A brief history of time at Leiths by Katy Dimmock

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A brief history of time at Leiths by Katy Dimmock

It's all about timing. Katy explains the importance of planning before stepping foot in the kitchen, a lesson better learnt late than never! Foundation Term, Week 5.

I have never really planned anything. This statement isn’t very remarkable until you consider the fact that I’ve spent the last 15 years successfully running projects for investment banks. The completion date was not usually based upon what actually needed to be done and it would be set at a significant distance in the future, so I had plenty of time to fix things before failure became a possibility. 

Kitchens are not like that. Success, or failure, is always imminent. You only have a few hours or, in some cases, minutes in which to get it right and it’s therefore best to know exactly what you’re supposed to be doing in advance. You can imagine my horror when, in week one, we were told that we couldn’t bring recipes into the kitchen and had to produce a time plan for each class. 

A ‘time plan’ is a minute by minute account of everything you need to do to hit your target service time for every element you are cooking. It blends together all of the recipes and everything you need to see, feel, touch, smell, hear and do so that, if you become too tired to be able to think, it will bring you back to reality and focus. 

We were warned that we would be ‘Do Not Operate Machinery’ tired during the first few weeks at Leiths, but this was vastly underplayed. Tiredness at Leiths is not like any semblance of tiredness I have previously encountered, it’s akin to having just woken up from general anaesthesia.

I caught myself trying to process two conflicting impulses this week. One which said, “Legs, get to the stove and deal with that fish immediately!” The other implored, “Get to the sink swiftly to avoid disaster!”  I was under so much pressure that my brain entertained executing both options at once, leaving me at a 45 degree angle like something from Disney on ice. I was frozen in time, until I came to my senses.

Being in the kitchen really bends the whole space-time continuum.  It’s becoming clear to me that all minutes are not created equal. The time spent browning shallots feels like an eternity, while it only takes a few minutes to cook a mackerel - suddenly it’s 1pm and we’re way over our service time. Not just a few of us, but all of us.  

We had hours to make mayonnaise in the first week and now we are all doing this in 10-15 minutes, and don’t fully grasp how dripping oil into egg yolk could have changed so much. Our ability to manipulate time has completely changed. We are becoming emulsified into a new methodology.

Some foods are more affected by timing than others.  A meringue is pretty fussy, for instance, and if you don’t give it exactly what it requires at exactly the right time, it will basically die in front of you and then stick to you as a constant reminder of how you let it down. 

Conversely, you can throw pretty much anything at a stew and it will remain as loyal as a golden retriever. I discovered this on Tuesday morning when I realised that I hadn’t read the whole recipe for beef chilli. I had missed the variation we were supposed to focus on; the chilli. This resulted in the most hideously stressful morning of my life. I didn’t know what I was doing and had no time to remedy the situation.  

I fell back into my old modus operandi of ‘hacking about until you get it right’… thankfully, it worked out quite nicely. However, I don’t want to ‘get away with it’ anymore. I feel very privileged to be here and have started planning in detail so that I can use time to my advantage and reap the benefits of having the incredible advice of the Leiths teachers on hand.

Despite the days getting more and more challenging, we have had two super treats this week. Firstly a steak demo, in which we were taught about the cuts and colours of meat in order to fully understand what a rare or medium steak looks and tastes like. This actually resembled feeding time at the zoo and was a wonderfully indulgent break from the intensity of cooking.

On Thursday they indulged us again when the teachers cooked us a delicious buffet, demonstrating how to put together a theme of flavours at a reasonable cost. It was a delightful day, setting us up for the exercise of producing our own buffets in teams, due to take place in a couple of weeks’ time.  On Friday we were once again dropped into the hot fat of a full day of assessments in the kitchen, being tested on everything we have learned so far. We were pushed to our limits! 

I looked across the kitchen this week and noticed that something seems to have changed. In the first week, we would have been best described as ‘stumbling around’. You would always find someone staring into space and another gazing at a spoon as if it was the first time they had ever seen one. Now everybody’s moving confidently – almost flowing with activity. We’ve moved from being a solid to a liquid. We’re helping each other more, we’re more focused on what we’re doing; we essentially just look less of a total mess! 

Using the same analogy, if we students are a liquid (albeit a viscous one); the teachers are a gas. They seem to be everywhere all at once and they never seem to be in a hurry.  They don’t just have eyes in the backs of their heads; they manage to see everything just by being present. Any deviation from ‘the Leiths way’ is almost brought to their attention via some invisible force. Imagine a ghostly Obi Wan Kenobi giving Luke Skywalker a good talking to. 

I was struggling to coax my meringue mix out of a bowl this week using a metal spoon when, from the other side of the room, a voice boomed: “Everyone please use a spatula to ensure that you get all of your mix out of the bowl.” 

I was well aware that I was using the wrong implement. I knew just how badly it was working out for me and now I had even been warned. However, I had hoped I’d get away with it and thought I had until I became aware of the heat of the teacher’s gaze on me… 

“Katy?”… Busted!

‘The Leiths way’ is a way of cooking that is the most reliable and sensible. It’s a methodology that helps you to avoid the outbreak of disaster in the kitchen, which can be absolutely hellish if you don’t know how to rectify it. I guess that’s why the Leiths cookery books are ‘bibles’. It’s not a religion but, if you know the method, your food will be heavenly and we are all succumbing to its power. However, we do still joke about the fact that we catch ourselves straying from the divine path at home by occasionally throwing tea towels over our shoulders or licking our fingers.

This week, I learned that preparation is equally as important as the cooking itself. I also discovered that I am not very good at it, but I’m gradually getting better. Time was very kind this weekend; the clocks went back, giving me an extra hour, which I didn’t waste. Instead, I got up and made a Victoria sponge. Every second counts!

By Katy Dimmock

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