It was just after 10am in Texture on London’s Portman Street in Marylebone and I was already bleeding profusely from a gash to my right hand. Seafood is rife at Agnar Sverrisson’s Texture and I had come off worse in a shucking battle with an obnoxious Isle of Skye scallop and its particularly jagged shell.
The head chef, Karl O’Dell, scuttled around the pass towards the first aid kit as I looked sheepishly around at the eight or so other chefs who were in the main kitchen with me. They were still, mercifully, prepping away, completely unaware of their wounded and rather embarrassed stagiaire.
Agnar (or Aggi as he’s known) launched Texture in 2007, having spent the previous five years at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons (the last two of them as head chef ). He had arrived in England from Reykjavik in 2001 and is a real celebrity in his native Iceland. His kitchen has hosted plenty of Icelandic stagiaires over the past decade or so.
We’re talking multi award-winning modern European cuisine with Scandinavian and Asian influences. And I would finally learn the correct pronunciation for ‘skyr’.
Back in the warzone, Karl patched me up with a couple of magic blue plasters and together we tackled the stubborn scallops before moving on to breaking down duck from Creedy Carver farm in Devon. I had been taught a few things by the butchers at Aubrey Allen in Coventry a few years back but I was a bit rusty.
“I need to work on my butchery,” I said to Karl as he shot ahead with his first duck. “That’s why you’re here!” he replied, before showing me the correct angle for entering the centre of the bird, how to slice down with the breast plate, remove the wings and clean up the separated breast. The breasts were to be for one of the main courses, served with celeriac, cranberries and flower sprouts. The wings were for staff food, which was to be my remit, with Karl handing me pretty much every spice and chilli from the dry store downstairs.
“I’ll leave you to make it as hot as you like,” he said before heading off for a meeting with Aggi about the evening’s service, which currently stood at 20 bookings. Obviously I made the wings as hot as I could and, perhaps less obviously, all the chefs came back for seconds.
Before service started at 6pm, I visited the open pastry and larder section next to the 50-cover dining room to lend a blue-plastered hand. A peculiar array of foliage, including moss, a variety of rocks, oloured twigs and leaves, sat above the section ready to be arranged as part of the rather dramatic petit fours. Madeleines, macaroons, meringues and more were to be scattered among prearranged ornate pots full of garden allsorts, with a smouldering piece of charcoal taking centre stage.
I slid over to the larder as dinner service began, with enormous bowls of different crisps and breads for each table. A commis named Emmanuel was in charge of these and I spotted sheaths of dried rye bread, squid ink and parmesan crisps, cod skin and even dried lava bread (with black lava salt from Aggi’s Iceland).
Aggi himself conducted the main kitchen, which cranked up the heat as the overflowing bowls of crisps left the larder. I was swept up by two other larder chefs, Alan and Anna, and shown how to plate the smoked salmon starter. “Aggi likes three things when plating,” they told me. “The dish has to have height, it’s got to look rustic, and it’s got to be central on the plate.”
With this in mind and after watching Anna plate a few, I had a crack. The Scottish smoked salmon sits in the middle of the silver plate with a sprinkling of chopped dill on top. Pickled cucumber flanks the fish with butterfly sorrel, buckler sorrel and mustard skyr around it.
Along with Oscietra caviar and rye breadcrumbs, söl, which is the traditional Icelandic name for a particular type of seaweed, comes in two forms on the plate: as powder and as ‘snow’. This snow, said to be an invention of Aggi’s, is a savoury somewhere between ice cream and sorbet. It’s made by boiling, air spinning, then freezing the söl.
After relinquishing salmon duties back to Anna, I headed into the main kitchen, spotting a collage of top London critics for the benefit of the wait staff on a wall as I went. Rather than getting me to jump in, Karl instead handed me a chunky Périgord truffle and a small toothbrush-esque scrubber with which to clean it as things were getting heated.
“Some chefs respond well to raised voices, others don’t,” Aggi told me at the pass as he geed up a chef chargrilling an Anjou pigeon. “We’ve got a brilliant team here and it’s easy to hold onto them.”
The pigeon homed in on the pass, with Aggi demonstrating his contemporary French style of plating. Sweetcorn, bacon popcorn, shallots and red wine essence were all added in artistic fashion. Observing is a big part of being a stagiaire, and not many kitchens will give you leftover popcorn to eat while you do.