So, the first week at a new school doesn’t really count, yes? I mean, you have to get through all the introductions and talks about where to find things, and you don’t know anyone, and you spend most of the time too scared and confused to take things in properly (please tell me that isn’t just me?), so it’s only in Week 2 when you can really expect to get a proper sense of your new routine. That’s what I told myself, anyway, to excuse the fact that during the first week I was so overwhelmed that I struggled to cook things I have been making for years without fuss or incident.
Week 2 was our first full week, and our group got to cook in the mornings, which was a massive relief for me as it means we leave school on time after dems at the end of the day and I get to catch a train which gets me home for 7.15pm instead of 8pm: believe me, when you have to go to bed at 10pm to get up at 5.30am, those extra 45 minutes make a world of difference. The morning trains are shockingly inconsistent. I wrote half of this on one that was delayed for 25 minutes and sat stock still near Radley for ages for no apparent reason, meaning that when I got to London I had to race to get to school, into my whites, and to the kitchen on time. But it’s all good. Really. Every time I get stressed or feel tired, I remind myself what I am getting to do and that I could still be at my old desk job, and then everything feels a bit better.
The only slight drawback to the brand new dawn of Week 2 is that this week it has decided to start raining. A lot. Last week was unseasonably, ridiculously beautiful, but now we’re settling into a standard rainy English October. Believe me, you can get properly wet on a 4.5 mile cycle through London. Soaked quite literally to the skin, through waterproofs. Monday was a bit of a dark day that saw me, dripping rainwater and smelling like a dog that’s swum through a river, crouched on the corridor floor of the train back to Oxford because there were no seats left.
Anyway, enough moaning. Let’s get on to the good stuff. The food.
Every week we will be cooking in a different table group of four, and we also rotate between three kitchens, so it really was all change on Monday. We had a different class teacher every single day for the first week and most of the second. So what with new people, new kitchens, and new teachers, it really feels like we’re getting to experience lots of different ways of working at the start of the course, which I am sure will stand us in good stead later.
I looked at the schedule for this week initially and thought ‘Ha, they don’t really expect us to make all that? In one session? When last week we struggled to get two salads done in three hours? Haaaa.’ Well, they did expect us to make all that. And it’s been great. Mostly. Our table of four has been working well together this week and it actually feels like we’ve been super-speedy. Well, in comparison to last week, anyway, which isn’t saying a great deal.
On Monday the dishes we made included a gorgeous sweet potato, chilli, and lime soup. Now, I know my bowl below doesn’t look so gorgeous, but that’s because I keep forgetting to take photos of my food before it’s tasted and so by the time I remembered all the crème fraiche which I had artfully drizzled on the top had been stirred in. But I doggedly decided to take a picture of it looking rubbish anyway to prove I had actually cooked something. See? I made a thing!
Below is my avocado, mozzarella, and tomato salad, which, er, I actually did serve like that. Too many olives, not enough centre height, oversized portion, too much dressing, clumsy and thick slices… I really need to work on my presentation. I can already tell that it’s going to be something I’m going to struggle with. I am not naturally dainty and precise: I am cackhanded, clumsy, and prone to panicking. I only realise how tense I have been in the school kitchens when it comes to plating up and my hands are literally shaking. This is why I could never be a TV chef (yes, that, and a thousand other reasons, I hear you cry).
On Wednesday our pastry was examined for the third time in two weeks. I may have had a slight ‘incident’ with this pastry that saw it somehow fly out of my hands and onto the floor. I still have no idea how this happened. But, in response to my panicked whisperings of ‘Oh f***, oh f***, oh f***’, our teacher that day shouted ‘Two second rule, it’s fine, pick it up and carry on!’, so carry on I did. I mean, it did get baked at 200C for ages afterwards so I hope that killed any floor bacteria. I ate quite a lot of it and I’m still alive. Anyway, flinging pastry onto the floor seems to be a great new technique, because this was my most successful attempt at pastry by far. My little quiche was the best thing I have yet made, and you have no idea how good it felt to get positive feedback. So I shall consider chucking future attempts at pastry onto the floor with gusto and confidence.
On Thursday, it was chicken. Much chicken. Many chickens. Chicken everywhere. We each fully jointed two chickens at the start of class (just, you know, gently easing us in), and I was once again reminded of one of my key discoveries at Leiths, which is this: yes, you may have been doing something for many years, but you’ve probably been doing it wrong. Okay, I’m exaggerating – not wrong, per se, but certainly not the Leiths way. I have jointed chickens before, but in a slightly haphazard ‘Ah, that’ll probably be alright. Where did I put my glass of wine?’ manner, which doesn’t really pass muster at culinary school. I mean, the Leiths way is very efficient and precise and I am glad I know it, but bloody hell, it was tricky at first. Lots of ‘cut here, definitely not here, rotate, disclocate, turn over, use this joint…’. I’m not good at IKEA shelves either.
Finally, on Friday, we each made a French omelette and a full roast pork lunch with all the trimmings as a table. The less said about my omelette, the better. Seriously, I’m not talking about it. The pork was a triumph, though, and made for a very delicious lunch indeed. We worked well as a team and completed the task with a minimal amount of fuss and panic. If you’d have told me at the start of last week that we’d have progressed so much in such a short space of time I would have had my doubts. But look!
Of course, it’s not all about me messing everything up in the kitchen. Oh no. We also get to see how it should be done properly.
We started the week on a dem high, with a session on vegetables from Heli and David. I mean, look at the spread at the top of the page. Beautiful, no? It was like being in an artisan greengrocer. A very informative and interactive artisan greengrocer. They made us countless recipes (as in, I literally can’t count – maybe ten?) and I feel like we only just scratched the surface of the subject. We also had a dem on sauces on Tuesday with Mike which began with the vital building blocks of making a roux and ended with us feasting (as much as you can feat on bitesize portions, anyway) on macaroni cheese, spaghetti carbonara, and chilli crab linguini, and a great chicken dem on Wednesday with the amazing Belinda – who was stunningly calm in the face of making seven or eight chicken dishes in a single afternoon.
Then, on Thursday, Ansobe taught us about the importance of organisation and multitasking by literally making three roast dinners with all the trimmings all at once, without having a panic attack (that last bit is where I would fall down). There was moist roast chicken, succulent roast pork, tender roast beef, and some perfectly cooked pigs in blankets, amongst other things. This was also, somehow, the first time I tried bread sauce, and it was glorious. I haven’t been avoiding it up until now, it just hasn’t come up in my life. I always thought it sounded a bit odd. Sauce made of… bread? That can’t be right, surely? Well, I was wrong. It was so right. I am sorry that I ever doubted bread sauce.
I think that by Friday the teachers sensed that we were reaching overload and needed a fairly kind afternoon dem, so Phil, working solo, demonstrated an array of delicious baked goods, including white bread, soda bread, foccacia, cookies, and brownies. There was a polite (ish) scrum at the end when he called us all up to the front for samples, and everything tasted wonderful.
So here I am on a Friday afternoon at the end of my second week of culinary school. I am typing this from an absolutely packed train, delicious brownies in my tummy and a lot of frozen chicken in my backpack, with two glorious free days stretching like a gentle river ahead of me. Of course, all I’m going to be doing all weekend is cooking. But at least no one will be marking me, and I can sing loudly and tunelessly to myself in my very own kitchen.