Normally, you wouldn’t be expected to tackle a mystery box when interviewing for a job, but kitchens are different. At Number One at The Balmoral in the centre of Edinburgh head chef Mark Donald is rather a fan of trial by box. And, during my first ever stage in Scotland, there was a trial sous doing exactly that.
“I had him prepping scallops this morning and now he’s got until 2pm to bring me a dish, so we’re leaving him be,” he tells me after a tour of the Number One operation which, as with most hotel-embedded fine dining restaurants, is considerable and labyrinthine.
The five-star Balmoral Hotel also houses Brassiere Prince by Alain Roux as well as afternoon tea and 24-hour room service. And a Scotch whisky bar run by giants in kilts that I’d earmarked for part of my post-stage adventure in wonderfully chilly Edinburgh.
The main kitchen is chunky and full of the latest kit, with around 15 chefs on the books. I was given to a Lyon-born CDP named Guillaume to prep around the hot starter section, my whites annoyingly still a little crinkled after having been squashed into a small carry-on the night before my flight from London Luton to the Scottish capital.
Guillaume had me on herb prep – or ‘eyesight prep’ as Mark calls it – with sea purslane, which has to be snipped directly from the stem, the leaves neither too big nor too small. Tasting is key and Guillaume, in between mouthfuls, tells me they’re the best he’s had. They were to be the final flourish for the roast langoustine dish on the dinner menu with squash, wakame and shell butter. We made sure to leave just enough.
At 2pm, I saw Mark and Gary Robinson, executive chef of The Balmoral hotel, converge on the Number One pass. It was time for the trial sous to take his shot. From my prep perch, bristling with redcurrants and carrot flowers, I could just about make out what I thought was squab. It looked delicate and colourful (at that moment, being judged by two top chefs, the chef on trial rather did too). He soon scooted off to let Mark and Gary discuss his dish and I joined another CDP, Luca, with oysters (from Lindisfarne) as a 40-strong dinner service hoved into view.
I admitted that I’d little experience with oysters and that I’d not always been the best at shucking (my cut from a savage scallop at Texture had gladly healed). “Don’t worry,” he says as I botched the first one by pushing too hard on entry, spearing straight into the meat. “Once you have the technique down and know to feel your way around the shell with the knife once in, it quickly becomes second nature.”
I asked if I could stick with oysters for service, the first dish on the seven-course tasting menu that evening. When called, my individually-opened oysters would be placed on bowls of local seaweed, pebbles and shells and sprayed with fresh seawater. They would then get a trickle of kipper dashi, a blob of tapioca in apple vinegar and a whisper of bronze fennel.
Along with the re-emerged trial sous and Luca, I was also to be on the amuse-bouches – a cod roe tartlet with compressed sorrel and caviar; a black truffle pasta bomb; and a venison tartare wrapped in kohlrabi with a sweet and sour juniper-based gel and an apple vinegar-pickled rose petal. With the tasting menu designed for the whole table, it was immediately all hands on deck for the three of us as things got going, clambering over each other to get everything from three different fridges on the section by the pass with amuse-bouches and oysters away.
There were lots of tourists in the dining room that evening and, for some reason, there were also lots of allergy requests, pick of the bunch being ‘anything seed or nut-like that’s visible’. We were told that it wasn’t an allergy, rather ‘a complication’. Oils were fine, but pips weren’t. Aubergine purée was ok, but aubergine in general was not.
Unusual or otherwise, the extra requests only helped to move the kitchen through the gears with Luca, the trial sous and I quickly getting rather good at ‘kitchen Twister’ with the fridges on the larder. As the tasting menus progressed, Mark had me join up with him at the pass to have a go at plating the cured duck foie gras with grated summer truffle, served with a fermented kiwi gel and warm gingerbread.
“Have you ever tried to get the seeds out of a kiwi?” Mark asked as I sprinkled some to finish off a plate bound for someone uncomplicated. “It’s bloody hard!”
Now stationed up at the pass, I got the whole Number One portfolio: BBQ pigeon with blood cake, artichoke and crab XO sauce; a modernist Argyll lamb dish with pickled watermelon, garlic flowers, battered sweetbread, feta and smoked aubergine; and a scallop kedgeree with sushi rice cooked in shellfish stock, egg and smoked butter sabayon and crispy curry leaf.
Something of an old-timey breakfast dish, the kedgeree was one of the most Scottish things I had come across, given a modern twist. The most Scottish thing in the kitchen, however, was Ross Sneddon, the executive pastry chef, and his remarkable accent – showcased superbly when calling away the Blairgowrie strawberry dessert.
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