After donning chef’s whites for the second time, proudly hooking my tea towel into the tie in what I thought was a professional way, I spent Day Two in the cold section i.e. meat and fish. Valentina took me under her wing, overseeing my making of duck beignet – duck sausage sliced and dipped in flour, then egg yolk, and then in panko crumbs.
This was done again for the golden nuggets of molten goat’s cheese for the beetroot salad. It was at this point that I realised one of the reasons why everything in Le Caprice kitchens run so smoothly: Tupperware. Tubs upon tubs upon tubs, gallons, half gallons and smaller take out ones all stacked ceiling high. Everything goes into Tupperware, and not in any haphazard order, but only after it has been perfectly portioned. The beignets were laid out flat, no overlapping, tortellini were five to a container, and duck for the crispy duck salad (my favourite) was carefully weighed out to the last gram.
After wrapping halved lemons in gauze, I went off to 11 o’clock lunch: fluorescent Thai green curry. I chatted more to some of the chefs and waiters, finding out how long they’d been there, whether they’d always loved food, enjoyed cooking etc. Some dreamed of opening their own restaurant, their own bakeries. One chef said he prefers the food at KFC…
I met Valentina upstairs preparing for service in the cold section (to my relief, no fires of Hell that day). Mike came over, took a bowl, filled it with a handful of Mooli (white radish), julienned carrot, beansprouts, and finely chopped spring onion, and drizzled it with a sweet chilli dressing and swirled it all around. Then he took a punnet of perfectly portioned boiled duck breast, sprinkled it with some sort of starch, and dropped it with nonchalant cool into a pool of sizzling oil.
A couple of minutes later, he dropped the duck portions into a stainless steel bowl to drain. Crisped to perfection, they rattled around as he drenched them with the stick soy-honey –hoisin sauce. This was poured onto the salad, scattered with torn pomelo and chilli cashews and topped with the watercress. “You’ll be making this today, try it first,” he said. I began to gorge myself: sticky, sweet, crunchy, acidic, salty, spicy. So good. Three quarters of the way through, I noticed that he had handed me two sets of cutlery. Pretending that I hadn’t seen them, I continued feasting.
Service began. The crispy duck salad was the most popular dish. Pressure was on. Receipts rolled in, along with pressure and excitement. Every now and then Mike would ask: “How many minutes Sophia?” I whipped up the dish, pestering Valentina with questions to make sure it was perfect, and then I’d transport it over the pass to be inspected by Mike. “Good work,” he said. Though it was probably the simplest dish on the menu, I cannot describe the thrill of the satisfaction.
Service continued until receipts began to peter out, and Valentina and I chatted the whole time. She’s from Romania. None of the meat here tastes like home, she told me, where her family keeps, raises and kills their own animals. We discussed art, her love of drawing, and how she never had the time when she was working in the kitchen. She adores baking (chocolate and pistachio are her weaknesses), and yet lamented her lack of time for experimenting. We discussed our favourite blogs and recipes and desserts, and she described a recipe for a delicious lemon pudding that she promised she would let me have (if you’re reading this, Valentina, please send it to me - I’m desperate to try it!). Although she enjoyed working in the kitchen, it seemed that some of her creativity was held back. The hours are long – five shifts a week, including one double shift. Hours are from seven until four, and then some evenings, when the shift ends, later than one a.m., depending on last orders. The adrenaline from service sometimes prevents her from sleeping for at least two hours – something I can completely understand as I was buzzing from only a couple of days in the kitchens.
I spent the next three days in what can only be described as the Elysian field of the Underworld kitchen: pastry. Nicky is head pastry chef, and she couldn’t have been lovelier. She told me that I could make anything that I liked from the menu. This is the kind of thing I fantasize about. So, I made plum tarte tatin,
apple and blackberry tartlets,
rhubarb crumble pies,
lime parfait, white chocolate ice cream, mint chocolate chip ice-cream, focaccia, brioche, carta di musica, orange and cinnamon palmiers,
and the truffles that I lust over in the time between visits to the Caprice. For the latter, she handed me the recipes and set me free. I boiled the sugars and cream together for the ganache, and whisked in the passion fruit puree, before pouring it over the chocolate to melt it – luscious and glossy, it would have been a sin not to steal a spoonful, and another. I piped this into chocolate shells where it set.
The same was done for the caramel truffles, but these required hand rolling in dark chocolate – a lengthy process, but well worth it.
The effort of rolling the several hundred truffles was reduced slightly by a simple reduction in the number of caramel truffles i.e. I, together with my partner- in- crime, Blair (see below), gorged myself sick.
I was then asked to place the Caprice brioche burger buns in plastic bags to freeze them.
Peta (senior pastry chef at The Ivy) took me over to the seal wrap machine. “Put the edge of the bag here and press the lid down for a couple of seconds. Don’t let it suck the air out,” she instructed me. It seemed simple enough. She left, entrusting the hundreds of fluffy, burnished, seeded buns to me.
It worked perfectly the first time, and the second. I became arrogant, and was distracted by the bustling of chefs behind me. I turned back to the buns - but they were no longer buns. Six wrinkled and deflated solid misshapen things stared back at me. Panic stricken, I hid them behind the back of the machine. Thinking better of this, I pulled them out, but if I threw them away someone would notice. I considered telling Peta, but shame prevented me. So I prised the layers of shrink-wrapped plastic apart in an attempt at bun CPR. I almost convinced myself that they appeared slightly rejuvenated. Wracked by embarrassment, I even considered rushing to the office, squeezing past Mike and hiding them in my bag. In the end, I placed them down the side of the freezer hoping to give the impression that they’d been crushed by something else. Those buns continue to haunt me.
I accompanied Nicky upstairs for service. Pastry service is much calmer than savoury. The dessert menu at Le Caprice is also decadently extensive, so it was rather like watching a piece of art work being created as Nicky worked her way through the receipts.
This beauty, a yuzu and cherry mousse with pistachio macarons, was invented by Nicky herself only a couple of weeks before.
Part of the thrill of being a pastry chef, she said, was the injection of creativity. Every two weeks, she has to present a new dish to the board of tasters who are apparently very blunt when voicing their opinions. The dish cannot be similar to anything else on the menu, nor any of the other menus of The Caprice Holdings Group.
It happened that Judi Dench was in the house that day, and one of her party ordered sugar brioche doughnuts with chocolate sauce and strawberry jam. I had made the dough, stamped into little rounds and portioned it into Tupperware earlier.
I poured these out into the oil, and under Nicky’s direction, flipped them continuously. They puffed up gloriously into golden brown globes.
I drained them and rolled them in white sugar until they glistened. Nicky arranged them on a plate and I shouted ‘Service!’
Each of the waiters was friendly, each with a strong personality, one more so than the others. He waltzed into the kitchen, chest puffed, flicking his slicked and coiffed hair, and as he whisked away my dish to transport it to the realm of the diners, he burst into rather monotonous and very loud song “All of me loves all of you, la la laaa la laa la la laaaaaaa”.
Le Caprice has no dearth of famous diners, but what I found more interesting were the eccentric ones. “No shortage of those,” Nicky said. One man apparently had come the week before for the pre-theatre menu. He pored over the menu studiously and ordered three courses. He didn’t touch one of the dishes, and made himself a sandwich from the bread basket instead. There is also a regular whose reasons for coming to the restaurant are somewhat particular: he comes in once a week, sits down at the table, reaches into his bag, and pulls out his own packed lunch.
Friday came almost too quickly. I spent the morning slicing brownies (and eating the off cuts, obviously),
learning how to segment oranges, painting carta di musica,
and trying absolutely everything from chocolate delice to caramel popcorn ice cream.
Nicky had whipped up a batch of popping candy mint ice cream and was handing it out to all the chefs.
It was also the last day for three of the chefs: Mike was moving on to become head chef of his own restaurant, Lauren, after four years in Le Caprice was moving to its sister restaurant, Daphne’s, and Valentina was taking a break to explore. Champagne was cracked open, toasts were made.
The vibe was convivial. “We’re all like brothers and sisters,” Nicky had said to me, and I saw this for myself.
Mike kindly invited me to join them for drinks afterwards.
At 5 o’clock, I untied the bow of the striped blue apron, unpoppered the floppy white shirt, and changed out of the elasticated black trousers. I ascended the stairs for definitely, hopefully, not the last time – like Persephone, I had had more than my fair share of the pomegranate, and the Underworld had me in its warm, savoury, sweet clutches, or rather tongs.