As far as jobs go, mine is marvellous. Becoming a chef was never a childhood dream – in another life I will be a ballet dancer – as it was far too sweaty, stressful, and you can’t paint your nails. But, contrary to my expectations, it is a role I’ve come to love. The hospitality industry’s reputation precedes itself but some jobs within this sector are better than others and I am blessed to say mine is one of those. There are surprisingly few candid accounts of life beyond the restaurant dining room which delve into the oppressive heat of the kitchen. Oh dear reader, what mysteries I can unveil for you right now! Sadly, I cannot provide too many details as you’ll never eat out again (I jest… kind of).
The love of brunch takes you the cafe to eat. It also took myself and my colleagues; that mutual obsession with food. True, I repeatedly poach eggs, fry bacon and provide food for the customers’ pleasures as part of my daily working day, (ah customers, how I love to hate you) but there are some sly perks. In this case, an early start means an early finish. While some restaurants are breaking between lunch and dinner service as part of their 15-hour shift, we stroll out at 5pm happy with the day and ready for our evenings.
I’m proud to say that we make everything from scratch. The ketchup, the brown sauce, the peanut butter are all made by our fair hands. Our creativity is fanned like a flame and we are encouraged to explore cuisines and experiment with flavour – a chef’s fantasy, I tell you.
Which takes me on to the specials. There should be a fanfare for that word. As I have already said, never ignore the specials board. (Potential inscription on my grave stone?) Chefs imbue every element of their dish with thought and care and, unlike the well-worn menu, it is a novelty thus the best meal they send out. Once a week each of us in the kitchen has a turn to shine and present a plate of food to be written on the menu, a thick roll of brown paper hanging by the till. Some of my colleagues nonchalantly plan their special the day before. I, on the other hand, take a number of weeks to note down recipes, ear-mark cookbooks and obsessively scroll Instagram allowing my ideas to evolve, and before long the plate isn’t big enough (‘ooh I’ll have to pickle that’, and ‘I need something crunchy…’). I decorate the plate with colour, bursts of pink with pickled radishes, sprinklings of nuts or seeds as with my soy-glazed seabass, or I keep it clean, letting pungent flavours like hay-smoked burrata shine (do not try this at home, hay goes everywhere).
With all this abundant creativity flowing, amidst the pressures of daily service, poaching those damn eggs and the intense summer heatwave I have been inspired and deflated simultaneously. It is said when a hobby becomes your career the love can suddenly shift into a burden – something I know well when faced with cooking dinner or just preparing a meal of Weetabix. Such an all-encompassing job leaves little room for anything else; your brain is wired to think about meal plans, menus and flavour combinations, much less that book you’ve been meaning to read or the blog post that sits in your drafts gathering dust.
When I am not writing I am absorbing, eagerly experimenting with ideas to pass along to you, dear reader. Each day I am learning something new, honing my cooking skills (I’m still to master the flambé with confidence – although I can handle accidental flambés so that they appear intentional). On top of that I challenge myself with my specials. Next time I will inch out of my comfort zone to cook pigeon, as far removed from my childhood dreams as I can imagine. In the meantime, here is special to try at home. No need to step into the restaurant kitchen unless you have to.
Soy-glazed seabass with coconut rice and raw sour vegetables
Adapted from Leiths Cookery Bible
Back in May I served this soy-glazed seabass with seasonal vegetables but feel free to eat it with pak choi or sautéed greens cooked in chilli and garlic.
4 fillets of seabass, skin on
4 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tbsp honey
200g basmati rice
1 tin of coconut milk
3 tbsp rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp sunflower oil
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 bunch of asparagus
1 bunch of spring onions
1 tbsp black mustard seeds
Sliced red chilli
Lime wedge, to serve
- Mix the glaze ingredients together. Sit the seabass upside-down in the marinade, avoiding the skin, and leave to absorb the flavours for up to 1 hour.
- To make the sour dressing pour the vinegar and sugar into a pan and heat gently to dissolve the sugar. Leave to cool then add the oil, lime juice and zest, and a little salt to taste.
- If using asparagus, slice each stick in half length-ways. Chop the spring onions at an angle. Toss the vegetables in half the dressing and set aside.
- Tip the rice along with the coconut milk and a tin full of water into a large saucepan. Season the liquid with salt. Bring to a simmer then cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes, occasionally stirring to stop the rice sticking to the base of the pan. When done it should be sticky with a bite.
- In a small frying pan gently toast the mustard seeds until they pop. Pour them into a bowl.
- Put a frying pan over high heat. Once hot cook the fish skin-side down for 2-3 minutes depending on the size of the fillet. Don’t overcrowd the pan or the fillets will sweat. Keep checking the heat, lower it if necessary as you don’t want the skin to burn. The flesh will gradually turn opaque around the edges as it cooks. Flip the fish over and cook the marinated flesh for another 2 minutes. Pour in some of the marinade to cook it through; it will bubble and thicken.
- Using a fish slice scoop the fillets onto plates, drizzle with marinade and serve with the dressed vegetables and dollop of coconut rice. Garnish with chilli slices, coriander leaves, toasted mustard seeds and the remaining dressing.