I was three hours into evening service at Dinner by Heston when I heard the head chef, Jonny Glass, ominously call my name out from the pass. He didn’t shout it, making it all the more terrifying, and as I looked up, I saw that he was slowly beckoning at me with one rather intimidating finger.
And it was all going so well... I had arrived bright and early at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge to be one of three stagiaires that day. There was meant to be a fourth, a chap called Thanos, but he’d called in sick. Perhaps the thought of running the sauce section for dinner service in the 45th best restaurant in the world had got the better of him? Perhaps the section had just got the better of me, I thought, as I began slaloming past the 20 or so other chefs in the kitchen towards Jonny and the waggling finger, who were both delegating next to the executive chef, Heston Blumenthal’s right-hand man, Ashley Palmer-Watts.
Best case scenario was that I was about to be told off for touching my hair again. We were in an open show kitchen and I had been told that it was a bad habit. Or, said the pit of my stomach, perhaps there was something wrong with the sauce I’d just given him for the roast Iberico pork chop dish.
The detail and precision at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is nothing short of extraordinary. Even before I’d fallen into my chef whites, I was handed a 19-page stage schedule and prep guide to pore over as I was welcomed into the labyrinthine set-up on the lower levels of the hotel, which includes three prep kitchens, a canteen, plus changing rooms and offices.
It’s easy to get lost, which I did constantly, even once finding myself in Bar Boulud’s prep kitchen next door after a wrong turn. In the Dinner prep kitchens, where I spent the afternoon carefully dicing Cornish scallops and dipping orbs of chicken liver parfait into plum jelly for the ‘meat fruits’, all the dishes are broken down into separate guides to such an extent that one even explains how not to slice mushrooms (with accompanying photos of butchered fungi).
Like with my previous stage at another of Heston’s outposts, The Perfectionists’ Café in Heathrow airport, I was asked not to make notes of the majority of recipes, ingredients or indeed cooking times because a lot of it is top secret.
I observed during lunch, which was all hands on tweezers for Ashley and Jonny at the pass, who calmly called tickets and plated with two of the senior sous. Meat at Dinner must be cooked to within one degree and they really mean it. If a steak is just a couple of degrees over or under, an executive decision is made at the pass between the senior chefs whether to serve it or not.
The kitchen itself is state of the art with two main plancha-strewn islands and a Josper oven. Individual members of the brigade, who washed their hands every 20 minutes, never seemed flustered despite the levels expected .
Another of the stagiaires was on sauce that afternoon but, from 6pm to close and under the watchful eyes of two CDPs on meat, it was my turn. And each sauce had a different requirement. For example, for every Hereford beef steak called, I had to put half a ladle of beef sauce in a pan with eight pieces of bone marrow and a teaspoon of parsley before bringing it carefully to the boil and taking it to the pass at exactly the same time as the meat. For the pork sauce, it was ¾ of a ladle, eight or nine pieces of diced pork belly and a large spoon of prepped mixed herbs before being carefully brought to the boil and taken at exactly the same time as the meat.
At just gone 9pm, in what was a roaring dinner service of 133 covers, I was working on sauce for seven roast venison, four roast Iberico pork chops, three of the £100 Hereford steaks for two and one spiced squab pigeon. And more kept coming. Considering this, I thought it might have been possible for me to have made a small mistake. But with Heston, that can’t happen. A spoonful of pork sauce greeted me as I finally reached Jonny Glass at the pass. Ashley Palmer-Watts turned to watch.
It turned out that Jonny had tasted that the portion of sauce I had just given him didn’t have enough pork belly. Thinking back I realised that, in my haste, I might have only put seven pieces in the portion, and the seventh was pretty small.
I made damn sure not to make any other mistakes, regardless of how busy it got. But, right at the death, a familiar finger waggled in my direction. Amazingly, Jonny called me over to offer me a job in the kitchen, saying I’d taken the criticism well, communicated throughout, shown initiative and had actually been left to run sauce for most of service without the need for a chaperone.
I left that morning via Bar Boulud’s service lift, along with a very confused-looking waiter.