What was your first kitchen like?
I started working part-time when I was 15 at Café 21 at Queen Street, because my elder brother was chef at Bistro 21 in Durham. He got me into the kitchen at 21 when I was still at school, and then when I finished my GCSEs I went in full time on an apprenticeship.
Did you see your brother working at Bistro 21 and know you wanted to get involved? Was it a competitive thing?
Not necessarily competitive; when I was at school, I just wanted to get straight into work, I always wanted to have my own money, and I knew I wanted a career. I wasn’t massively interested in going to university and continuing in that kind of education; I wanted to work hands-on. I saw my brother doing it, and he’d tell us what he was up to, and it just sounded exciting. I’d read a book that he’d recommended and it gave me an insight into what was happening in kitchens and I knew it was a good career to get into. Once I was in there part-time it was just a different world. I’d never heard of a monkfish before in my life. Everything was brand new and exciting, which is exactly what education should be.
Do you still get that feeling of discovery?
Oh yeah. I went to New York and did a stage at a restaurant called Blue Hill at Stone Barns – it’s the most sustainable restaurant in the world, one of the top 50 in the world for the past four or five years. The Head Chef there, Dan Barber, has an episode on Chef’s Table. That opened another door: sustainability, and finding ways to use what is normally waste. We find ways of using parts of vegetables you’d normally cut off and discard. Sustainability is what we’re trying to achieve at Fresh Element. Within the next three to four years, we’d like to be fully sustainable. That’s really exciting, and something that I’ve not been taught about. You’re always taught not to waste anything in a kitchen because the margins are so tight, but what Dan Barber does at Blue Hill is something totally different. He produces his own compost, and then uses the heat from the compost to sous-vide his food rather than using a water bath. If you put your brain to it, there’s a lot you can do with waste.
At Six, you’re in an artistic environment. Do you see cooking more as an art or a science?
It’s both; it depends what you’re doing. There’s a lot of things that are a science and you can’t mess with them, like pastry, and there’s things where you have to just go with your intuition and your palate; if it’s not right it’s not right, no matter what a recipe says. A tomato can taste different at the beginning of August compared to the end of August, and I think you’ve got to be able to pick up on that. It’s both artistic and scientific.
Do you ever draw inspiration from the exhibitions at Baltic?
I’m always open to influences and experiences; you might go somewhere and it might start an idea, but most of my influences do stem from food. I read a lot of books, I’m on the internet constantly, and I let myself see what’s going on in the world. A kitchen is four closed walls, and I think you’ve got to let yourself get outside of that and see what else is going on, because there’s so much going on in catering.
Which book should every gourmand read?
There are so many, but the latest one I’ve bought is Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. It’s a year in the life at Le Manoir; it goes through each season and talks about how he built his business. It’s classic French food but it’s modern, and Raymond Blanc to me is one of the true chefs; we’ve been lucky to have him in Britain.
What Christmas food do you look forward to most?
I just love the seasonal changes; going from one season into the next and the familiar produce coming back; we love to make game terrine in the winter. The smell of the spices, the cloves, the nutmeg, cinnamon: all of that is just what everyone associates with Christmas. We’re lucky to have that every day in the kitchen. Up to a point, turkey as well. It can be bland, it can be dry, it can be boring: we like to accept that challenge. We try to do something a little bit different with it every year. We won’t let the turkey beat us.
What do you do with the turkey?
We use the whole bird. We’ll take the breast and brine it, which helps season it evenly, but also keeps it moist during cooking. We then rub it with a garlic and sage butter, then wrap that in pancetta, then wrap that in pork fat, then we vacuum pack and sous-vide it. We cook it very accurately at a given temperature, and that keeps it nice and moist. We finish it in a hot pan and crisp the bacon up so we’ve got a really juicy white flesh with the salty bacon. The legs will confit down and we’ll serve that as a garnish to the breasts.
What’s the atmosphere like in the kitchen on Christmas Day?
It’s always manic, but everyone performs better: here, we have graduation for two weeks and Christmas for four to five weeks, and I think they’re the seven weeks of the year where we perform to our absolute fullest potential. It’s the easiest time for me to control the kitchen because everyone is so on it, there’s such a good atmosphere and everyone’s ready for it.
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