The secret stagiaire: Alchemilla

By The secret stagiaire

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The secret stagiaire Alchemilla

Related tags: Restaurant, Chef

Our covert commis heads to Nottingham and the debut restaurant from rising star Alex Bond, where he gets to grips with a foam gun and tries his hand at spiralising.

“Right, let’s get your hands dirty!” Alex Bond, covered in tattoos and flour, gives me a clap on the back that sends a plume of white billowing up into the pastry section. I had just emerged, buttoned up and clutching knives, into the kitchen at Alchemilla in Nottingham. It was a hot day on the outskirts of the city and it was all hands on deck rolling sourdough.

My stage with Alex had come about after his mate, the giant chef of Ynyshir in Wales, Gareth Ward, had recommended I make the trip. Gareth had told me the two of them had been at Sat Bains together and that Alex was now doing some amazing things with his plant-orientated, fine dining debut.

And, as I discovered, it’s a tasting menu-focused debut born from blood, sweat and sandstone. “We literally dug a kitchen out of the walls of a Victorian coach house that hadn’t been used for over 100 years,” Alex says as he gets me working the dough, which is made with a six-year-old starter.

A photography book sits at the entrance of the restaurant that vividly details the extent of the two-year excavation process, with the original space looking like something out of a Nordic horror film complete with sodden sofas, creeping ivy and crumbling walls. Now, we’re talking state-of-the-art rustic with a quite stunning kitchen fit for the very best.

Liam Sweeney, the sous chef, soon asks me to carefully scrape the flesh from cooked artichoke skins by the pass. He also tells me the unofficial motto of the kitchen: “If you don’t have time to do it properly, when are you going to have time to do it twice?”

This artichoke flesh would later be made into a puree and the skins first dehydrated then deep-fried to be part of the first dish on the tasting menu – crab and chawanmushi (a Japanese egg custard dish).

I was scraping next to a CDP named Samson, one of the 10 chefs working four-day weeks in the gleaming workspace, who had previously worked at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.

“It was hard,” he says as he layers smoked eel and slices of potato for the dauphinoise-esque course. This was to be baked in a horseradish, garlic and thyme cream and served with a salted lemon puree and a sauce of horseradish and buttermilk split with chive oil.

After learning from pastry chef Ben how to make bay leaf ice cream lollipops and how to cook blood oranges so as to make the whole fruit edible, I joined the brigade for a fritto misto staff lunch and to be briefed on service.

I was to be on the larder with a commis named Cam preparing three amuse-bouches – a tapioca cracker, a spiralised potato crisp and a duck liver filo tart. All three had to be prepared for the seven and 10-course tasting menus before any other dish went out and, with more than 30 booked for dinner plus inevitable walk-ins, timing would be crucial.

The potato crisps needed alternating dots of taramasalata and dill emulsion, with tiny leaves of dill placed on top and always facing different directions. The tapioca crackers, meanwhile, required mushroom caramel, parmesan custard and to be caked in grated parmesan. Finally, the filo tart cases were to be filled with duck liver blended with yeast powder from a foam gun and topped with cauliflower purée.

As I heard whisperings that Tom Sellers and his restaurant manager were to be coming for dinner, service started out of nowhere (as service always does). Cam warned me that nothing gets past Alex at the pass, which was right next to our station, and that I had to seriously keep things clean. So off we went with a table of five, with the foam gun immediately causing problems due to how small the tart cases were.

Grated parmesan has a tendency to go absolutely everywhere so this meant absolute focus as I could feel Alex’s gaze on my back. The table of five was quickly followed by a three, a six and then another five, but we kept things coming.

Such was the flow of diners that, at one point, Cam had to dive at the spiraliser to make more potato crisps. As he spiralised and fried, I had to keep things ticking over solo, dotting diligently, taming the bucking foam gun as carefully and quickly as I could.

Eventually, with the diners all making headway with their meals, Liam had me arranging slices of cured pork fat for the barbecued shitake mushroom course, managing pieces of lettuce that were charring on the Big Green Egg in the centre of the kitchen and keeping an eye on pieces of short rib that were simmering in a mole sauce.

Alex took me up to the roof as things started to wind down. The space is being done up as a copper-covered bar, designed by artist Wolfgang Buttress and sponsored by Nyetimber. The bar launches this month – the next step for Alex and his team at Alchemilla, who are keeping true to their unofficial motto by very much doing things properly.

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