Ambootia plantation, one of the first tea gardens established by the British in the mid-19th century. Here are a few pics from my time there.

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Hand picked tea from previous day's work.

Hand picked tea from previous day’s work.

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