Learning to cook with hot air and finesse... by Katy Dimmock

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Learning to cook with hot air and finesse... by Katy Dimmock

The skills are getting more complex and the words more difficult to pronounce, as Katy and her classmates return to Leiths for the second term of their professional chef training. Intermediate Term, Weeks 1 & 2.

It was announced in our welcome back talk that we only have 20 weeks left of the course. My classmate and I erupted in horror and shock at the catastrophic implications of this revelation. We felt like two soon-to-be-released hostages with Stockholm syndrome; lamenting the loss of fun and knowledge that we were yet to experience.  During the Diploma course at Leiths we are well looked after, we are safe and, while we are aware that the teachers are holding our hands somewhat, the end of the course represents going it alone and the dissolution of what has become a pretty close group. 

Most of us aren’t certain of what we will do next. So who are we? Or rather: who were we before we became full time students at Leiths? Our group is made up of sixteen people and our previous careers are as follows; a yoga teacher, credit analyst, HR, PR and marketing professionals, entrepreneur, project manager (me), interior designer, accountant, the 1992 Olympic Judo silver medallist and a falconer. Yes, really – a falconer.  We have three new additions to our group this week replacing the foundation students who left last term. They are a food stylist, a teacher and Kate Henry who reached week eight of season 5 of the Great British Bake Off.

Last term was all about family style cooking and our diaries were compartmentalised into food groups; fish, meat, eggs etc. Now, the cooking sessions are not only more complicated but more difficult to spell. They focus on a variation of skills rather than just one or two. The word of the intermediate term is “finesse”. We are being introduced to dishes that require a lighter touch; basically, foods you can totally mess up if you get them wrong.  

The photos above are taken from #LeithsDiplomaLife on Instagram.

We were shown the extreme joys of mousse, moussing and bavarois in a demonstration on gelatine. An entire afternoon was devoted to the more sophisticated cousins of meringue, namely cuite and Italienne. We had a superb demonstration covering every imaginable sort of soufflé and all of the things to avoid to ensure that they’re of a high quality.  This reminded me of “mes pneus sont dégonflés” (translated as “my tires are flat”) from my school French class. Dégonflé (deflated) meaning the opposite of soufflé (breath). I made a mental note not to let my soufflé dégonfler

There was a real buzz of excitement coming back to the kitchen and catching up with everyone’s news from the Christmas break. It was thrilling to hear of people’s work experience placements which varied wildly; Monastrell in Alicante and Purnell’s in Birmingham (both have Michelin stars), The London Pantry in Moorgate; The Corner Restaurant and Champagne Bar at Selfridges, and pop ups in Hackney to name a few. I worked for an ex-Leiths student, prepping for some Christmas parties. My classmate and I also had our first paid job catering for a Christmas canapé party for 60.  It went very smoothly and we really enjoyed the whole event – even cooking in an open kitchen.

We were eased in gently during the first week. It wasn’t so much “On your marks, get set, Go!” as, “You are waking from a deep sleep; when I count to ten you will be back in the room.”

We were very slow on our feet and more focused on our Christmas antics than we were on service times and mise en place. To wake us up a bit, Hannah delivered a demonstration on enriched breads, designed to inject us with so much sugar we would be tearing around the kitchen like a pack of slightly chubby greyhounds.

This had the desired effect until exactly 11.15am the next day when our first CTH (Confederation of Tourism and Hospitality) exam finished. It was a straight forward test: cooking a very tasty Jerusalem artichoke soup. Working in silence we chopped and sweated our way through it and then promptly,  but unconsciously, gave up on round two of the morning session which was pot roast chicken with a rosemary and walnut dressing. We all served between 15 and 45 minutes late revealing just how out of practice we had become.  

A new phrase in the Leiths teachers’ vocabulary is “I don’t have to remind you how to… [Insert anything foundation term here].” In this instance it was making caramel for a Crème caramel. Obviously I messed up my first attempt by not letting the sugar dissolve first and ending up with crystals rather than a smooth caramel. The French dish is often attributed to Marie-Antoine Carême who worked for Napoleon and is credited for the creation of 'haute cuisine'. Yet the word ‘caramel’ dates back to the Latin for ‘sugar cane’. His name was more of a premonition of the career he was going to have than a nod to a sugary dessert.  

However, Carême was responsible for the chef’s uniform, which hasn’t changed for over 250 years. A reversible double breasted thick cotton top, a pair of checked cotton trousers with an expandable waist (alas massively important) which are more like pantaloons and wouldn’t be out of place at Barnum and Bailey.  Crocs have become standard, but are really a heavily compromised wellington boot.  

“You back each other up when you see problems arising: “Psst, herbs are chopped on a brown board”... “Here, have a dish cloth”... “Did you know your pan is on fire?””

We stand there like extras from Downton Abbey who have borrowed their clothes from Mrs Beeton’s wardrobe. In every other walk of life, with the exception of being a barrister or a Beefeater, the dress has kept up with the times; technology constantly striving to improve the end result. I doubt Bradley Wiggins would have broken so many world records if he had been wearing tweed trousers and a flat cap, or that Michael Phelps would have taken home so much gold if his trunks had been knitted in wool by his granny.  However, a big theme at Leiths is that you should be able to cook “…anywhere - even half way up a mountain.” So all we really need is our knowledge, a wooden spoon, a bowl, a couple of cutlery knives and a pair of expandable pantaloons. 

The finale of the last two weeks was cooking Meringue cuite with a chilled lemon mousse and blueberry compote, and Double baked goat’s cheese and thyme soufflé. I felt lucky to be paired with ‘Bake Off Kate’ for meringues as, for me, meringues are an anagram of disaster.  We work on tables of four and are divided into sets of two. This means that you share a bench and you do 90% of your work alone but help each other out with the mise en place and back each other up when you see problems arising. “Psst, herbs are chopped on a brown board”... “Here, have a dish cloth”... “Did you know your pan is on fire?”… That kind of stuff. 

Despite being a more complicated process, my Meringue cuite came out well.  I think this is because I finally understand that when I reach stiff peaks, I need to stop rather than carrying on, basking in my own glory, or taking a cheeky break.  Equally my lemon mousse was light and fluffy. For service I chilled my plate, laid out my meringues in an arty fashion and centred my super mousse. Then, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, I put a few hot blueberries on top of the mousse… they immediately began to sink. I didn’t dare remove them for fear of total collapse – I just had to watch them sink like the Titanic, with sad violin music playing in my head.  

My second attempt at recovery involved chilling more blueberries and trying to hide the mess. This worked out quite well and luckily we were being marked on the mousse, not our presentation. We are always being marked on something but, to keep us on our toes, they don’t usually tell us what it is.

The heart of the light art of making a soufflé is really in bowl management. You can almost gauge how good your soufflé will be by how organised you are.  After two weeks, we are really back in the swing of kitchen life and our soufflés all rose to celebrate this occasion with us. 

“I felt quite emotional watching them, as it dawned on me that I was at that level four months ago...”

We all have the opportunity to work as kitchen porters for other classes whilst at Leiths.  I had my first session last week, helping out with the first session of the Cooking with Confidence evening course. The students were making meringues and pan fried chicken in a tarragon sauce. It was a very strange feeling to be observing a busy kitchen rather than cooking in one. We now conform to the Leiths way, ensuring that we’re precise in our actions and movements, whilst this group was slightly more erratic, with their enthusiasm winning over efficiency.  

It was interesting to see how many people, faced with a raw, bloody chicken, asked whether it was cooked yet – it’s cooked when the fibres are set and the juices run clear. In restaurants they would have known to send their food back, but the point in this evening course is to build confidence for beginners, rather than training them to restaurant standard. I felt quite emotional watching them, as it dawned on me that I was at that level four months ago; it struck me how far I have come since, and I still have 18 weeks to go…

By Katy Dimmock

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