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. 

Friday, August 09, 2013

The return of the Lunchbox

Mr. Moustache's Lunchbox has been sadly empty over the last while. Each day he looks forlornly inside it and each day I point out where the cooker is.

As a result it's stayed empty. But today he's fist pumping. Oh yes. The Lunchbox Of The Week is back.

Now for this honourable occasion I have rustled up a splendid feast of...

Wait for it...

Sausages and chips. 

What can I say, he's a lucky man. 

I present to you - the Kidult Lunchbox packed with the childhood favourite of sausages and chips. Mr. Moustache assures me that he did in fact grow up on a diet of foie gras sandwiches, lobster burgers and frogs' legs nuggets.

Unfortunately for him I only had a few sausages in the fridge. Not to worry, there's always next week.

Sprial puff pastry sausage rolls with herb oven fries and tomato and apple chutney 

You can take a peek at our other lunchboxes here The spiral sausage rolls would work well for party food too - for adults or kids.

Preparation time 12 minutes. Cooking time 30 minutes. 

Sausage rolls (makes approximately 20 mini rolls) 
1 ready made puff pastry sheet
4 good quality butcher sausages (or 200g/7oz good quality pork mince) 
Wooden sticks (optional) available in craft shops or your friendly local cafe...
1 egg, beaten 
Poppy seeds, sesame seeds (optional)

Herb oven fries (serves 2) 
3 potatoes suitable for roasting (e.g. Maris Piper, Rooster)
Fresh basil, chopped
Sea salt, pepper to serve
Oil for baking

Tomato and apple chutney (makes approximately 2 jars)
190ml/1/3 pint malt vinegar
150g/5oz soft brown sugar
90g/3oz sultanas
2 x 390g tin chopped tomatoes 
200g/4oz red apples, roughly chopped
2 red onions, peeled and roughly chopped
Sea salt, pepper for seasoning

How to

Preheat oven to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6.


Place the vinegar and sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Cook for approximately 3 minutes until the sugar has melted. Add all the other ingredients, bring to the boil and cook for approximately 20 - 30 minutes, while stirring frequently. I like to grate a little extra apple through before serving.


While the chutney is cooking slice the potatoes into chunky fries. Parboil in a saucepan of boiling water for approximately 5 minutes. Drain the fries and place on a baking sheet, drizzle generously with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until crunchy. Sprinkle with the chopped basil just before serving. 

Sausage spiral rolls

Place the pork mince in a bowl, season with salt and pepper. You could add some nutmeg or sage also. If using sausages peel off the outer skin and add herbs if using. For the spiral sausage rolls cut thin strips from the puff pastry sheet. Pinch off bite size portions of the meat and shape into a sausage shape. Wrap the puff pastry around the meat starting at the top and ensure that both ends of the pastry strip are on the bottom of the meat (the side that will be touching the baking sheet). If using the wooden sticks cut them to the desired length and pop into each spiral roll. 

You could freeze them at this stage if you like. Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds if using. 

For the traditional sausage roll shape cut the pastry sheet into two. Divide the meat into two and spread along the length of each sheet leaving a 1cm edge. Roll the pastry tightly around the meat and brush the ends with the beaten egg to secure. Cut each piece into approximately 10 pieces. Brush with more beaten egg and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds if using. 

Bake the sausage rolls on a baking sheet for 25 minutes until the pastry is puffed up and golden and the meat has cooked through. 

Liked this? Take a look at our other lunchboxes for some more ideas...

Friday, August 02, 2013

Healthy Southern Fried Chicken

Before I started cookery school I thought I'd be conjuring up fancy treats at home, all nonchalant like.  

Picturing myself boning and stuffing swans, poaching and dressing salmon up in their Sunday best. Constructing intricate Eiffel-Tower-like croquembouches, puff pastry skyscrapers, mill(ion) feuilles and spun sugar baskets. 

Yes, I'm still laughing too. 

Truth be told, since finishing school there's been a lot of toasted cheese and I've perfected the three minute omelette (break, whisk, pour, consume in 3 seconds). 

After spending the day working in a restaurant sometimes you just want simple, no frills food. Like this homemade Southern Fried Chicken with sweet potato chips and onion rings. Let's leave the dressed salmon alone for a little while...

Homemade Southern Fried Chicken with sweet potato chips and onion rings

Serves 4. Preparation time 15 minutes, cooking time 30 minutes. £1.11 per serving. 

Sweet potato chips and onion rings
4 sweet potatoes
2 red or white onions

Southern Fried chicken
200ml/7 fl oz buttermilk
4 chicken breasts
100g/4oz plain flour
3 tsp paprika
3 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground white pepper
pinch sea salt
oil, for frying and baking

How to

1. Preheat oven to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6.

2. Slice each breast into approximately 5 strips. Place all the chicken into a bowl with the buttermilk. If you have time you can soak the chicken overnight in the buttermilk to make it even more tender.

3. Slice the sweet potatoes into chips and the onions into rings. Brush oil onto baking sheet, bake chips for 20 mins. After 20 mins add the onion rings and bake for 10 mins.

4. While the vegetables are cooking, place the flour, paprika, cumin, pepper and sea salt into a large bowl and stir to combine. Heat 1cm vegetable oil in a large frying pan. For a healthier version you can use less oil. Heat the oil until a cube of bread browns almost immediately. Shake excess buttermilk from the chicken and roll each piece in the seasoned flour. Place a layer of chicken in the frying pan and cook for approximately 4 minutes each side until cooked through and golden on the outside. Blot with kitchen paper.

5. Serve the chicken with sweet potato chips and onion rings. Cutlery is optional, we're all friends here.