I’ve seen a selection of interesting jobs in my adult life. After working at a cookware shop I interned at StudioCanal and was a bit too open revealing my love for Benedict Cumberbatch to a room full of laughing office workers, before I moved on to become a personal assistant to a film director. I have worked as a talent agent, an editorial intern, a baker, a bartender at a gay bar where my tips were pathetic, maybe something to do with being the wrong gender, and now, after my heady romantic time at cookery school, I’m working as a restaurant chef.
A month ago I started work at a restaurant in Manchester. Hispi, like its sister restaurants in Chester and the Wirral, is named after food, in this case a cabbage. I’d heard of Gary Usher’s other restaurants, Sticky Walnut and Burnt Truffle, but only when my friend Georgie told me that he had opened another restaurant in Didsbury, a Manchester suburb, was my interest peaked and I immediately retreated to the internet for more information.
We’ve all been told by our parents not to play with our food but I’m glad Head Chef, Ron*, and my new colleagues never listened as that is exactly what they do at Hispi. The eclectic flavour combinations come from their years of experience in the industry, sharing ideas, experimenting, and constantly keeping their eyes on current food trends. The list of ingredients on the menu appear more like a shopping list than a dish but when the individual elements come together on its pristine white plate, the textures, colours and flavours harmonise and contrast. My love of adaptation drew me in. One of their popular desserts is parkin; most commonly known as a chewy cakey treat spiced with ginger from Northern England. Hispi serve it warm slathered in dark caramel-scented butterscotch sauce, with a smooth rocher of crème fraîche sorbet glistening on top like a creamy jewel.
Yes, crème fraîche sorbet, what is this madness? Other desserts include smoked pineapple with meringue and whipped fromage blanc, creamy, wobbly custard tart covered in grated fresh nutmeg, and melt-in-the mouth moussey chocolate cake with hazelnut butter and beer ice cream, proving desserts can offer much more flavour than merely sweetness.
All three restaurants were founded by Gary Usher who is now busy with a fourth venture in Liverpool. To me he sounded like a mythical figure who would remain without form (apart from when I stalked him on Twitter). One day, I arrived at work to face an onslaught of people and chaos. The restaurant has had to deal with occasional electricity issues and my arrival that morning saw many electricians darting around attempting to solve the mystery. One man spotted me and nipped over.
‘Hi there, you alright?’
‘Er, yes thanks.’
‘Can I help you?’
I’m perplexed and standing there in my man’s t-shirt, baggy black trousers, hair pulled back in a bun and my Crocs in a trusty plastic bag; do all paying customers look this good?
‘I work here.’
‘Oh I’m sorry! Are you new? Where did you come from?’
This is a very friendly electrician…
‘I worked at a catering company in London for a bit -‘
‘Oh you’re a chef! I thought you were front of house! I’m Gary,’ and he holds out his hand which I automatically shake.
‘I’m Ally – wait, THE Gary?!’
So, that’s how I met Gary, mistaking him for a chatty electrician, and inadvertently providing him a title.
To say the job is time consuming is an understatement. Many people (including myself around a month ago) have a nebulous concept of what the lifestyle of a chef is like, the long hours, the intensity and heat, and the pressure you constantly feel to guarantee perfectly presented good food is served every time. Oh boy. While I can’t say it’s worse than the image Anthony Bourdain painted in Kitchen Confidential, which luckily thanks to feminism, improved work standards and just general health and safety (for both the chefs and customers) now being a thing, will hopefully remain a thing of the past, starting in a busy, hot professional kitchen was like a big highly unpleasant electric shock for little old just-graduated-cookery-school me.
My hands and arms are now dotted in battle scars, the results of my daily war with the oven, and my knees have just formed a new skin after the thirty (yes, I repeat, thirty) bruises have faded to just six. The kitchen is designed for the tall so most of my time is spent asking the KP (kitchen porter) to pass me something from a shelf or I clamber up onto the bench to reach it myself, whether it’s the KitchenAid which resides on top of the walk-in fridge or tubs of ingredients. (My request for a step ladder has been ignored or received the response, ‘Just grow’.) There is so much charging around from stove to bench to the walk-in and back again, usually lugging heavy trays and pans, accidents could easily happen so everyone shouts ‘Backs! Backs!’ to spare collisions and is the soundtrack to our daily routine. (This has now reached a depressing climax where I stop myself from shouting it in Sainsburys as I walk behind other customers).
Before I go any further, I must confirm that yes there have been plenty of tears since starting this new career path. Once I was heaving with sobs as I made pastry and loaded the bread into the oven which was enough for Ron to pull me out of the kitchen to order me to get a grip. Another time it was because the clattering Kitchen Aid fell off my station while I was hurrying around, already preparing my mise-en-place for another task on my list. All equipment is precious and if something breaks under your watch then it’s you who is responsible.
Most of the time though, the problem which continuously holds me back is that big fat imposter syndrome. Which is completely understandable really – I literally just graduated from a Foundation course at culinary school. That is hardly preparation for the real world of a chef! Imposter syndrome knows how to play you. You try to start each day with a level head, then a minor mistake makes you nervous, then before you know it you’ve put the custard tart into the oven at 180C and it’s now scrambled egg, or you tried to carry too much out of the walk-in meaning you drop a china bowl over all the food you painstakingly prepared earlier. Tiny shards of china were scattered across all my dessert garnishes. Unless I want my customers to break a tooth, everything has to go in the bin.
Learning to take my initiative has been my biggest learning curve as a chef. Thirty minutes prior to every service my task is to take the cheese out the fridge so it comes to room temperature for the cheese boards, and to rechurn the ice cream so it’s not rock hard and impossible to scoop beautiful rochers. Unfortunately for me, with a head either in the clouds or fogged by feelings of inadequacy, more times than not I forgot to churn the ice cream or bring the cheese out. Such simple jobs requiring very little time or energy on my part were simply and casually brushed under the rug in my brain, and only became heart-hammeringly obvious when I had an order for any dessert (all of which are paired with ice cream or sorbet).
The Hispi bunch (please admire that intentional pun) are a group of incredibly talented young men who, to their credit, have patiently taken me through this baptism of fire without too much eye rolling. Whenever I struggle with something new one of the chefs will show me the technique.
That said, trusting Trigger’s pizza toss would be a mistake. My bench was covered in flour, the pasta machine was spitting out another flattened round of flesh-coloured sticky rye dough (in my opinion resembling nude tights which I pointed out to Trevor, who immediately replied with, ‘I wouldn’t know, I only ever see them on the floor…’).
Trigger and Garth were advising me, insisting the dough needed to be thinner for the crackers which we serve with cheese. Garth began playing with the dough, fashioning a pizza base which he began flopping around before twisting and throwing into the air. Trigger copied, tossing higher, then higher still. Garth foresaw the moment before it happened. ‘You’re gonna hit the-‘
The dough whacked the speeding ceiling fan. I screamed. It ricocheted across the ceiling before falling with a thump, greeting us bruised and deflated as we all burst out laughing.
Since I started, the restaurant faced Mother’s Day, one of their busiest days since opening six months ago. Arriving at 9am that fateful morning, bleary with fatigue, and welcomed by Ron merrily stating this fact, I’m not going to lie my heart beat faster, my palms went sweaty, and I tried not to think about the long list of checks I knew were heading my way.
That weekend, the heat and pressure in the kitchen rose alarmingly and we doused ourselves with bottles of Lucozade – Sous Chef Chad managing to consume four in one day. Although the caffeine and the hydration does lend a hand, nothing can help you with the rush of checks as they steamroller through the pass, only good time management and ability to cope with the pressure. You are required to use your cooking skill in an entirely new way; using your senses to recognise when the food is cooked, the amount of seasoning to use and how to apply it, you look for colour and consistency, knowing that these characteristics contribute to flavour and appearance. All this is done as quickly as possible. The cooking lifestyle at Hispi is a million miles for my rustic style of convenience and comfort (ahem laziness) at home, as is the case with every chef. Cooking in a restaurant kitchen takes stamina, determination, grit and a lot of bravery. The romance of cookery school is over, folks. Bring on the burns, the heat and ice cream rochers!
*On their discovery of this blog my chef colleagues wrote a list of aliases for me to use, all of which are eerily fitting.