To me there’s something incredibly seductive about restaurant kitchens. I fell under their spell years ago. Willingly, I was seduced by the unique aroma of cold rooms and glistening stainless steel bench tops; the heat emanating from sturdy, solid ranges laden with simmering hot pots filled with mysterious ingredients. Even the challenges of surviving slippery oil-splattered floors didn’t deter my infatuation. I knew I had to be part of that weird, wonderful world. When I stepped into commercial kitchens – restaurant kitchens - I felt alive! A thrill ran down my spine. Like the power of Niagara Falls, my adrenalin started flowing! I was charmed,intrigued and captivated!
Hours spent setting up the mise en place; getting all the ingredients needed for service ready, close at hand; set out in order on the work bench for easy access. Chopping, par-cooking, trimming, making sure nothing is left to chance or forgotten as the countdown begins.
Akin to curtains rising upon a stage show, the doors of the restaurant open. The diners stream in. Their orders take over the kitchen, glaring at you, hanging off spikes above the ranges. Docket after order-filled docket demanding your attention.
The spell is broken. Reality hits, waiting for no one! It’s all systems go! If you don’t have the preparation completed, the mise en place in place, the restaurant may as well remain closed. All hell will break loose otherwise! You’ll be so behind the eight-ball, you’ll never catch up. Disaster lies ahead – just beyond the kitchen door!
One’s focus remains intent, unbroken until the last meal is served.
After a few years of dangerous manoeuvering kitchen workers unconsciously adopt a special kitchen gait. I’m sure I did, even if no one else did!
It’s an extremely stressful, but rewarding job - one not for the faint-hearted. When the pressure is on, the pressure is on; not dissimilar to a pressure cooker!
I loved my years spent cooking in restaurants, and also the time I spent waiting tables in restaurants. I'm not a trained chef. Because of my interest, I taught myself by watching, reading, listening, asking questions of the chefs I worked with when I waited on tables. The hospitality industry intrigued me. I wanted to play a part in it...so I did...on many different levels.
These days I prefer to watch from afar…from my sofa, as competitors on “My Kitchen Rules” or “MasterChef” battle it out, trying to beat the clock and each other. Sometimes watching the pressure they put upon themselves brings back many memories and at times, I can feel the knot in my stomach beginning to form, until I tell myself...I'm here...and they are there!!
And I also prefer rare occasions like the one I enjoyed yesterday. Hassle-free, I sat back sharing a leisurely lunch in the company of a good friend. We spent a couple of hours at a busy local eatery enjoying the restaurant’s fare where, no doubt, behind the scenes the pace was far more hectic than that at our table.
My friend and I sat a little way away from the madding crowd, outside overlooking a free-form pond surrounded by rolling, verdant fields. A gentle breeze barely disturbed the leaves on the trees and the clear blue sky above, unsullied by powder puff clouds dotted here and there framed the scene. A family of wood ducks floated upon the pond’s surface looking as if they didn’t have a care in the world. Their mood was contagious!
Music from the Sixties played softly in the background. It caused fond reflection on the days of our youth. The Sixties were a magical mystery tour; it was such an enjoyable ride that took us into the Seventies. (And now I really am in the Seventies)!!
To quote Bob Dylan: “People today are still living off the table scraps of the Sixties. They are still being passed around -- the music and the ideas.”
In the Seventies more great music flowed freely…and some wonderful recipes were discovered and became fashionable.
Coquilles St. Jacques: Boil and mash 500g potatoes with butter and a little milk/cream. Simmer large scallops in milk for a couple of minutes. Put scallops in their shells; pipe mashed potato around edges of shells. Melt a little butter in pan; stir in 28g plain flour (making a roux); cook gently, stirring, 3mins; gradually add milk for scallops and a little more if required; cook until sauce thickens; add 1tbl white wine or dry sherry; season. Mask scallops with sauce; sprinkle with dry breadcrumbs and grated cheese; place under grill until crisp and brown on top. Garnish with parsley and lemon.
Coq au Vin: Heat 2tbs x-virgin olive oil into heavy-based ovenproof pot over medium heat; add 2c chopped bacon and 1 chopped medium onion; cook, stirring, until both are softened and then remove, draining well. Cut 2x2kg chickens into 8 pieces each. Fry the chicken in batches until all the pieces are evenly browned, then return them all to the pot with the bacon and onion. Remove the pot from the heat and add 5tbs brandy. Carefully ignite, standing well back until the flames subside; then return the pot to the heat. Preheat the oven to 140°C. Tie a few sprigs of fresh thyme, rosemary , 2 bay leave and parsley into bundle; add to pot with 3 crushed garlic cloves, 1tbs tomato puree, 1tbs lemon juice, 1tbs sugar and 1 bottle of full-bodied, dry red wine. Cover with lid; cook in oven for 2 to 2-1/2 hours until chicken is very tender.About 30 minutes before the chicken finishes cooking, melt 1tbs butter and 2tbs oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add 350g pickling onions or shallots; fry for 10 to 15 minutes until they are golden brown and soft; transfer to a plate. Add 350g button mushrooms to the pan; toss so they are just cooked and coloured. Blend the 2tbs butter and 2tbs flour together in a small bowl. Remove a few pieces of the cooked chicken to make room to stir in the beurre manié. Add this in small amounts, stirring after each addition so that the sauce remains smooth. When all the beurre manié has been incorporated return the chicken together with the onions/shallots and mushrooms. Simmer 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle the top generously with the parsley and serve from the pot.
Sukiyaki: Cut 250g rump or sirloin thickly. Mix together 3tbls beef stock, 2-6tbsl soy sauce, 2tbl sugar and 1/2tbl saki or sherry (add soy sauce gradually, tasting frequently to get desired taste). Cook 170g rice separately; keep hot. Heat 1tbl oil in large frying pan; brown meat on both sides; add half the sauce to meat; push meat to one side of pan; add 1 sliced onion, 1 sliced leek and 113g shredded cabbage; cook gently for 3mins. Add remaining sauce, 113g finely-shredded mushrooms and 113g spinach; cook further 3mins. Beat and season 2 eggs; heat in separate pan, stirring until slightly thickened, but not set. Add hot meat and vegetables to this; serve with rice; serves 2-3.
Crêpes Suzette: Sieve 113g plain flour, pinch salt; beat in 2 eggs, and then enough milk for thick batter (about 235ml); beat hard; stand for short time (the batter, and you, if you like); add a little more liquid if too thick. Add 1/2tbs oil or melted butter just before cooking. A little sugar can be added to flour for a sweet crepe. Fill each crepe with a filling of: 113g butter, 113g sugar, grated rind of 2 oranges and a little curacao or Grand Marnier. Fold crepes into four over the filling; place them onto a very hot dish. Mix together juice of 2 oranges, 1tbls curacao or Grand Marnier and a little sugar; heat in pan; pour over hot crepes; ignite before serving. (Along with Creme Brulee and Creme Caramels, these are still a favourite dessert of mine).