AC/DC had just started blaring out of the speaker system, I was on my third double espresso of the morning and Andy Cheung, sous chef of 108 Garage in west London, had just sat down with the maitre d' in the dining room to discuss the upcoming dinner service.
Andy had left me with a blowtorch, a knife, and quite an unusual bit of prep to do in the kitchen. "Singe away the hair, take the ear off and I'll be back in a minute," he had said before beetling off. Half a pig's head grinned up at me from a red chopping board.
I had been left at the mercy of Andy during prep as Chris Denney, 108's head chef and co-owner, had rushed off to a meeting about his upcoming launch in the US, with the new restaurant being moved from New York to LA.
The 38-cover 108 Garage has been around for just over two years, with the wonderfully maverick Chris and his team of three chefs attracting plenty of attention with their experimentation, showmanship in their open kitchen and exceptional food that takes influences from all over the world.
Chris has done time at the likes of Hambleton Hall, Nahm in Thailand, The Square and Pizza Duomo in Italy. With the latter, he arrived for a stage, telling the chefs there that he spoke Italian. He doesn't but, through a mixture of talent and perseverance, still managed to get a gig there anyway. "Show him some cool stuff," Chris had said to Andy before hurtling off. A pig's head, I thought, was quite the start.
And so, after locking eyes with it for a while, I slowly waved my blowtorch over the face to remove all the tiny hairs. Luckily for me, as I'd not de-eared anything before, Andy arrived back in the kitchen as I finished torching so I asked him for a bit of guidance. He told me to be firm with it (key with butchering all meat) and to keep manoeuvring the head so as to maintain a good angle. After swivelling the thing, I grabbed its ear and went for it. It was very tough, being raw, and the knife was more flexible than I anticipated. This, Andy told me, was because I wasn't going against bone and flexibility was helpful.
The ear was to be used as part of the snacks at 108 while the rest of the head, after a 24-hour brining period and slow-cook overnight, would find its way in to croquettes with gochujang, coriander and loquat. Andy would eat the eye.
After the earless horror was whisked away by Julian, a French chef with private dining experience under his belt, I was asked to help Babu, an Italian chef working next to me, with her lamb heart agnolotti. The homemade pasta dough had already been rolled out so I first took balls of the filling mix and placed them evenly along the sheets. Then it was a case of folding the dough over the mix neatly, making tiny incisions in the tops of each mound so as to let the air out, separating the parcels and then shaping them in my hands.
Chris bounded back into the kitchen as Andy and I finished off a batch of chicken liver parfait, which is used instead of butter for the sourdough bread course. It was almost time for dinner service. Thirty covers were expected and, like every night at 108, service was to be loud and exciting with Chris fuelled throughout by his signature 'Chris Collins' cocktails.
I was on the agnolotti, which was part of the a la carte, and while I waited for my chance I watched as Andy and Julian served the copper bar with the -200 degree popcorn and a seaweed mustard tea that marked the start of the six-course tasting menu that evening. Dishes change daily, Andy told me as I helped serve parfait and bread. The chefs also often go off-piste with dishes they want to try out.
As I watched Chris grate egg bottarga over Wye Valley asparagus for the second course (with homemade taramasalata and camomile powder), I got an order for agnolotti. This meant placing three of them into salted boiling water for four minutes (I checked the joints of one as I took it out to get my bearings). Seasoning, homemade mint sauce, a spoonful of jus gras and pickled kohlrabi and it was ready. I watched as Andy plated up three dishes, letting me do the fourth.
Wild sea trout with apple, horseradish and goat's yoghurt came and went, as did the Cotswold hen with sorrel, wild garlic and a slice of bubbling lardo. Andy also taught me all about their Korean bulgogi marinade, which they reduce to a glaze and use as part of the sweetbread course with fermented cabbage and green onion.
Chris was up at 3am the following morning for more LA talk with his restaurant partner Luca Longobardi who, in a startling story of false accusations and alleged mafia involvement, once found himself on Interpol's most wanted list. I, meanwhile, had been invited by Andy to come back the next morning to learn how the kitchen turns a cooked pig's head in to a croquette. And to try the other eye.