Leiths: Intermediate Term, Week 2

It wasn’t a great week. I think it’s important to be able to say that. Yes, I am doing something amazing (and expensive), and yes, I am very lucky to be able to do the course that I have wanted to do literally for years. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t really hard, and it doesn’t mean that every week is going to go my way. Just because you are lucky, and happy, it doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to also feel fed up, and exhausted. There have been a few things that have made it challenging over the last few days: the sudden cold snap; the fact that this week’s schedule has been brutally overloaded; excessive train delays; having no time to unwind; feeling like nearly everything I cooked went wrong. I embarked upon Week 2 with a new rule: no cycling in sub-zero temperatures. It’s just no fun. A friend at Leiths came off her bike on ice and dislocated her shoulder last week and that decided it for me. If it is literally freezing, I am getting the tube, and then walking twenty minutes from Goldhawk Road to school. This new rule saw me crammed onto the Hammersmith and City line with many rambunctious school children on Tuesday, grateful for the heating but less grateful for one of the more hyperactive children jumping on my foot.

Monday morning was what our teacher for the day called ‘a bit hectic’ and I call ‘fairly close to madness’. I think, as a group, we used every single pan in the kitchen. We made French onion soup with Gruyère croûtons and pot-roast partridge on a bed of puy lentils with pancetta and cavalo nero. Soups seem to be treating me kindly thusfar this term: last week, a well-reviewed artichoke soup; this week, a well-reviewed French onion soup. Apparently the key is to cook the onions absolutely to death, which is what I did, so there you go. Wander away from your pan and forget you left your onions on a high heat and you too can achieve culinary brilliance.


After those dizzying heights of praise, the partridge dish could only pale in comparison, so it was no surprise to me when my bird was pronounced both over-cooked and under-cooked in different areas (this is why it is very tricky to win with partridge). I was still drifting around on a cloud of oniony-happiness though, so I didn’t mind too much. We then had a lovely afternoon of wine tasting after which I managed to race off and catch the early train and get home… well, not before dark, that would be madness, but before 7pm, which is pretty good going. Monday, my friend, you were good to me. Unfortunately, it was sort of downhill after that.


Tuesday morning didn’t get off to a particularly auspicious start, due in no small part to the fact that my car doors were iced shut, making driving to Oxford station a tad problematic. I have a scraper and de-icing spray, but keep both of these things – perhaps unwisely, I now think – in the car, to which I could not gain access. My approach was to swear, panic, run inside and get jugs of hot water to pour over the car doors until I could prise them open. I am sure there are better was to deal with this problem, but it was 6.30am and cold and confusing. I then drove as fast as I (safely and legally, naturally) could to the station and sprinted for my train, which was very full because the one before it had been cancelled.


So I arrived at school on Tuesday in a slightly less than optimum mood, only to be thrust into another mad morning in which we used all the pans again. I think that’s just how it’s going to be from now on. I made aubergine salad with parmesan and chive crisps (above – very nice) and skate wing with caper beurre noisette and turned vegetables (the less said on this, the better. Especially regarding turned vegetables. See those poor, innocent vegetables that have been inexpertly hacked to bits below? They should look like even, smooth barrels. Oh dear).


Luckily, the afternoon dem was on enriched breads, with Hannah. Hannah is excellent and enriched breads are excellent and I spent a very happy afternoon drooling over pecan sticky buns and beer bread and nabbing as many samples as I reasonably could. The picture at the top of this post is of the bread rolls she made, by the way, which is why they are good.

Unfortunately, Wednesday properly kicked my arse. In the morning I left five minutes early and came out with a jug of hot water to pour over the icy car, feeling all smug and prepared. I got to my train in a leisurely fashion and it was all going swimmingly until the train stopped. Outside Maidenhead. For a very long time. ‘Signalling problems’ was the official excuse, but that’s what they always say. How hard can it really be to make functioning train signals? I mean, based on my commuting experience, really hard, but why? I’m genuinely asking: can anyone explain to me why train signals break all the time? Are they not essentially traffic lights? I mean, we can pull an atom apart. Traffic lights work pretty reliably. Why is this difficult?

Anyway, the train arrived into Paddington 50 minutes behind schedule. I wasn’t cycling, because of the ice, so I sprinted to the tube and then later ran the mile or so from Goldhawk Road station to school, leapt into my whites, and arrived in class just as everyone was gathering for the register. This meant I missed the opportunity to do my cooking prep and was on the back foot for the entire morning. That’s my excuse, anyway, for why everything was awful. We made white dinner rolls and a sea bass dish with pickled shallots, Pernod sauce, spinach, and clams, which was delicious, but sickeningly complicated and designed in a way which involved the maximum amount of mess and fuss. We’re supposed to be out of the kitchens by 1pm. That day, I got out at 1.50pm, leaving me ten minutes to fly downstairs and change before the 2pm dem, having not had lunch or a sit down or even three minutes to not be dashing about ever since my train got in late to Paddington.


The afternoon dem was on meringue cuite and gelatine. We had been told in advance that this dem would be technical and it would be important for us to be attentive, so it was unfortunate that I was shattered and too stressed to properly understand what was going on. We got fed, though, which was good because we’d not had time for lunch. Basically I sat there dazed and confused and perked up a bit whenever anyone handed me a mousse to taste.

I know this is becoming a litany of whinging, so I’m sorry to say that Thursday wasn’t great either. Any session in which we have to cook three different things under tight time constraints is always tricky, and we were doing cold lemon soufflé, meringue cuite, and a cellophane noodle stir fry. Suffice to say I haven’t got any pictures of my stir fry because it looked dreadful, lots of people had to remake the soufflé and the meringue, we were given ‘a bit of a talking to’ as a class, and we got out late again. The afternoon dem was also on soufflés, and I am fairly sure that was the night that images of sunken soufflés started to haunt my dreams.

On Friday morning we made twice-baked goat’s cheese and thyme soufflés (see picture below – I was told mine were both too dense and not structurally sound enough, making them wrong in an improbable way), and served our cold lemon soufflés from the day before with blueberry compote and meringues. Unfortunately, my lemon soufflé was sitting out for so long that by the time it was seen it has started to melt and all the blueberry compote had run into it and it just looked terrible. It was also apparently too sweet and (this seems to be my issue with all soufflé-making) too dense.


I was feeling pretty exhausted and dispirited when it came to the Friday afternoon dem, and just wanted to go home and eat brownies for dinner. Luckily, the dem was on French pastries and led by Heli, and it actually managed to perk me up. All of the pastries we tried were delicious and the whole thing was much more up my street than the soufflés of terror. The picture below is of a beautiful little tart filled with crème patisserie and topped with plums that Heli made (I mean, obviously I didn’t make that) amongst other various delights.


So I am limping into the weekend feeling pretty pummelled by Week 2. It’s hard to not be doing very well at something you care a lot about, and it can be a bit spirit-crushing to put loads of hours and effort into something only to be told it isn’t serveable. Nonetheless, even on the hard days, I remind myself that I would much, much rather be at Leiths than back behind a desk at an admin job, and that nothing worth having comes easily. Hopefully, trying very, very hard and getting back up over and over again is what is going to make me a good cook at the end of this year: I’m at Leiths to learn, and if I was perfect already then I wouldn’t need to be there.

Now I am going to go out and order a massive burger for lunch. A proper one, with loads of bacon and cheese and stuff. And maybe a gin and tonic.