“No worries Tom, I’m out picking nettles in Tower Hamlets Cemetery. My sous chef Chris knows you’re coming – he’ll say hi!” It was just after nine in the morning and I was late for my stage at Lyle’s in Shoreditch. However, as the reply to my text revealed, James Lowe – the chef-patron – hadn’t quite finished his errands.
While I was racing through the streets of London’s East End towards the 38th best restaurant in the world, I could only imagine James creeping past eerie headstones in the early morning mist looking for white dead-nettle flowers that I would later use as a garnish for his flatbreads with pickled Trombetta courgettes.
This was to be my 27th stage and followed Heston Blumenthal’s The Perfectionists’ Café at Heathrow Airport where I learnt the art of cooking at 3am. Before that, I had spent time at the prestigious Hof van Cleve in the Belgian countryside – number 63 on this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant list – sampling cheese with the wonderful Peter Goossens and being chased by the local geese.
Being a stagiaire is a way to experience the very top echelons of cooking and, through that experience, become a better chef and open up new opportunities. And it was through a humble stage over a decade ago that saw James Lowe start down a path that would kick start his chef career.
"I could only imagine James creeping past
eerie headstones in the early morning
mist looking for white dead-nettle flowers"
In his youth, the now 38-year-old Lowe made up part of the UK chef super-group ‘The Young Turks’, with a stage at Noma in Copenhagen consolidating his friendship with another of the group’s original founders, Isaac McHale, who was also in the kitchen at the time.
After four years as head chef at the acclaimed St John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields, Lowe and the newly founded Young Turks flooded London with pop-ups from 2010, with the highlight being Lowe and McHale’s successful tenure above the Ten Bells pub in Spitalfields. Lowe opened Lyle’s, his first permanent restaurant, in 2014.
A paired-back, micro-seasonal British affair with a small, open kitchen; Lyle’s serves daily à la carte and set menus, with its acclaimed Guest Series running throughout the year, which sees chefs from all over the world participate in collaborative dinners with Lowe at his restaurant. Jeremy Fox – known as The Vegetable Whisperer of Napa Valley – and Laotian-American chef James Syhabout are already booked in for later this year.
With its Guest Series, Lyle’s, in a way, has embraced the idea that staging is a never-ending affair and that a chef’s education is never complete. “I’m a commis, even now,” as Marco Pierre White once famously said.
BEING A COMMIS WAS EXACTLY MY REMIT when I stepped into the Lyle’s kitchen with the senior sous, Chris Trundle, seating me for staff breakfast (leek and potato soup) where I met the four other chefs that were on that day.
In total, there are eight chefs at Lyle’s who work four-day weeks – three doubles and one half day. A chef is expected to learn all the sections (wood-fired oven, plancha, grill, larder, pastry and the pass) during their time at the restaurant.
I was paired with a chef de partie, Tom, who had been there about a year and had previously worked in Japan. He had me slicing leeks for a pollack, ramson and whey dish (keeping the tops for an oil), and picking wild garlic flowers that James’ mum had brought in earlier that morning from her garden.
It turns out that foraging in Tower Hamlets Cemetery isn’t exactly above board but Lowe, on his return, told me that he isn’t the only chef often found graveyard hopping during the week. And if any chefs are caught, they all claim to work at one specific restaurant in Liverpool Street. That would be the restaurant with 13 head chefs and 21 sous, then.
James had avoided the wardens that morning, but one of his fridges had caught fire overnight and he was on the phone for the majority of lunch service discussing the plausibility of a new, industrial-grade refrigerator unit spontaneously combusting, with Chris taking the reins on the pass.
Being a stagiaire can often mean repetitive tasks, with the prepping of leeks and asparagus two of my most familiar duties during prep in a kitchen. Understanding that you often have to earn the trust of your fellow chefs is another important facet of being a stagiaire, one that I really learned during a five-day stint in an almost entirely French kitchen at Pierre Gagnaire’s Sketch in Mayfair.
The chefs there took two days to suss me out and see if I was worth my salt, and that meant lots of careful observing on my part, a keen interest and dedicated work ethic. Being asked to stay for a bottle of beer after service on the last day was a personal triumph.
During lunch service at Lyle’s, I continued to prep for dinner, trimming white asparagus, picking lemon thyme and pickling courgettes in cider vinegar and sugar, while also adding logs to the wood-fired oven and watching my mentor Tom grill fresh lobster on the fire – lobster that had been delivered that morning from a day boat. Ten lobsters, to be exact, and there was an almost audible squeak from Chris and James on the pass every time an order for one trickled through.
As lunch progressed, I watched as Tom pan-fried strips of Aylesbury duck and another chef de partie, Jamie, prepared St George’s mushrooms that were brought in that morning by a local forager (the rule with this particular forager, when James isn’t in the building, is buy everything he has).
Chris plated throughout, delicately placing raw scallops on sunflower seed Hozon and sorrel one moment, then moving on to position fresh pig’s head terrine with pickled radicchio in another. Frank the pastry chef chipped in with Dorset Oysters when needed, while Eddy the KP slalomed through the action keeping things stocked and ready.
I WONDERED HOW MUCH RESPONSIBILITY, IF ANY, I would be afforded during dinner service at the second best restaurant in Britain, behind only James’ mate Isaac McHale’s The Clove Club. I had been in charge of a whitebait starter at Tom Kerridge’s The Hand & Flowers, helped with amuse bouches at Alyn Williams at The Westbury, ran a pass in Hebrew at The Palomar in Soho and had been on cold starters at Michel Roux Jr’s Le Gavroche.
At Lyle’s, it was with the asparagus, funnily enough, that would see me become one of the most important chefs in the kitchen that evening. White asparagus, walnuts, anchovy and Spenwood. That was how the dish read on the evening’s £59-a-head set menu. It was to be the second dish on every table, behind the trombetta courgette flatbreads, and followed by the pollack, a cockerel dish with artichokes and spinach, with a chocolate mousse and buckwheat ice cream to finish.
I was given the white asparagus dish for the duration of dinner from 6pm to 11pm. There were 34 covers for dinner, plus walk-ins. This was to be quite the step up from picking flowers.
Before service started, I was given a run-through of how to cook and plate the dish as the timing would be crucial. First of all, James would call the ticket. Tom, who would be next to me, would start everything off by throwing prepped flatbread dough into the wood-fired oven.
Once that’d risen and was baked, Tom would whip it out and begin to plate. Then, I would kick into gear.
That meant two of my previously prepped white asparagus, sliced into halves, into an oiled pan with a dash of salt and pepper, per person. Then, I would carefully push the pan into the top right of the oven (giving Tom room to go again with more dough). By this point, the flatbreads would have been taken to the table by one of the waiters.
When soft and boasting a nice colour, my pan would come out of the oven and be placed on the top to keep the asparagus warm while the flatbreads are eaten and cleared. When James called for the asparagus dish, I would spread a little anchovy paste on a plate and carefully place the asparagus on top. A healthy dollop of freshly made walnut pesto would then be balanced on the asparagus, which would then be covered with grated Spenwood cheese. My dish would then be judged by James himself and, if up to his high standards, would be taken to the table by the wait staff.
"Understanding that you often have to
earn the trust of your fellow chefs is
another important facet of being a stagiaire"
On paper, I understood completely and as the first table got things rolling, I felt both confident and proud to be stood by the pass, James and Tom either side of me, with the world watching on. It didn’t take long before I realised just how important timing is for a set/tasting menu. On paper, what I had to do wasn’t necessarily the hardest on the line. But as multiple tickets from multiple different tables started to come through, the number of pans and asparagus I had on the go grew and grew, with Tom and I jostling for position in front of the 400°C oven as James called for dish after dish.
It’s all very well cooking for one or two, but I was soon cooking for six in one go, with four more up next and another six straight after that. And my fellow chefs couldn’t get going with their respective dishes before my dishes had left the pass.
Plates were found in a cabinet between James’ legs and were staggeringly hot from the washer, with every one also needing to be wiped with vinegar water to avoid staining. The grated Spenwood was a nightmare to keep in check when plating, as was the walnut pesto, with both giving me a headache when trying to earn approval at the pass.
The biggest compliment that my mentor for the day, Tom, gave me was that, after helping me with the first three tickets, he left me alone (apart from telling me to keep my mop cloth in my apron rather than over my shoulder, something I’d never seen before). He treated me like a fellow chef at Lyle’s, one that needed help when he asked for it. In fact, I even helped garnish his flatbreads at one point with James’ foraged dead-nettle flowers and also helped serve pots of home-made Lyle’s butter and smoked cod brandade sauce.
I must have made 50 or so plates, with James immediately accepting a great many, dictating with a calm authority throughout. I made sure to learn from any early sloppiness and, by the end of service, he trusted me enough to simply nod from afar instead of coming over to inspect.
As dinner service slowly started to wind down, James popped out back to get a head start on cleaning the fridges. Frank on pastry, meanwhile, was still on the go with desserts and I took the opportunity to go and see how things were done. I came away that evening at around midnight without the hair on my arms thanks to the wood-fired oven, a big thumbs up from James and a portion of caramel ice cream with espresso meringue from Frank.
The feeling after a successful stage is quite unique and it never gets old, regardless of how many you do. I’ll surely remember each and every one right up until the point when a new generation of chefs begin to clamber over my headstone on the hunt for garnish.