Alex Watts gave up a full-time job as a journalist in his early forties to work behind the stove. Under the pseudonym Lennie Nash, Watts recorded his often disastrous and hilarious experiences in the online blog, Chef Sandwich. Eventually a book, Down and Out in Padstow and London, appeared. In this edited extract, Watts records his eye-opening time at the Fat Duck
A 23-year-old chef called Laurent ran the prep room. At first I thought he was French – he had that peculiar blend of Gallic arrogance and nonchalance – but it turned out he was Dutch.
He told me to measure out the venison and frankincense tea into exact 65g portions. It was probably the easiest job in the kitchen, but I managed to mess it up. I had to pour the broth into small plastic bags and vac-pack them. But a couple of bags exploded, and each time I had to clean the vacuum packing machine down and start again. I could see the sideways glances. They could tell I was a novice straightaway – it wasn’t just the Tesco bag and my two knives that gave me away…
We stood there four to a bench, peeling and chopping, and making banal conversation. Like most kitchens, the place was predominantly male. There were only four female chefs at the Fat Duck – and three of them were doing stages.
At exactly 11am every day, we were led over the road for staff lunch. It was always a manic affair. Trays of food were lined up near the pass, and a haphazard queue formed as waiters and chefs jostled for position. We ate in the dining room, pushing each chair as far away from the set tables as we could. It did nothing for my digestion. Glass and the threat of admonishment sparkled over the napkins.
Less than an hour later, the wealthy and famous would start filling the same posh leather seats with no inkling that some sweaty-arsed chef had just been sitting there. Waiters skulked in dark corners as we ate, watching every forkful and speck of spittle…
The task I began to dread the most was the grapefruits. Even the chefs at the Hinds Head, Blumenthal’s pub next door, knew about the grapefruits. The chore summed up everything you needed to know about the fastidiousness and downright ludicrousness of three-star Michelin cooking.
You had to peel each grapefruit carefully, without bruising or cutting the flesh. I was easily the worst, and more often than not I’d make a gash, and pink watery juice would ooze like an open sore. Then, even more carefully, you’d take the white pithy globe and tease it into segments. Then, with a paring knife, you’d pick out any pips and carefully peel away the white, and lay the pink flesh on towelling paper to soak up the juice.
Then the real work began. You picked each segment, flicking off tiny, juice-filled pearls on to another piece of towelling. The work was fiddly in the extreme. Even the slightest pressure would burst them. Once we had covered one piece of towelling with grapefruit pearls, we’d begin on another.
Urge to scream
After an hour, your fingers were numb with the detail, and the urge to scream and hurl a grapefruit across the room was overwhelming. Some chefs used a toothpick to pick the pearls, but there was no easy way of doing it. Four whole grapefruits had to be picked for lunch and another four for the evening.
They were used as a garnish for the salmon poached in liquorice gel – barely making up 2% of the dish – and I hated every second of it. If this was cooking, then I was in the wrong game. I began wondering whether Blumenthal lay in bed at night devising ever more devilish recipes for his chefs to cook…
Laurent ticked off the jobs on his prep sheet as we did them. The potatoes for the lamb hot pot had to be cut on the slicer to ensure they were all the same thickness before you gouged out hundreds of walnut-sized discs. The off-cuts looked like hunks of Emmental cheese. Barely half the potato was used.
At one point, I was told to prep 5kg of tomato concasse, skinning and deseeding, and cutting the flesh into tiny squares. I’ve no idea how long it took me. Mid-way through, I asked Laurent what they were for, and he shrugged. All he knew was they were on the prep sheet, and needed doing. A few minutes later, I heard him on the phone to the kitchen. They didn’t know either. Was that Blumenthal and his dastardly chores again? I imagined him upstairs in the lab, quaffing a red bubbling potion and laughing maniacally like an evil genius…
We didn’t get out until 11pm. I drove home and fell into bed after downing a couple of beers, knowing I’d have to be up in seven hours’ time, shaved and showered. I looked at my red-raw hands and began to panic. The sleep deprivation and tiredness were already doing strange things to my head.
I had a couple more beers, but still couldn’t sleep. I then made the fatal mistake of looking at my alarm clock. It was 5.48am. The panic took over. I had an hour’s sleep at most. Then I remembered they’d changed my rota and I was working in the main kitchen on the amuse bouche section, which meant I had to be in at 7.30am.
Normally it was the one golden day a week for the stagiers, when they’d get a break from the prep room and see how it was really done. But all I could think about was losing that half an hour.
I got up, had a shower, and sat there drinking coffee trying not to think about the 17-hour shift in front of me. I was a cack-handed fool compared with the rest of the stagiers, let alone the paid chefs in the kitchen, and expected to last all of five minutes.
I got in at a minute past 7.30am and was introduced to a Canadian chef called Jon, who ran the amuse bouche section – a tiny area of the kitchen no bigger than a coffin. Jon was tall and wiry with greying hair, and at 34 the oldest chef in the kitchen by a few years, and younger than me by seven.
He explained that our section was responsible for four of the 14 courses on the tasting menu.
I couldn’t have wished for a better teacher. He was intelligent, mild-mannered, thoughtful, and if he was stressed, he didn’t show it – even when he had to chuck away my botched cucumber brunoise garnish for the gazpacho dish. “They have to be squares, not flattened,” he whispered. “But don’t worry – we’ll do them later…”
One thing stuck in my mind, and that was an interview with Ferran Adrià, head chef of El Bulli, near Barcelona – a place Blumenthal denies he imitated, even if they do both serve outlandish molecular gastronomy combinations.
Away from the mad science of El Bulli, Adrià, often described as the world’s best chef, said his favourite eatery was a tin-shack, family-run, 20-seater in nearby Roses. He liked to sit there scoffing boiled shrimps straight from the sea – no colorants, gelling agents, emulsifiers, acidifiers and taste enhancers, just the freshest seafood it is possible to eat, cooked lovingly with sea salt and olive oil.
And that image is something that has always intrigued me. The world’s best restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean the world’s most delicious food. In fact, a (household name deleted) restaurant reviewer, who has eaten in all of the top restaurants in the world, once told me the best meal she’d ever had was a breakfast of fried monkfish and tinned tomatoes cooked by a fishmonger in Billingsgate Market.
And that was the way I felt about it all, as I stood frozen to my workstation, with the constant call of “Backs!” behind me, my mind whirling with tiredness and still 15 hours to go… For me, Blumenthal’s cooking was not so much gilding the lily as turning it into a Baroque painting.
Down and Out in Padstow and London, published by Completely Novel, £7.99