So, after hauling up every bit of nerve I had, it was time to leave London to check out the food cultures that different shores have to offer. I made sure though that before I left I did the one thing I was always kind of scared of doing – spending some time in the kitchen at St John in Smithfield, London. I have always been a big fan of Fergus Henderson’s style of cooking, so actually spending some time with the chefs who made it all possible counted as pretty cool in my opinion.
As an outsider, three things seemed to frame how the back-of-house operations managed such consistently excellent food:
1. Good chefs, who know and care about what they are doing. Chefs who teach as they go, not because they have to, but because it’s natural to talk and care about the job, confident in their experience. I don’t get how so many restaurateurs don’t realise how important it is to find chefs who care, instead of chefs who chop, sauté and go home.
2. Good produce. The quality of the meat that comes into this kitchen is top notch, and is treated that way by chefs and customers alike – St John may currently be a bit of a trendy place to eat, but this still doesn’t detract from customers paying if they know that a product has been treated with knowledge and won’t disappoint.
3. Something loads of front and back of house staff who have/do work here mention, is that the kitchen is of the quiet and focused kind (yeah, in service too!) . This is pretty unusual for an operation of this standard, which is why it surprises so many of the staff who have undoubtedly worked for screaming, crazed chefs who create a terrifying working environment and hold that fear = respect = superb quality. I have never agreed, and here I found even more proof of my convictions.
So what did I do? Well, it being a stage, you are really only there to learn by observing and hanging out (and trying to stay out of the chefs’ way! – it’s just another workday to them) so I was tasked to help with the prep shift’s work of the day. It concerns deep prep that could take a lot of time, like butchering and prepping game birds, preparing suckling pigs for roasting, terrines, blood cake, prepping organ meat and game, or salting cuts for later use, to name a few jobs.
The kitchen I had been working in recently was much smaller than this one, and it was fun to work with large volumes of meat again and do loads of meat prep, something I really love. Obviously it was interesting to see the variety of meat cuts used and how any meat off cuts are incorporated into some other dish on the menu, very little gets binned.
I can’t wait to apply the principles I learned in the next kitchen I work in, and would encourage anyone with a strong stomach and a good boning knife to try and do a stage at a restaurant like this one!