THE FAT DUCK EXPERIENCE
I first got a glimpse of how science is part of the kitchen whilst watching Heston Blumenthal’s Kitchen Chemistry television series. This was swiftly followed by a book that a friend bought for me, titled Molecular Gastronomy- Exploring the Science of Flavour by Herve This. To be totally honest I read about three chapters before giving up and feeling a little deflated by my lack of ability to understand what on earth I was reading. You have to remember at this point in time I was just getting into the restaurant business and had barely gotten to grips with working in the kitchen and most importantly the basics of cooking. Nonetheless this only made me more determined to become a professional chef and learn more about the field of ‘molecular gastronomy’.
After returning to London and getting into the world of fine dining and Michelin starred restaurants, I began experimenting in my home kitchen with new tools, techniques and ingredients. So years later I thought it was only right that I visit what is considered one of the top restaurants in the world and a leader in the field of ‘modernist’ science based cuisine (known more commonly as molecular cooking/gastronomy); The Fat Duck. I applied for the restaurant’s placement program and was accepted!
That August I began my placement.
From the outset working at the Fat Duck is a truly unique experience. Located in a very (very!) small village the restaurant is an unassuming building from the outside and simply blends into its surroundings. The first day is a tour of the restaurant’s front of house (which is very small and seats 45 guests), the restaurant kitchen (also relatively small given the culinary wonders it produces and when compared to other 3 Michelin starred restaurant kitchens) and the preparation and experimental kitchens as well as the chocolate room all of which are housed in a building adjacent to the restaurant. Coupled with Heston’s two neighboring pubs; The Hind’s Head and The Crown, Bray High Street begins to feel more like ‘Hestonville’.
As an estagier (placement/training chef) you are given the opportunity to work in several if not all the kitchens and offered insight into the workings of one of the world’s finest and most highly acclaimed restaurants. I began my first week in the ‘amuse’ section with Ed, the Chef de Partie of the section where 3 of the 14 courses come from. What you instantly realize is how friendly and welcoming the team is as a whole. Once service began, I realized there were dishes that I would be responsible for preparing (mainly the quail and ‘sounds of the sea’ dishes), although a bit daunting at first the service was smooth and I started to become aware of just what a calm and professional environment I was working in. This kitchen was nothing like the hard hitting, craziness I had experienced in some Michelin-starred kitchens I’d previously worked in. Much of this has to be attributed to the professionalism and demeanor of Canadian head chef Jonny Lake.
Over the coming weeks I moved around from amuse to pastry, then on to the prep-kitchen. Each section provided me with new, eye opening insights into the world of ‘molecular cooking’. Being exposed to new ingredients with intriguing properties, new preparation techniques and tools (most notably the lab grade ‘rocket’ centrifuge) all satisfied my appetite for learning.
The learning experience is what you make of it. In my case I was determined to benefit as much out of this as I could (after all, you’re working free of charge with the sole purpose of learning), so I set out to get to know as many of my co-workers as I could, and pick their brains. What was most notable is the willingness to share knowledge and discuss the work that is done at ‘the duck’. There is even a letter on the notice board which is the Fat Duck pledge encouraging all its team members to continuously strive to educate themselves and search for new inspiration. I finally felt at home in a kitchen, as if I had stumbled across a group of likeminded people that I never knew existed in kitchens! If you don’t know the answer to a question, you go away and look up the answer, then share your findings with the rest of the team. Everything in the kitchen is measured and prepared according to recipes which have been tested and refined several times over in the experimental kitchen. There are no short cuts or substitutes, everyone in the team is proud of the work they do and focused on the end result: guest satisfaction.
When talking to the guys in the experimental kitchen it was refreshing to hear how the focus on new scientific based cooking methods, tools and ingredients has never taken precedence over flavour. Flavour at the Fat Duck is the main driver behind each and every dish. The application of a more scientific methodology is simply a way of ensuring that each element on a dish is prepared in the optimal way. The science is also there to bring out the best in each ingredient’s properties and allows them to use ingredients in ways that will not only enhance elements such as the texture, mouthfeel and appearance, but also the overall experience for the guest as they are exposed to such new and innovative creations.
Coupled with this great attention to detail is the showmanship that goes hand in hand with many of the dishes. This is where the science of the kitchen and food stops and the magic and multisensory experience of the front of house begins. Dimitrios Leivadas – the restaurant manager and his team, create the magic that brings the dishes to life for the guests. With table side service including elements such as poaching green tea and lime mousse in liquid nitrogen, making bacon and egg ice cream or spraying atomized scents around the table to accompany particular dishes, they have their work cut out for them, as all along they are tasked with explaining each of the 14 complex dishes at the same time.
I also have to mention that as an estagier you are on ‘observation’ for one service, this entails being in the kitchen and watching a service in action, at the same time you are given all the dishes to try (or at least I was!). As if the learning experience of working at the Fat Duck wasn’t good enough, getting to experience the food for yourself is truly a remarkable indulgence and worth all the hard work.
The attention to detail at the Fat Duck is overwhelming. Each of the 14 dishes served are not only unique and delicious, but coupled with intricately small, detailed finishing touches and delivered with showmanship. It’s truly understandable how the Fat Duck earned its reputation as being among the world’s finest.
I came away from the Fat Duck having made friends with some great people and learnt a lot, not just about the food, but the overall experience that brings it to life. I am definitely planning on returning to the Fat Duck for another estage, don’t get me wrong it’s no summer camp, it is very (very!) hard work from the early hours of the morning until late into the night. But if you have a genuine interest, a passion for what is being done there, and you actually ‘get it’ then it is worth the back ache and grueling hours!
I have to say thank you to Chef Jonny for having me in his kitchen, Dimitrios for his kind support and of course to Rob, Ed, Markus, Collin, Jesus, Costas and Ivan for sharing so much knowledge with me and making me feel part of the team.