If any of our seventeen guests were coming to dinner expecting Ramsay-style performances (expletive-ridden fireworks, tears shed, knives thrown) they woulda been sorely disappointed. There was plenty of theatre alright, but far less drama. Although in fairness, could anyone have been disappointed by a seven-course tasting menu which was preceded by a choice of just-baked breads including rustic slow-fermented white yeast bread; walnut; tomato; and fougasse? Served with a choice of butter or extra virgin olive oil and aged balsmaic vinegar? And washed down with a glass of Grain Sauvage Jurançon Sec? I should stress, in case you missed the point, that these treats came before any of the seven courses were served. Not a bad start, we thought.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that nerves weren’t running high all day in anticipation of the big grande finale Restaurant Night towards which we had been building for the last four weeks of this extraordinary course.
It’s just that what Lynda, John and the rest of the team on Dublin Cookery School’s Cooking for Life course had promised us was that we would get a taster of how a professional kitchen works for a professional service. And it turns out that if a professional kitchen is being truly professional about their service, and have prepared their mise en place, and stepped up to their own exacting standards, and anticipated everything that needs thinking about – as well as taken a well-needed break before regrouping for kick-off – then the service itself can be a bit of a breeze.
It mightn’t make for great telly, but it certainly made for a great night. And I think our guests might have enjoyed it too – running, as it did, as follows:
- Smoked mackerel and diced beetroot with horseradish cream.
- Celeriac velouté with mushroom duxelle and truffled hazelnuts.
- Pan-fried seabream and crispy squid with red and yellow pepper escabeche, tapenade and aoili.
- Open lasagne of smoked haddock velouté with leeks and spinach.
- Roasted poussin, confit legs, Bourguignon sauce and olive oil pomme purée.
- Hot lemon soufflé with whipped cream.
- Petit Four of chocolate silk cake with salted caramel ice-cream.
What do you reckon, does that read like a good night?
Actually, I can tell you from experience how good it all tasted because the night was meticulously choreographed to ensure that we got to cook and serve our tasting menu, and eat it too. Hours had been spent picking over the computations and permutations of not only who should prep what dish and with which cooking partner, but also which teams should leave their seats at our own dining table to cook off and plate up which course, and even which teams should serve it up. Each pair had their own element of the meal to be particularly proud of (I couldn’t resist pushing for people to try my fougasse bread, a twist on Rossa‘s rustic white recipe, moistened with olive oil and infused with herbes de Provence) and each team had their rhythm during the night, their time to bask in the heat of the kitchen, and their time to kick back, have a glass of fine wine and enjoy the fruits of the month’s labour.
The day had had its own rhythm too. Gathering bright-eyed in the morning, we were informed of what section each of us were on, and with whom. Then it was down to work. Breads were mixed and proved, pasta rolled and blanched, mirepoix sweated and veloutés simmered. Lemon curds were coaxed into being, and then rejected and started from scratch when decreed less than perfect. Salted caramel ice-cream was made, and tweaked, and retweaked again until we hit on just the right salt-sugar palate play. Mayonnaise was emulsified, seabream filleted, squid gutted and sliced. Wines were chilled, menus printed, flowers bought and given a long drink.
For several hours the kitchen was in full focus, each pair of cooks an individual cog spinning on their own axis to drive the machine forward, with John and Lynda leading the way and Gerry and Annmarie ensuring no-one was falling behind.
So organised was the whole affair that we had time for a sit-down lunch of gourmet open cheese toasties with a salad of avocado, pinenuts, cherry tomatoes and Parmesan croutons. (This was the one digression from the reality of a professional kitchen – everyone knows that chefs don’t eat properly, and certainly not sitting down, with their colleagues, chatting and laughing and savouring the meal.)
Late afternoon gave us an hour’s break from the building: some to get air, some to get pretty, some to hightail it to the wonderful 64 Wines in Glasthule where we knew staff would steer us well on choosing some special wines for each of the members of staff who had made the month so great.
Then it was back to the school to put the final touches to its transformation into a top-class restaurant. In the dining room, we set two long tables for seventeen (one for us, one for our guests), lined up cutlery and glasses, arranged tulips, placed menus, dimmed lights and lit candles. In the kitchen, some set up the sections for each dish, gathering the containers of chopped veg and herbs and any other mise en place we needed; others prepped the poussin which had finally arrived, or whipped the cream, or piled the bread on boards ready to be blasted in the oven before serving. And finally up front, we popped corks, put wine on ice and lined up polished glasses to transform the kitchen shop into our wine reception area.
By the time the guests were walking through what was now the service kitchen to the dining room, we had donned clean aprons, wiped down stations and put our mise en place in place. While Lynda clocked off kitchen duty to join the other guests, John was in high-beam head chef mode, overseeing each team as they brought the big day’s work to its final delicious end. Fish was flaked and veloutés frothed. Pans smoked and potato purées got well oiled. Egg whites were whisked and soufflés soared.
Our guests cooed on cue, and even we – grown accustomed to dining on the finest of food thanks to a month of daily three-course meals – were suitably impressed with our seven-course feast.
I’ve worked in many restaurants in my life, almost always front of house. When a service is going well there’s nothing like the buzz of it for me, and even in my job as a restaurant critic, I often long to be back on the floor. On our Dublin Cookery School Restaurant Night, as I served up yet another dish of exquisite looking food, and cleared off yet another empty plate, I was reminded of what a satisfaction it can be to facilitate such shared pleasure. But when you know how much work has gone into producing something on the plate – and you know it because you yourself put the work in – it makes those words sound so much the sweeter:
“Compliments to the chef.”