Many months ago Stephen Toman the Michelin starred chef of Ox ask me and our friend Lynn if we would like to do a Saturday night service in the Ox kitchens. I’ve always admired the calm that is the front of his kitchen with him at the pass. There is no shouting, there is no apparent stress, just delicious things that flow out of his kitchen. From my table – my favourite is at the window – I can see smiling and chatting, but I can also see lots going on to the right where two chefs are in charge of vegetables, fish and meat. I am certain there are many of us who admire what the people who volunteer to go on BBC’s Masterchef programme. For me this offer was an opportunity to get an idea of what it might be like, without having to appear of TV. But it was also an opportunity to get to know the team and see what happens to the produce we grow for Stevie. I also wanted to promote the food event we have here on 8th & 9th October called Loaves & Fishes.
We take a taxi in so we can have a drink after service and Lena kits us up with aprons!
We were invited to arrive at 5 pm just in time for the staff supper of Fish Pie and a salad – oh yes, you could tell it was cooked by the best. A traditional Fish Pie with everything you could wish for before a busy night. It is eaten on the hoof while there is friendly chat about the personal lives of the team.
As soon as Stevie arrives there is the briefing, 70 covers were booked. Twenty at 6 pm, eighteen at 7, sixteen at 8 and the same again at nine. After that we all headed to our stations.
I go with Vicky on bread, butter and the Amuse Bouche. I am given tweezers for the micro herbs and at 18.00 hours plus 5 minutes the first order rolled in. Stevie calls 2 tasting menus at the door to the kitchen.
Vicky has just finished cutting the lovely sour dough bread and which I put it into their linen sacks. We move quickly to assemble the first two Amuses Bouches that are composed of an onion galette which is like a biscuit. You top it with ricotta, made by Kiera, then sprinkle fennel pollen over and turning one corner under, you place the wafer thin slice of cooked beetroot over the ricotta and decorate with two drops of oil, 2 tiny carrot tops and 1 leaf of cress. The oyster leaf – which I think I am now going to grow and live on, it is that delicious – gets five precisely equal sized blobs of a red pepper purée and brandade. As soon as the four morsels of deliciousness have been taken away, all ingredients go into a fridge till the next customers’ order comes in. There is no shouting SERVICE, everyone knows when each dish is ready.
There is however a lot of “backs” – quietly – as the team moves to and fro with things both hot and cold. As everything is made as soon as the order comes in, nothing is assembled in advance, the last thing you want is for a collision with another team member and the possibility of something ending up on the floor!
Lynn, as a representative of SeaFish UK, is obviously put on to the crab and avocado starter. She and chef Matt have the delicate task of assembling a truly stunning and complex dish which includes tomatoes, from the Walled Garden, lardo, an avocado mousse and petals of Marigold.
By 8.30 Stevie suggests I come and have a look at what is happening at the pass. All dishes are plated by Stevie on a quite warm surface so the temperature is considerable. Apparently the three chefs at the pass drink around 10 litres of water per night. There is a cooker at the back of the space, obviously there’s an oven and a grill. Chef in the middle is in charge of all vegetables and purés. Well, so it seemed to me. At the far end Sean is in charge of the scallops and Skeaghanore duck. After watching for about half an hour at the height of the service, when there are starters, mains and desserts going out in quick succession, I move to learn how to keep up with the orders of scallop and duck.
Because the scallops are served before the duck, but only take minutes to cook, you have to start with the duck. This also has to rest to be at its very best. Sean quickly explains that everything in his part of this section is hot, so I have to use my clean cloth every time I move something. I also have to wash my hands between fish and fowl, this is essential to avoid cross contamination. Fortunately Sean is just by the hand washbasin, and I have taken the food hygiene course, so I get it! The heat is intense and the speed is amazing. Stephen Toman is not a shouter. All is calm, friendly and efficient. After 40 minutes I am almost cooked myself and I retire to watch Stevie at the pass again.
In the kitchen at the back Kiera is at the height of her service because she is one of the pastry chefs at Ox. My photo of her Chocolate and pistachio dessert is a little blurred, mostly because my hands shake with excitement when I see so many.
She has a wicked sense of humour an almost the first thing she does that evening is make a fool of me. I ask her how I make the tap run at the hand washbasin. Quick as a flash she says: “clap your hands twice”, which I do! Immediately everyone is falling about laughing, because to make the tap run you press the basin with your knee, where it says Press! This is the only point at which Stevie has to shush us, and I am the one laughing the loudest.
By 10.15 I step down and Lynn follows suit. We have both loved every minute of the evening. I am glad that at my age I do not have to aspire to cook at this level. I certainly understand why it is a young person’s game. As I sit down I reflect on my decision 30 years ago. Then I toyed with the idea of going to catering college and becoming a professional chef. In the end I took the easy option and went back to university and read history, in order to do my own research project on the history of Food in the British Isles. It is a much lonelier job to do research. I realise now that I would have loved the camaraderie and the adrenaline fuelled ballet that is the Michelin starred kitchen. Thank you Stephen!
Taken at the start of the service, hahahahaha!