A Chef in the Making
Going back to the start
This feels like an appropriate time & place to start a blog ... 2019, and into 2020, is a time that holds immense promise for Harthill Cookery School, its associated activities and especially our partnership with Cheshire College South & West, my old college. Over the last week, I have had the privilege to spend time in the campuses with the returning students & new cohorts. Our partnership restaurant in Ellesmere Port, Academy West, looks fantastic & a tad moody; whilst Academy Cheshire at Crewe has, once again, been awarded the AA’s College Restaurant of the Year at their prestigious awards - no mean feat!
When Caesar was still just a Roman Emperor
I walked through the college doors in 1982, an excited 17-year-old who had just endured five faltering years at a Grammar school. Never really one for the classroom, I had, somehow, passed my 11 plus in 1977 and received a letter telling me I was off to Grammar school. ‘Veni vidi vici’ was screamed at me during one of my first lessons - Latin. I was a lad from 1970’s Widnes brought up on chips, fizzy pop and rugby league, how on earth did Latin enter my life?! The phrase, I was told, means ‘I came I saw I conquered’ attributed to one Julius Caesar. For five testing years I came, I saw, but never quite conquered the classroom. Caesar still features in my life but, these days, it’s as a dressing as opposed to a betrayed Emperor (I did like history).
In early September 1982, free from the shackles of school I woke up at 5am, dressed shockingly, caught a bus, a couple of trains and walked a mile or so to arrive at South Cheshire College for a 9am start. It was, indeed, the first day of the rest of my life and the beginning of the now much tagged #chefslife. Fast forward nearly 40 years, I’m an ambassador & active business partner with the College. I feature in the newly launched alumni; I was a challenging (actually a git of a) student, so whilst I’m proud to feature in its ranks, the irony is not lost on me!
Rewind the cassette (google it kids!) to sometime in 1983 and approaching the end of college year one. The classroom and I still weren’t mates - single entry accounts, purchasing ledgers, stock control cards (yep, we were still paper-based then), colour-coded bedroom status boards (more paper!) and push button till systems just weren’t registering with me. In the kitchen and the dining room, however, a complete transformation was taking place. I was clunking my way through cookery and fluffing my lines in front of restaurant guests but with every mistake, I learned a little more. Mum had saved hard to buy my textbooks, uniform and my knives, those knives … the tools of my trade. The textbooks were full of mysterious dishes yet to unfold on my bench in the years ahead, my whites immaculately ironed every Sunday by a super-supportive Mum who also learned to starch and iron each pleat of my recently-acquired Chef's toque. The toque, I would learn in later years, is really something to be earned through study of your craft and not simply given.
The Tools of the Trade
Meanwhile, those knives of mine? With every ignorant youthful scraping of them down the steel I was killing them, dulling the edge and rendering them ineffective, making my everyday tasks harder and worsening my work. We had Sabatier, riveted wooden handles & carbon steel blades - hard-forged steel that held its edge but would tarnish and stain as soon as it looked at a lemon! You had to work with them and you had to work for them to keep them in mint condition. We would soak the handles in oil to stop them from drying and cracking, our tutors showed us tricks with salt, lemon and a little oil to keep the blades looking attractive.
In the kitchen, I looked the part. As Mum boxed off my uniform week after week, I made sure my knives weren’t blemished but I continued to destroy them by scraping them down the steel at awkward and erratic angles. Simple tasks like cutting root vegetables became laborious and I was putting so much pressure on the knife, I was developing segs on my index finger. Chef asked me if I’d been using my boning knife to garden with and after an early attempt at filleting fish, commented "did you use a spoon to get those fillets off, lad?". That was another great lesson I was learning: ‘kitchen banter’. It’s not on any curriculum anywhere, that I’m aware of, but it’s practised by Chefs the world over. If you are fortunate enough to share a common language with someone, then banter will get you through the day … only just sometimes, but it’ll pull you through. It’s the equivalent of that little valve on a pressure cooker that just stops that messy explosion of vegetables. More about kitchen banter in the future; for the moment, let’s focus on those knives.
Knives and knife skills are a brilliant combo, just incredible. The sound of a well-honed knife rolling through crisp vegetables or a flexed filleting knife sliding deftly under a shimmering fish fillet makes you feel like a Ninja chef, well it does me. Knowing you have chosen the knife well, respected and cared for it then honed it to perfection feels like the ultimate in our craft. Time and again, whenever a guest in the school picks up a knife and cuts something with it, it’s like the wow factor: "it makes such a difference with a sharp knife!" they will exclaim. Yes, it does. They are tools to do a job, if the edge is dull then the whole purpose of it as a tool is lost.
To be the Best
Back to the College. I’m immensely proud, immensely proud that every student at the College when they unfurl their knife wallet will see our logo. Every time they go to select a knife, they will be reminded that we are there on their journey with them and we want them to be their best. That doesn’t mean a complex series of drizzles, gels, swooshes, swipes and the like on the plate. If it’s a sandwich, a pudding or a stew, whatever they make ‘make it the best you can’ I’ve told them. We’ve also spoken about failing and not being afraid to fail, failing is good. Failing is a natural & powerful part of the learning process so embrace it (don’t do it over and over on the same task however!!) but embrace it, learn from it & your skills and confidence will grow as a result.
I also must have said something about those cuts and nicks you get when you are learning to become ‘one’ with your knives. I’m not overplaying that; in time you do. They become an extension of your arm, confident & comfortable in your hand, your best mate in the kitchen. As I mentioned the little nicks, one of the student’s eyes lit up as he lifted his hand and pointed to a little cut he’d sustained in the preceding days. ‘Yeah…I caught my index finger here’ smiled another. ‘Ha! Me as well just putting in back in the wallet, proper lethal man!’ Then another and another displayed their damaged digits telling the tale of how it came to pass as others enthusiastically listened.
A few weeks ago, mixed groups of folk were pitched together in the College kitchens ready to challenge themselves on their culinary journeys. They all came to be there for different reasons but are now on a shared journey; voyaging through their mise en place, learning to be organised, precise, disciplined, listen & respond with an assertive ‘Yes Chef!’. They will learn the importance of working alone to complete tasks as well as working together to hit their deadlines and targets. They will learn how to use the feeling of fear in their bellies to spur them on as well as learning from their inevitable mistakes. The current chaos of clattering pans & unorganised noise will slowly give way to a subtle silence as dishes slide calmly onto the pass.
I’ve said it before ... I’m a little jealous of the journey ahead of them but looking forward to being a part of it.
The College is a vibrant part of all that we do and Harthill Cookery School is working with multiple college departments. Like a dog sniffing out truffles, we are uncovering valuable learning opportunities for the students across the three campuses. We want to repay the College by investing in the current students as those patient tutors invested in me all those years ago.
Why not make a visit to one of the college restaurants? Amazing food for amazing prices!
Ellesmere Port Campus
Off Sutton Way
Dane Bank Avenue
Are you killing your knives? Hone your skills as well as your knives with our Knife Skills' courses - from beginner to advanced