Back in August, I had an amazing experience compliments of my job at Neuman's Kitchen. I did a two-week residency in London at Ottolenghi where I had the opportunity to work in every branch of the restaurant group and do a variety of things. While there I kept a diary and took tons of photos, which I am going to share with you, my people. Enjoy!
Monday, August 17
Wake at 5:30, just like a regular work day. Gave myself 1 1/2 hours to get to the Islington location, got there 30 minutes early. There was a man outside, power-washing the front sidewalk, reminded me of Neuman's. Went in front door and headed downstairs. First impression: "Wow this place is tiny." Only the baking crew was there; 3 young women from England, Brazil and Oakland California. Got changed in closet/locker room with broken light, so, in the dark.
Then the rest of the crew arrived and I met Clare, who runs the Islington kitchen. I worked on the salad side all day. I started the day helping a young Israeli, Orie (who has already asked me for a job), roasting off peppers, aubergines (eggplant, for us Yanks), and butternut squash in high quality olive oil garlic salt and pepper. They put the veg on lightly oiled parchment to roast and then put a clean linen towel underneath the parchment to cool it so it does not get soggy. They have 2 small ovens which they share with the bakers. Clare told me she dreamed of a Rationale oven. I did not mention the parts situation.
We started assembling the arranged platters of roast vegetables, 3 of each, some of which were dressed in the most unusual way. We made sauce out of Greek yogurt, tahini, walnut oil, salt and pepper, with some milk in it to thin to the spattering consistency. The sauce is put in a serrated spoon which is tapped hard on your opposite hand thus creating a small but consistent splatter on top of the vegetables. Then we topped it with pomegranate seeds and candied walnuts. Recipes are pretty standardized, Clare knows them all and instructs the kitchen, nobody has anything on paper. There is one master prep list and Clare delegates. Some items are carried over to the next day but not much. Seasonings, spiced nuts, roast garlic confit and things like that are held for 3 days. There is a warning label which lists 15 major allergens including items like Lupins(?) and you check off whatever the item contains and stick it on the container. 3 of each item on the lunch menu is plated up by the kitchen and brought upstairs one at a time and by crew to set up the front display. There is no turn out line, the waitstaff fills the orders from the front. They keep an hourly log of when the food is set out and if there is anything left after 3 hours, they toss it. There is a refrigerated insert in the display where they keep the ambient roast chicken, sliced filet of English beef and roast salmon.
Each day they do a different sauce salsa or marinade, but the proteins don't vary that much. All the restaurants run the same menu which is decided on in a democratic chefs meeting every season. They run the same menu for about 7 weeks. Fortunately the menu changes next week so I will get to see the change over and learning process. Other tasks I did: ask tons of questions about every ingredient (they do not buy purely UK products because of price and availability); sample as much food as possible; slice radishes and cabbage; make a large batch of walnut tahini yogurt sauce; prep peppers; make more platters; and tell stories about New York. It was fascinating to hear all these young chefs talk about their ultimate dream to come to New York. It's epic to them. By the end of today, Clare asked me to make a green olive Tapenade and told me to make it however I want.
I discussed with Clare my interest in seeing all parts of the operation so she has arranged for me to do a number of different things. Tomorrow, I am working the dinner shift which has an entirely different feel. They do small plates, hot items, full bar as well as specific salads. It’s very interesting how they modify the restaurant for different meals. At breakfast, they have white curly electrical cords hanging over the center table which they lower and attach toasters so you can toast your own bread. The breakfast menu included such items as Welsh Rarebit, Potato, manouri, and Za'atar frittata, and cinnamon brioche french toast served with orange yogurt, mixed berries and Muscat compote.
At lunch, cords go up. At dinner, candles go down the center table and value-added products get removed from shelves and replaced with booze. Room white, staff (very pretty staff) in black. I am off on Wednesday. Thursday, I am with Sami the big man at the new restaurant. Friday, I am working in Spitalfields which is the restaurant with the big new kitchen. Saturday, I am off. And Sunday I go back to Islington because they are short-handed and thought I could be of service.
Due to space limitations, as well as time, some of the items are made in their central commissary. Things like tart and pastry shells, and large rustic loaves and started there. They do all the butchering at the commissary, and send out clean meat and poultry as well as fresh lemon zest and juice. Tomorrow I will find out more about this mythical place and try to arrange a visit. Today was great.The staff was friendly, professional and all very happy to be working there, reminds me of home.
Tuesday, August 18
Today, I went in late and worked the night shift at the Islington shop from 2:30 to 10:30 PM. Totally different restaurant at night. Soft light from the candles and the bar was set up with cool chairs in the area where the food was displayed earlier in the day. The place looked sexy.
I worked with head chef of dinner, Chris from South Africa and Dan a lovely bloke (!) from Glasgow. They also have 2 prep guys working with them. The dinner menu consists of 8 of the lunch salads and plattered proteins slightly modified, a cold appetizer (Burrata), and then 8 different small plates which were turned out from the hot side. The palate is a bit more complex at night because it includes some Asian influences as well as Latin notes and the Middle Eastern flavors. Once again, the menu is created by all the chefs at all the locations and then tasted and evaluated by everyone though I am starting to get the feeling Yotam is the man to impress and that might be difficult.
I have not met him yet. I was told by one of the cooks he was in NY picking up another baby. I do not really know what that means. After a warm reception from my co-workers I jumped in to help with dinner prep and I started with the cucumber avocado gazpacho which is served under the Burrata. They add ascorbic acid to it to keep the color. The cucumbers are puréed and strained and then added to the avocado, garlic, apple vinegar, basil oil, and lemon juice and blended till smooth, very tasty. I made some dried shitake mushroom crisps which we sprayed with sesame oil before putting in oven. They almost tasted like bacon. I grilled off some corn which we made into a nice fresh corn salsa.
I pickled some baby beets, put up some fennel and red cabbage sour kraut and helped set up the line. I love how incredibly cordial this kitchen is. Everyone is very happy to work there and everyone wants to visit NYC. We probably did about 130 covers which is pretty good on a Tuesday night in their slowest month of the year. One of my favorite items was a fresh corn polenta made by simmering fresh corn in water, straining out the water and putting it in the mixer with feta cheese and butter and whipping it till light and creamy. Some of the corn water is added back in to improve the texture. To plate this dish, the corn salsa was put on top of the polenta then topped with the grilled octopus which was sautéed in butter infused with annato seed and a little smoked paprika. Then a few sexy dots of Jalapeño cream and it's done. They use octopus caught in off Cornwall and portion and freeze it because they said it becomes more tender and improves the flavor. The pea and mint croquettes, the vegetarian option of the night was delish — coated with sesame seeds, Panko, and pumpkin seeds and served with a spunky yuzu mayo. Getting late time to stop writing. Tomorrow I am off and I am having an art day. Tate Modern: first on my agenda!
Sunday, August 23
Sunday in London, it's difficult to get anywhere early. First train out was at 7:30 so I spent a bit of time sitting in the station. I eventually arrive at the Islington shop at 8:00. That location already feels like home. I started the day helping with breakfast prep which included making the Welsh Rarebit spread, slicing and grilling the ciabatta and the sourdough and Italian loaves. Then I prepped some garnishes of herbs and vegetables. The unit of measure is a Johnny container. Small, med, or large, with snap-on lids. No one knows why they are called that. Then I moved back to the salad station to help finish and platter the salads. It was a busy day, but super fun.
The team is great — young and enthusiastic and they play the music of my youth. Thank you Aretha for that RESPECT! There is an item on the breakfast menu I think is amazing. It's a Muesli served cold, made with red quinoa, oats soaked in coconut milk, shredded Granny Smith Apple soaked in lime juice, topped with Date syrup, mixed nuts and diced mango. Delish!
The rest of the day was spent making parts like pickled lemon slices (which are the new topping for the eggplant, along with toasted crushed pistachio and micro basil), roasting vegetables, and then — because there is no dinner service — doing a deep clean. They take every item out of the walk-in and check and clean it. Very impressive. Got major complements on my NK bandana and will be sharing the ones I brought with some key people. Heading home now to get some instructions on how to use the video camera from Ruth. Interviewing Sami on Friday afternoon as well as Clare who runs the Isslington kitchen cold side. While at work I missed a huge rainstorm but now it's sunny and cool and delightful.