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The Pass

“Service!” One simple word shouted across the busy kitchen to patiently posed waiting staff finally means that Sean Burbidge, head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Michelin-starred restaurant Pétrus, has finished studying the individual components of a dish and proclaimed it worthy of the refined diners on the floor above. The previous dish, an elegant-looking shell fish linguini garnished with an artful smear of lobster and tomato bisque was poured over, prodded and poked before being sent back for even more refinement. Nothing gets past the pass unless it’s perfect.

Once, you could only experience this kind of detail by tuning into TV restaurant shows like Masterchef and Hell’s Kitchen, but such has been the demand to observe life behind the scenes that savvy restaurants are starting to offer glimpses of life on the other side of the closed doors of the kitchen. Gordon Ramsay, ever on the lookout for new ideas, has taken the concept to a whole new level and placed a fully laid out table right in the heart of the action. Not only does The Chef’s Table overlook the pass, but lucky diners who sign up to Pétrus’ recently launched Chef’s Table Master Class can get stuck in, prepping and cooking their own meals. But, as I experienced one cold morning in February, don’t sign up expecting a gentle introduction to the workings of a top-class kitchen, this is straight into the fire from the off.

Mar 14th 2011

My first morning in a professional kitchen starts with a tour. Chef Burbidge was waiting, my whites in his hands, ready to “escort me to the work station. Weaving my way past huge bubbling stockpots brim full of legs, bones and heads, my day starts with a quick lesson in shucking the scallops that will become the centrepiece to my starter. It was an introduction to how fresh the ingredients in a top-class restaurant need to be. The molluscs had been hand-dived the day before and were so fresh that once the shells had been prized open the meaty scallop squirmed and shied away from my knife. A little curried salt, then it was over to take my place between the busy chefs manning the boiling inferno that Burbidge laughingly calls the oven, where the scallops were pan-fried for 70 seconds on one side and 30 on the other. As the scallops rested, it was straight onto confiting potatoes and grating truffle into a freshly whipped mayonnaise. A little bit of dainty assemblage, et voila: pan-fried scallops with confit potatoes and truffle mayonnaise. As I take a break to admire my handiwork, the first order of the day comes in. “One quail breast, two red mullet, please!” It’s like someone has flicked a switch and the kitchen goes from lukewarm to red-hot.

Suddenly finding space and trying to steer clear of the bustling chefs becomes the priority, although the speed and efficiency in which they dance around one another is something to behold. I set about boning a poussin (a very young chicken) for my main. And it’s got to be done double quick because the butter is starting to bubble in the white-hot sauteé pan and the Madeira jus still needs mixing. A handful of chefs work around me, flames flying out of their pans. The heat is intense and my knuckles are red raw after only a minute. A good wedge of butter, a sprig of rosemary and thyme and the poussin is soon browning in the pan. ‘Hang on; this is supposed to be served with creamed cabbage! Where’s the creamed cabbage?’ Jean-Philippe, the impossibly smooth restaurant director (familiar as ‘JP’ to viewers of Hell’s Kitchen), glides down the stairs to see how I’m getting on. He’s double-checked all the tables today against the restaurant’s database. Table four usually prefer tap water. Table three like to be seated near the window, and so on. His recipe for success is simple: “Everybody should have a good time. Enjoy working here, enjoy eating here.” He finds my creamed cabbage.

Prepping dessert allows me to learn two valuable principles of cooking. Firstly, if you’re chopping chillies (which I had been doing to add some kick to a lime syrup I’ll soon be drizzling onto a coconut panna cotta) do not rub your eyes afterwards (‘At least you didn’t go for a pee!’, a passing chef helpfully reminds me). And apparently, the only way to get a stubborn panna cotta out of a ramekin is to heat up the sides with a blowtorch. I get given a blowtorch. I have a go and after a while, and a little light hair singeing, it works. I pour on the syrup, balance some crisped coconut on top and step back to admire my handiwork. Burbidge inspects my final creation and I wait for what surely has to be the inevitable shout of “service!” But no, it looks like I’ll have to eat this one myself.

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