Saturday, 6 October 2012
Cooking with the professionals at Plateau, Canary Wharf
Anyone that knows me knows I have a succumbed to a love of all things French. Particularly the food. The rich variants associated with French cooking have often been deemed too time consuming or difficult to master. There is however no doubt of it's popularity among Brits. You only have to go to your local supermarket dessert section to find ready made crème brulee, crème caramel and other delights. This is surely one of the reasons that Plateau is so popular. Head chef Alan Pickett and his team lay on an accomplished menu of modern French cuisine. Pickett trained with the Galvin restaurant group; the spearhead of fine French cuisine in London. Since venturing to it's home in Canary Wharf to see the Josper Grill at work, I have held Plateau in high regard but it was not merely the food which had me wanting to return. It was the chance I was given to cook alongside the professionals.
Every Masterchef fan has laid on heavy criticism of the contestants when they reach the professional kitchen stage (all from the comfort of their own sofa). The pressure seemed immense, meats were burnt, sauces curdled and there were always tears. As a home cook myself, I wanted to give my readers and myself the chance to know the truth about being a professional chef. For many novices, the idea of being a chef plays in the back of their mind. What would it be like to run a busy kitchen, to cook for a living? Some are put off by the unsocial hours. Some are draw in by the idea of not working in an office.
As restaurant goers, the British public expect a high standard of food and service. It's as though a sense of entitlement overtakes every diner; I have paid for this and therefore I expect the best (even in Nando's). The idea that everything must be perfect is embedded in British consciousness. If it's not complaints will be made and quite rightly so. I've known people to be put off returning after bad experiences. If those bad experiences are passed around friends that results in a loss of customer base. This pressure to achieve certain standards within the whole dining experience is just one fragment of overall strain placed on the professionals. I was eager to understand the effort that goes into every service behind the scenes.
My shift started at 4pm on a Saturday, in time to prep for a fully booked service. Plateau has private dining rooms for parties with set menus, as well as the main restaurant itself adjacent to the Bar and Grill. This means that there are very often several menus to prepare for. I donned my non slip shoes, black trousers and apron, feeling apprehensive. Sous chefs James and Martyn were in charge of showing me around and set me to work in the Pastry section. As I'm sure is widely known, the majority of professional chefs are men. I was surprised and happy to find the pastry chef was a woman. I was also pleased to see that many of the staff were originally from France themselves, including her.
To be a woman in this macho industry requires thick skin and the ability to give as good as it gets, both of which my mentor had by the bucket load. We set about preparing stewed apples to create an apple purée. As I peeled and cored the apples I marvelled at the sheer size of the equipment used to cook for so many covers. The mixer resembled more of a cement mixer and came with similar safety instructions. You also need to be able to withstand the heat, hence the phrase. I was relieved when I was asked to collect blackberry coulis from the walk in fridge just so I could cool down. My mentor swore as she flitted around the kitchen making several components of different desserts at once. This is what it is like to work in a professional kitchen, she said, it is very busy and very stressful, but I love it. I realised that to work like this you had to be unflappable. She chopped tit bits of cheese for me to sample as she laid out the cheese board, all the while talking passionately to ascertain which I liked best. Passion for quality ingredients is another key driver in chefs in an establishment of this quality. Her enthusiasm was inspiring.
Martyn came over and asked if I would like to come into main service. Here, I could observe the front line as I watched each dish being plated up on the hot plate and taken away by smartly dressed waiters. Snail risotto and pan fried duck were spooned onto plates and drizzled with infused suspensions. I tried snails for the first time here as I thought if they were going to be done well any where it would be here. They tasted earthy but no where near as slimy as I would have imagined, offset by the bite in the rice. Keen to understand what led people to become professional chefs, Martyn and James told me how they first started. James worked in a restaurant whilst at university studying Economics and realised he liked cooking more than figures. Martyn thought he was destined for the armed forces until his school careers advisor sent him on a placement in a restaurant kitchen.
To be a professional, you have to be very driven, thick skinned and a bloody good cook. To understand the balance of flavours and textures and to be able to put a menu together from any ingredients you have to hand. This doesn't all come naturally, it is about very hard graft from the bottom up. There is a clear cut career ladder which mastering technical skill and inherent passion will see you climb. I enjoyed the whole experience as time flew by and I left with a real buzz I can only associate with such a fast paced environment. For that, I must thank Alan and his team for letting me have the chance to get behind the scenes at Plateau.
For more of my thoughts on Plateau... http://www.itchycity.co.uk/article.cfm/25/9837/City-City-Guide/article/Itchy-cooks-at-Plateau,-Canary-Wharf