At the turn of the year, a little neighbourhood restaurant opened in the Santa Catalina district of Palma in Mallorca. The chef, Joel Baeza, had previously worked with Rob Roy Cameron, the head chef at Gazelle in Mayfair, while they were both on the Spanish mainland a few years back.
Rob told me about his old colleague’s new opening after I revealed that my evening with him would be my 30th stage in a kitchen. It turns out that Joel’s restaurant is called Stagier Bar and the menu is based almost entirely on what he learned during his years of staging at some of the best restaurants in Spain, including El Celler de Can Roca, Azurmendi, Mugaritz, Martín Berasategui, Moments and El Bulli – the now legendary former best restaurant on the planet.
In stagiaire terms, I clearly have quite a way to go yet.
Rob has worked at El Bulli, too, during what turned out to be a pretty eventful six-year stint in Spain that also included helping his old mentor Albert Adria open both Tickets and 41 Degrees in Barcelona. “I think, in the years to come, staging will overtake schooling as the most important part of a chef’s education,” he says. “It’s all about networking and getting on the stage circuit – that’s the new studying. It’s already a huge thing in Europe and has been for some time. Parents put money aside not necessarily for their children to go to culinary school, but so they can stage at top restaurants.”
Rob’s latest venture, Gazelle, is a small plates affair with the menu clearly influenced by his time in Spain. He still has a number of suppliers from when working in Barcelona, with whom he has made sure he has remained friends, usually over regular barbecues on his days off. He also speaks decent Spanish, as does the majority of his brigade, of which there are only eight in total, with six chefs in the small kitchen on any given day.
I was to be only the fourth stagiaire that Gazelle has had since opening this summer, with an Italian and two English chefs staging before me. The restaurant had a fifth lined up, from Georgia in the US, but she had called up a week before to cancel after deciding to “make her trip to England a holiday rather than a stage”.
During prep, my main task was to remove the skin from Jerusalem artichokes to be used as part of a pig’s tail dish. The skin is dehydrated, the flesh used as part of a purée, with Rob’s partner at Gazelle, mixologist Tony Conigliaro, providing a distilled Manhattan-esque syrup to complete it. I had met Conigliaro a few years back when I staged at another of his projects, Bar Termini in Soho, where I learned how to make the perfect espresso.
Dinner started at six and I was to be on the yakitori grill with sous chef Ben Morgan tackling squid. Ben explained that the prepped squid had been cut lengthways into strips with the inner membrane still inside. I had always removed this whenever prepping squid but Ben told me that leaving it attached gave the finished article an almost spaghetti-like sheen when grilled over hot coals. With an order for squid called (Rob gave me one in Catalan for fun), I had to take a portion of sliced squid, place it on a circular mesh grate, which then went onto the grill where it could never rest for more than a few seconds or the squid would stick.
After only a couple of minutes, with the squid still tender and slightly smoked, it came off the grill and onto the pass to be plated with Iberico pork jowl, pickled girolles and sandalwood.
During a quiet moment, I followed Ben into the bar area to help slice some amazing bresaola for the small bar menu there. This bresaola had been organised by Ben himself after a successful stage with Masanti Stefano of Ristorante Il Cantinone in the Alps, who owns the Madesimo based supplier.
Ben’s list of stages also includes Koks in the Faroe Islands as well as restaurants in Japan and, while we sliced and plated the bresaola, we managed to come up with a rather neat little acronym for stagiaires when looking into working at a restaurant abroad: CLAM – Concept, Location, Accommodation, Minimum term.
To finish me off at the end of service, Rob let me try his prized Iberico pork from Maldonado Farm. I bet that ‘holidaying’ chef from Georgia didn’t find any better.