Boodle's Club, on St James's Street in London, was founded in 1762, and nowhere can you feel that history more keenly than in head chef Stephen Carter's tiny office, tucked away in the rabbit warren of kitchen corridors underground.
Bursting with cookbooks from the great and the good, with papers everywhere and pots of truffle mustard on the desk, the office feels like the nerve centre for the properly meticulous organisation of such a historic institution. A certificate referencing the great Escoffier hints at Carter's own career pedigree, the French-inspired cooking that underlines his entire approach, and the training that he considers key to the club's ethos.
Fittingly, he has just returned from a two-day trip to iconic Paris market Rungis with 10 trainee chefs from across London clubs, plus three representatives from his key supplier - Mowers Food Service. The trip formed part of his overall training ambitions to nurture the next generation of club chefs.
Carter holds regular workshops and trips both in-house and out as part of the Young Chefs Education Initiative. The group unites trainees - who do not need to be young in age, just young in terms of training - from more than 20 participating London clubs. It allows them to network, bounce ideas off each other and discover the secrets of great club cooking.
The chefs - the youngest, 17-year-old Michael James Macfarlane, is Carter's own first-year apprentice at Boodle's - were guided round Rungis by Xavier Crenn of Rungis Quality Foods, who is a "godfather" of the market.
Arriving in the small hours of the morning, the students walked round each market hall and visited three typically French restaurants over the weekend. Being able to see, touch, smell and taste fresh produce, sometimes entirely unfamiliar products, is central to the training that Carter considers paramount to their development as future club chefs.
Stephen Carter, second from right
"Rungis is the market in Europe," he says. "They get to pick up produce they wouldn't normally see, and they remember that - the different smells, textures and colours. We want them to understand the ingredients a bit more, and the love, care and attention that have gone into them. If you respect the ingredient, it will respect you back. That's the secret to cooking, I think."
The trip, which included a taster of sweet wine and foie gras, also took the chefs to some typical French restaurants, including seafood institution La Marée, which is within the market itself.
"That means they've seen the product, get inspired, and get to experience what the end user has as well, all in one go," explains Carter. "It's like two spoons of sugar - you're getting a high from it all the time."
Inspired and encouraged, the chefs came home full of ideas and with friends they might never have met otherwise. A Young London Chefs Facebook group has been set up by the trainees, who use it to keep in touch and share recipes born from their experiences in Paris.
"If they didn't learn anything else, that would have been enough," says Carter. "It opened their learning environment, allows them to check in with other people. It's formed a little group of stars who will probably, hopefully, be best friends for life from that experience."
It's not only about friendship and ideas: it's also about networking and keeping alive the great, historic traditions of the London clubs.
"Linking between the clubs not only makes my life easier, it is about this industry carrying on," explains Carter. "I love it, and I want to steer our youngsters in the right way. We have a good reputation for our training. One of Andrew Fairlie's first jobs was at Boodle's, and he's not done badly!"
'A bit frightening'
Boodle's itself was the testing ground for Carter's own chefs to get a place on the Paris trip. For this trip, Carter asked the two eligible trainees to cook him a dish that focused on simplicity and seasonality, to show off what they could do when pushed outside their comfort zone.
"I wanted it to be a bit frightening so they gain confidence from it," Carter says. "You only gain confidence from falling into the deep end."
The trip was partly funded by the kitchen and the club itself, which puts on annual dinners for club members, asking them to help donate to the cause.
"No matter how high your standards, unless you're constantly retraining, they can slip without you noticing," explains Carter. "So we ask our members to help with funding [the training] because then they realise that it's a scheme that works as an investment for future chefs at their clubs.
"For me, it's inspiring to see that our industry is safe. If that's the future of what we've got to come, I'll be quite happy to disappear off and leave that legacy. I know these trainees are going to make great chefs, and that's going to fuel the industry. That's what we need - we need great artists. You can't teach that artistry, you can just steer it."
With more trips planned on the horizon - including a journey to a lamb farm in Wales, and a cheese producer visit from a club member - and with a Boodle's apprenticeship lasting an average of five years, it seems that Carter will be steering these trainees for a while longer yet, and may even be joining them for a reunion pint or two. Santé!
Mowers Food Service
Mowers Food Service sponsored the trip. It is a Rungis customer and a supplier to Boodle's.
The company was set up in 1947 by John Mower in Duck Lane in central London. It relocated to Stoke Newington and Tottenham in 1984, and then to bigger premises in Hertfordshire in 2005. It's a specialist in dry goods and supplies Greater London, Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent and Cambridgeshire. It can also deliver direct from Rungis.
The Rungis expedition
The trip was a training weekend in Paris in partnership with supplier Mowers Food Service to see the famous Rungis market, which supplies to all parts of Europe. The trip was made possible in part by the League of Club Chefs' own funds, with money raised via club dinners and similar initiatives.
The tour included the fish hall, the meat, poultry and offal hall, the growers' hall, the fruit and veg hall, the delicatessen and dry goods.
The itinerary included visits to notable French restaurants. Among them were seafood restaurant La Marée, which lies within the market itself, and La Coupole, an archetypal high-end French brasserie. There was also a visit to La Cigale Récamier, which focuses on savoury and sweet soufflés, a menu quirk also seen at Boodle's, which offers its own spread of soufflés.
The 10 chefs who went
- James John Bone, National Liberal Club
- Marta Dwulit, Grocers' Hall
- Steven Hannon, Brooks's Club
- Marton Huschit, Caledonian Club
- Clive Benjamin Jenner, Garrick Club
- Lukazs Wojciech Lapinski, Cavalry & Guards
- Michael James Macfarlane, Boodle's Club
- Joanne Maizena Makarewilz, RAF Club
- Shazabe Arshad Qureshi, Fishmongers' Hall
- Simon James Suffolk, Victory Services Club
The League of Club Chefs
Set up in 2013 to help provide learning trips and networking opportunities for staff, the League of Club Chefs is a collective of private members' clubs in central London, started by chef Clive Howe at the Garrick and presided over by Don Irwin. Each of the trips and workshops organised by the Young Chefs Education Initiative selects chefs from these establishments:
- Boodle's Club, St James's Street
- Brooks's Club, St James's Street
- Buck's Club, Clifford Street
- Caledonian Club, Halkin Street
- Cavalry & Guards Club, Piccadilly
- City of London Club, Old Broad Street
- City University Club, Cornhill
- Fishmongers' Hall, London Bridge
- Garrick Club, Garrick Street
- Grocers' Hall, Princes Street
- Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, Middle Temple
- Institute of Directors, Pall Mall
- Ironmongers' Hall, Shaftesbury Place
- Merchant Taylors' Hall, Threadneedle Street National Liberal Club, Whitehall Place
- Naval and Military Club, St James's Square
- Oxford and Cambridge Club, Pall Mall
- Royal Air Force Club, Piccadilly
- Travellers Club, Pall Mall
- Turf Club, Carlton House Terrace
- Victory Services Club, Seymour Street
- White's Club, St James's Street
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