Staging – ‘an unpaid internship test when a cook or chef works briefly, for free in another chef’s kitchen to learn and be exposed to new techniques and cuisines’
I’ve finally found the time to reflect on an exciting stage at Yotam Ottolenghi’s restaurant NOPI (short for North Of PIcadilly). As instructed, I had two items to bring: a chef’s knife and a pair of safety shoes (along with a massive dose of enthusiasm). The knife was razor sharp and carefully wrapped in a discreet wrap – an 8-inch blade is not something to flaunt while travelling on London Underground. The shoes were anti-slip and steel capped, perfect as I’d just broken my toe, which appropriately resembled a small shiny aubergine. The shifts were from 4 pm (after I’d finished my normal job) until 10 pm, for 2 weeks.
Day 1, and I was greeted with a series of cheery ‘hellos, where are you from?’, in an array of French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, North Korean, Czech, Senegalese and Anguillan accents. It quickly became apparent they meant ‘which country’, not which part of London. I was one of only two British people in the kitchen, raising an interesting question about the restaurant trade post Brexit.
I was ushered into a tiny communal changing room, which also served as a place to eat and briefly chat with the front-of-house team. I emerged, donning a chef’s shirt, voluminous black trousers (with a curiously tiny elasticated waistband), and black apron, with a couple of tea towels tucked into my belt. I was ready to take my place in the larder section, located right in front of the guests.
We prepared the vast signature salads that greet the diners, in a display of generosity and abundance. Lula showed me how to prep the cauliflower florets and splatter the vast platters of roasted aubergines with feta yoghurt and coriander salsa. I picked thousands of leaves from big bunches of coriander, mint and parsley, chopped kilos of smoked almonds, and plated a mountain of creamy burrata. Earthy beetroot was matched with crisp rhubarb and sweet Gorgonzola; spiced cauliflower florets were combined with sherry vinegar, date syrup, and sour cherries. A cycle of chopping, picking, tasting, checking and adjusting to balance flavours, colours and textures. Soft versus crunchy or crisp. Soothing and cool versus hot and spicy. Layer upon layer of colour and contrast.
In the hour before evening service started, the kitchen would be focused and buzzing with activity. I was tasked with making a new dish of spiced crushed carrot with labneh, pistachio dukkah, and pomegranate – having a Thermomix at home, and being familiar with its use, was greatly comforting. Never before have I made such large quantities of food in such a tiny space, wrapping myself around the worktop in an effort to keep out of everyone’s way.
Towards the end of the stage I wondered how I could thank the team, and decided on amaretti biscuits with ginger and orange zest. Cooking for chefs is rather alarming, but they are probably the most appreciative of anyone when it comes to homemade food.
I’m left with great memories, inspiration, and a better understanding of catering for 200 plus covers per night and the teamwork necessary to run a busy kitchen. It was like being a dancer in a ballet, performing different steps each night, gliding past one another, wielding sharp instruments, holding searingly hot dishes, calling out or acknowledging instructions, all expertly choreographed by the chef on the pass. The experience left me prepared, brimming with confidence and with plenty of tips (and a pair of non-slip steel-cap shoes) for the next challenge: a popup, with my fellow cook Jon, for 40 people in a tiny restaurant in Balham, south London.
With very many thanks to Yotam, Miki, Carlos, Calvin, Jan, Louis, Lula, Suki, Francis, Christos, Hassan, Verena, Giovanni, Hugh, Marcin, and all the other lovely chefs and members of the team, who encouraged, gave advice and tips, and put up with me in their wonderful kitchen. Special thanks to Zahra, from The Yotam Ottolenghi-inspired Cooking Housewives.🙌🔪👩🍳👨🍳
P.S. Here are some of the NOPI, or NOPI inspired, recipes I’ve created at home since.