Only a blue tinted portal - the one way door into the depths of the Underworld - suggests the behind-the-scenes drama of the kitchen, and, if you’re looking at the right time, slivers of stainless steel and the flurry of chefs’ whites. Once seated, silver bowls of bread materialise quickly. The waiter is charming, with perhaps a glint in his eye. Food arrives, plates tucked into invisible crevices in his arm. You’ve ordered the salad to start - the radicchio is cold and crisp, beetroots bathe in just the right amount of truffle honey dressing, and nestled in the middle is a golden nugget – crunchy on the outside but releasing molten goats’ cheese as soon as it is pierced.
You might acknowledge this or you might not. The meal continues. Mains come and go. You order dessert. One of your dining companions goes to the loo. Dessert arrives immediately after his return. Fresh mint tea, or an espresso, and the meal’s over, and you leave the buzzing Art Deco-style emporium. Did you stop to think how many people it took to make that one salad? How many spats arose over that chorizo? That the waiter had been closely observing your departure to the lavatory and had announced it to the entire kitchen: “Hold dessert - he’s in the loo!” I didn’t, until a couple of weeks ago.
I swanned in at 9am on Monday, through the revolving door. The chic black and white décor was the same, but that is where the familiarity ended. No excited chatter, no heads turning from tables to scrutinise who has entered (anyone famous?), and no one to slip my coat off my shoulders and guide me to the seats with which I possess a lifetime of acquaintance. Instead: tables denuded of their usual crisp white tablecloths, stacked on top of each other, naked legs in the air, and chairs piled up across the room. I wove my way through the maze of disarray, and with some trepidation approached the blue portal.
The door swung shut behind me. One way only. Then I descended into the Underworld. Mike, the senior sous greeted me with a pile of freshly folded chef’s whites. No room for glamour here; only baggy elasticated-waist black trousers, a floppy, short-sleeved, double-poppered shirt and a stripy blue apron. I scraped my hair back and tied it up: number 1 fear was having a customer send food back after semi-choking on a long brunette hair.
Mike then gave me a tour of the various stainless steel divisions that comprise the underground empire. First: “veg”, which featured cauldrons/baby bathing tubs bubbling furiously,
as well as vats of overnight-maturing stock.
which included bricks of pork belly cut at perfect right angles,
blocks of already cut frozen meat defrosting, their crimson juices dripping into the sink,
octopuses splayed casually,
and blue-gloved hands peeling back pimpled chicken carcases for delicate dissection.
Last: “pastry”, on the ground floor, tucked away to the side and from which billows of homely sweet pastry and freshly baked bread filled the room.
I, however, spent my first day on “sauce”, upstairs, where Lauren was juggling béarnaise sauce for the fish, and caramelised apple for the pork. Prepping hedgehog mushrooms for the risotto was my job, scraping the mottled brown fuzz from under the mushrooms’ umbrellas. I was standing in front of the stoves from which service takes place: flames flashed through the grill suspended from the ceiling, oil hissed from four vats in the corner, and hot plates were churning the air above into a haze – as close to the fires of Hades as any mortal can get. After a couple of hours of herb picking and carrot peeling, Lauren mentioned lunch. “Get there quick,” she said. “The waiters are greedy”. She never goes, and nor do many other of the chefs. So chefs are never hungry and waiters are – or so it seemed in the case of Le Caprice. She spoke the truth: after stumbling down dead ends, I found the staff room where waiters were hunched over plates heaped with minced meat sauce, rice and salad. Presentation wasn’t quite the same standard as that on the other side of the door. I had arrived on the scene too late – only a puddle of minced meat was left, and a waiter was scraping the remains of the rice onto his already piled high plate. He looked down on me pityingly and redistributed a few grains from his plate on to mine. I wasn’t actually interested in eating rice, but the gesture was there.
After I’d clambered upstairs again, I found Lauren setting up for service. Surfaces were clear and sterilised (almost obsessively), drawers of condiments and herbs were fully stocked and arranged neatly, a bowl of sterilising hand wash was on standby, together with separate boards for fish and meat, sauces in bottles, and plates stacked high under the oven to keep warm. A sliding fridge contained all the ingredients, perfectly portioned and ready to be cooked.
At 12.30 service began. Mike assumed his position in front of the counter. There was an energy in the air – no stress, just adrenaline. Unsurprisingly, January is a quiet month. Most of the regulars are on holiday, Lauren explained – a quiet lunchtime service equals roughly 60 covers, no small feat in my book.
There was no Hell’s Kitchen vibe, none of the head chef shouting which had entertained me in countless episodes of Masterchef. Receipts began to roll in. James was also on the pass – he’d only been there a few months as part of his course at chef school. Duck eggs were fried, pork fillets were fried and roasted, cod was cooked on the hot plate, and chicken escalope, prawns, and shoals of Thai baked sea bass were juggled and whisked onto the pass. The dishes were placed underneath a heater to keep them warm until service was shouted, and the dishes were collected in a particular order so that the last picked up is the first to be delivered to the women at the table.
I’d done a mild version of service previously when I did work experience in Villandry’s pastry kitchen – even then, I found slicing cakes for service stressful, so I was rather pleased that my only job was to peel back the palm leaf on the Thai baked sea bass and drizzle it with sweet chilli sauce. Halfway through service, a third chef was called up to the pass. Dishes were flying off the counter, and rather disappointingly (for me) from a drama perspective, everything was in sync: receipt read out, food fired/baked/grilled/roasted, service shouted, garnish scattered, dish scrutinised by Mike, and then whisked off by the waiters into the diners’ realm. If there were any drips, not enough dressing, or lack of crispness he notified the chefs, but this was a rare occurrence, and the spirit was a jovial one rather than strictly hierarchical. Every ten minutes or so, as if by clockwork, a man would appear to conquer the ever-mounting pile of dishes. I had squeezed myself into a corner to take in the action but even then it was difficult not to be in someone’s way. Every now and then Mike would pass me something to try: sea parsley, a slice of Perigord truffle, an onion bhaji, parsnip and apple soup, hot smoked salmon, celeriac rémoulade, Bouillabaisse sauce… I could almost hear my metabolism weeping. The highlight occurred at around 1.30, mid-frenzy. James slid a bowl toward me overflowing with the most golden and crisp pommes allumettes. I stared at him briefly in disbelief and attempted to pace myself while failing utterly to disguise my greediness.
Service peaked at around 1.30, and the frenzy began to simmer down. The third chef on service dropped out, and around 2.30 Lauren began to tidy away. Enervated and relieved, we descended to the basement kitchen. I spent the rest of the afternoon crying as the pile of halved onions in front of me grew. To be continued...