Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Fun things about being a Chef

Step inside the magical world of kitchens...

The Glamour

Blue paper
You will develop an unhealthy obsession with blue paper. So many uses. A new roll of it seems such an abundant thing. 

But soon the never ending kitchen mystery rears its head - 'where-the-$*&%-does-all-the-blue-paper-go?' And when you see that dispenser is empty a little part of you cries inside. 

(Source eBay)

More about blue paper
An uncontrollable rage fills you if someone uses a chopping board without blue paper underneath to secure it.  Or worse still they're using blue paper but it's not damp. Oh the humanity. If this happens at home, be careful, your loved ones may not appreciate this side of you. Like an Incredible Hulk type rage that consumes you until finally, finally, the board is safe again. And breathe.

Backs backs backs backs backs
You'll shout 'backs' more times in a day than is humanly possible. 'Backs! Backs Baaaaaaaacks!'. Soon you'll begin to chant it like a little refrain in your head. Chant with me now: 'backs backs backs'. When you leave the kitchen you may bark this out at strangers who spend more than five seconds moving out of your way. 

On the outside world
Ah the outside world. It seems like such a funny place when you leave the kitchen after a sixteen hour shift. A strange place where everyone and everything is in s-l-o-w-m-o-t-i-o-n. You, on the other hand, are rushing around on speed cycle shouting out BACKS at everyone in your way and wondering how on earth it takes people so long to make decisions. Like in a shop queue. 

Meet your nemeses - cling film and tin foil
At first glance these everyday objects are useful. They are in fact evil beings which will conspire against you at every opportunity becoming stuck and you will spend more time than you really should cursing them. But when you manage to unravel them you will feel victorious. (Enjoy it, this is a temporary feeling). 

Spoons (respectful silence)
Before working in kitchens the humble spoon may have seemed insignificant. Now it is a rare gemstone. Find yours. Keep them. Never let them go. Ever. I mean ever. Ever. Is that clear? They are magical objects that disappear only to reappear at the end of service. Also a really good pair of kitchen scissors will make you happier than you ever thought possible. Once you can find it again.

Arriving home with strange objects
On the bus home you'll wonder what that is digging into your back pocket. Ah, those three tasting spoons. And two dough scrapers. Plus some blue paper (that solves the mystery). 

On the long days
When you're aching where you never thought possible and you've entered a whole new level of tiredness you'll wonder why the hell you ever left your office job for this crazy world.

On the best days
And then your Head Chef gives you a one word compliment on a dish. It is the best feeling. You'll wonder why the hell you didn't leave your office job sooner for this crazy world. That's why you go home, sleep for three hours and get up and do it all over again. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Behind the scenes at Dip & Flip

Whatever the question, the answer is always dip. Always.

My life can now be divided into BG and AG - Before Gravy and After Gravy. I'd never really thought that much about gravy until the last few weeks. Have you? Do you lie awake at night pondering how to create the perfect combination of meatiness, juice and flavour? Do drops of the brown stuff dance in front of your eyes while crammed onto the Tube like a sardine in a gravy boat? Ah. Just me then. 

So let's go back to the start: Before Gravy. The story begins with a new London restaurant, Dip & Flip. We'll break it down - pay attention now. The dipping - that's the gravy part - dipping burgers, roast beef and lamb. The flipping, well that's the burgers. 

Dip & Flip opened in Battersea Rise last month and my job was to set up and manage the kitchen. Having met with the business partners and owner Tim Lees I jumped into the stock pot head first. Nathan Richardson, Sous-Chef at The Ship, had designed the recipes and all I had to do was set up the kitchen processes and design. Yes, I wasn't quite sure what I was letting myself in for either.

So 'burgers' I hear you mutter..hardly original now are they? Ah, this dear reader is a burger so good that if you had to abandon all other burgers and spend your life with just one, this is the burger for you. A burger that is proud of its messiness. A burger that is not afraid to stand up and have a pickle lovingly placed on it. A burger that wants to, nay, yearns to be dipped in sweet gravy. A 6oz patty cooked on a chrome plated griddle that creates a crust and adds flavour. Topped with cabbage slaw and pickles. Dripping with secret cheese sauce. All wrapped up in a shiny brioche bun. How about adding roast beef dipped in gravy?

Oh. Yes. We. Did.

Dip & Flip burger with roast beef dipped in...gravy

A few days before the restaurant opened we had a soft opening for friends. An hour into service I was close to screaming and running out the door gravy ladle in-hand. It was one of those moments when you start to think what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here-why-amn't-I-back-in-my-nice-safe-HR-job-and-why-did-I-want-to-be-a-chef-anyway. In moments like that the only thing that keeps you from running away is pride. That and not wanting to roam the streets of South London in chef's whites and clogs. 

After many sleepless nights we set up the kitchen processes, organised the sections and the following week were open for business. Along with the other amazing chefs everything was put in place. Looking back now it seems a blur of gravy...Tube...burgers...gravy...Tube...gravy...

It isn't rocket science. This is fast-casual food. But it is food that will temporarily transport you to a happier place, all with gravy.

Let me tell you that gravy is a labour of love. We start with making stock from beef bones, which takes 2 days of tender loving care. This beautiful stock is the basis for the gravy, which at last count is being consumed at approximately 30 litres a day. 

Now I could talk and talk all day about making stock, gravy and about that burger. But what it comes down to for a new opening is does the customer like it? That's all that matters. 

Yes, they do. Check out the Dip & Flip Twitter for some of the feedback. There's also been some really positive reviews from ThrillistBurger Affair and Burger Anarchy. The Evening Standard featured it in the top restaurants for man eaters last week. Lady eaters, don't worry, I've showed a few of those burgers who's the boss and so should you. Rumour has it that even John Torode of MasterChef was spotted dipping and flipping at the weekend. 

I can't wait to see how Dip & Flip grows. If you haven't been, for the love of gravy, please do.
Dip & Flip
87 Battersea Rise, London SW11 1HW
Open 7 days a week 
Nearest station Clapham Junction

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Blog Awards Ireland 2013

Last night my Irish agent, AKA my Mum, rang to tell me some surprising and thrilling news...Cuisine Genie has made it through to the finalist stage in the Blog Awards Ireland


Thank you so much to the judges for putting me through in the Best Blog of the Diaspora category. The winner will be announced on the 12th of October. In the meantime I'm doing a little happy dance in my kitchen. Shake it.

Sometimes you just gotta turn up the music and dance like no one is watching, and thank God that they aren't ;-)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cuisine Genie is currently locked in toasty hot kitchens, having the time of her life, sleeping on the Tube, eating on the go. And making gravy. Tonnes and tonnes of gravy. So much gravy the world has never seen before. 

And apparently now refers to herself in the third person. Ahem. What's that about?

Do you like gravy? Who doesn't like a proper gravy? Yes, dear reader, if gravy be the food of love, then pass the gravy boat.

In my next blog post I'll reveal the story behind the gravy ramblings...but in the meantime I wanted to say thank you to the lovely Blog Awards Ireland for including me in the shortlist for the Best Blog of the Diaspora! I've celebrated with a little shot of gravy, neat. 

In other news Mr. Moustache has taken over the kitchen at home. In these tough times when there's no cooking at home we all have a part to play. 

Further update to follow very soon Xx

PS: Mum, if you're reading (and you better be) told you I would update soon :-)

Monday, August 26, 2013

On being a chef and other things I never thought I'd write...

'Cooking is like love, it should be entered into with abandon or not at all'
Harriet van Horne.

Sometimes love can you take you strange places. Like the glamorous world of being a chef. Aching feet, burnt fingers, sweaty, tired, strange pains, always smelling like onions-garlic-fennel-fish-replace with any food group here. Yes. It's all about the glamour...

If you’ve met me on the Tube recently I'd like to apologise. For being that slightly deranged individual shooting murderous looks at you as you innocently sit down. You see for the next 14 hours I’m going to be on my feet and it’s hard not to want to grab you and scream “That's my seat! Out! OUT!” But I bite my tongue and think pleasant thoughts about the three crates of fennel I'm about to chop instead. 

Last year I was business suited, long nails always manicured and high heeled. Now it's chef's whites, clumpy black safety trainers and the only attention my non-existent nails get are peeling the blue plasters off them. 

When I went into my first London kitchen, the Michelin Star L'Autre Pied, my nerves were somewhat calmed to find out one of the chefs had lived around the corner from my parents in Dublin. So we played that Irish-abroad-game of 'Do you know so-and-so?' while I chopped, peeled and breathed in the life of a professional kitchen. After two days of 15 hour shifts and three hours sleep I was suddenly terrified that I'd made a horrible mistake. What was I thinking leaving my job to do this? As I sat on the couch the next day with aching feet, pains where I didn't know pains could be and smelling of onions (I'd washed, it just never goes) I was scared, and feeling old. At thirty I'm almost fossil-like in kitchen years. But if anyone asks I'm 24.

When I met Gary O'Hanlon, Head Chef of Viewmount House in Co.Longford last year he encouraged me to follow this crazy dream - but to be sure I really wanted it. "It's not glamorous, you won't get famous, but if you want it and work hard enough, you'll be a Chef". With his words ringing in my ears I went straight back into the kitchen.

Something makes you go back and want to keep doing it over and over again. There are easier ways to make a living. But something makes you want to spend hours on your feet in front of massive pots of boiling water, gigantic grills and fryers, scorching hot plates, pulling trays out of ovens with flimsy towels while juggling three pans and remembering your meat only needs another minute in the oven before you ruin it and end up in the weeds during service. And that's the fun part.

Every kitchen has its own personality, but there are some similarities. The atmosphere is always fast paced. During mise en place in the morning to set up for lunchtime service you'll be prepping as quickly as you can. When service begins it feels like someone has tightened the atmosphere with a cork screw. Cheque on! One tuna Nicoise, three crayfish salad, one sea bass. You listen out to all the orders and focus on your dishes while still keeping an eye on everyone else's as you need to be ready to plate with them. It's a beautiful organised chaos and a pure adrenalin rush. When service finishes you clean down your section, wipe out your fridge drawers and make sure you're ready to go for the morning. That's the glamorous part they don't show on TV. After service winding down can take hours. On the Tube home party goers are heading out, while I sit there scented with eau de garlic. My bed is calling but sleep never comes easily as I replay the day over and over in my head. 

There is so much to learn in a professional kitchen and I'm just at the start of it. Mistakes are common. Like the happy time I threw broad beans and peas into the same pan and spent an hour separating them. I won't do that again. Everything is on a massive scale. Think of cooking your dinner at home. Now replicate that for 50, 100, 150 customers, to a consistently high standard, night after night. Learning the kitchen lingo, getting used to the equipment, learning the unspoken rules. Don't touch the other chefs' knives. Don't take food, equipment, anything, from someone's section, or if you must, ask first. Then put it back. Make yourself as small as possible to work in a tight area while standing your ground to make sure you get enough space. Learning how to take direct open criticism (I'm being very polite here). Figuring out how to stop your hand shaking when you're quenelling during service. 

It's a tough aggressive environment to work in. You wouldn't want to be sensitive, to put it lightly. But what has stood out to me is how welcoming chefs have been and willing to share their expertise. One of the best bits is the banter. There is a camaraderie in kitchens that is different from other work places. Maybe it's the long hours, confined spaces and nature of the work, but you need that camaraderie to get you through the day and keep you going when a table comes in at 5 minutes to closing.

Since April I've been working in The Ship, one of London's finest gastro pubs where the Manager Oisin Rogers and Head Chef Shaun kindly gave me my first job. I've also been doing stages (work experience) in other restaurants. When I tell people I gave up my job to do this they look at me as if I'm slightly mad. Maybe they're right. When I wake up aching I sometimes think they are. 

But between you and me I'm having the time of my life and wish I'd realised it sooner. Service please! 
This article also appeared in the Irish Times in August 2013. 
Enjoyed this? You can read about why in a fit of mild insanity I gave up my job in HR for hot kitchens here.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A love story: One Frenchman and his Lunchbox

Set in London, One Frenchman and his Lunchbox tells the true story of what happens when one man meets the Lunchbox of his dreams. 

Man meets Lunchbox

Man loves Lunchbox. 

And they lived happily ever after. The End. 

One Frenchman and his Lunchbox
(A very short film)

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Stuffed Sandwich Lunchbox

Now putting an Irish breakfast, fish and chips and mini beef wellingtons into lunchboxes is all well and good. But sometimes you just need a proper sandwich. Yes you do. 

Now, not a hang sandwich. Readers outside of Ireland may not be familiar with the delight that is a hang or ham sandwich. This my friend is a stuffed chicken, apricot, pancetta and feta sandwich. It won't change your life, but it will make you feel a little smug as your co-workers tuck into their limp wraps and yours has a green ribbon on it. 

What do you mean you never tie green ribbons around your sandwiches? This is clearly a useful way to spend your time. 

So for this week's Lunchbox Of the Week we gobbled up these stuffed ciabatta rolls. 

Preparation time 10 minutes. Makes two ciabatta rolls. 

2 ciabatta rolls
Handful of salad leaves
110g/4oz chicken pieces
30g/1oz dried apricots
55g/2oz feta cheese
2 slices pancetta, cooked 

Take 2 ciabatta rolls and cut out a lid for your sandwich. Then hollow out the roll by removing the bread inside (you can keep this for a quick stuffing). Like so:

Then build up the sandwich starting with a layer of salad leaves, then chicken, apricots, feta, pancetta, finishing with another layer of salad leaves. Or do it whatever way you like, I'm a little bossy today. Like so:

Then pop the lid back on top. Here's the how-to photo:

At this stage you can either eat it straight away. Or wrap up tightly in cling film and weigh down with a board overnight to compress the ingredients. 

Parcel up in baking paper and a green ribbon. Do I need to go over the green ribbon thing again? It's a vital component. 

Then gobble up, content in the fact that you have the nicest lunchbox. Oh yes you do.

Liked this? You may also enjoy our other lunchbox ideas if you're looking for some new lunch ideas.