I never really understood the adage about knowing you’re getting old when policemen start to look younger – not until the other day, when I swear I saw a child in uniform driving a police van. He could barely see over the steering wheel. In fact, I nearly called the police to report an auto theft.
The same can be true about professional kitchens. If you look at the people you are paying to cook your dinner, it is quite likely that you will be shocked at how young they look.
Although I can joke about it, it can present problems. I often find myself talking to a young chef about Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David or Alice Waters, and they don’t have a clue who I am on about. If the past is a foreign country, then the age gap is a long and high border wall that must be breached before any worthwhile communication can occur.
I am not suggesting that these young chefs aren’t keen and often brilliant: the problem of how to teach them and what language to use is mine. One thing that really helps is when they are keen home cooks.
I realise that in some kitchens it is impossible to make time to cook at home, because long 80-hour weeks mean you are too tired to do anything apart from work. We don’t work such long hours at The Sportsman, which gives our chefs time to cook at home.
There are a number of reasons why this is good for a young chef, but the two main ones are (a) they will be highly motivated and keen to impress and nurture their loved ones, and (b) they will have to eat what they cook.
In a professional kitchen, cooking can become really technical but lose those personal, emotional elements. How many times have I wondered how a new restaurant, where the chef has a great CV, can be so bad? I think it is often because they are very good when they’re a cog in a big machine, but they struggle when they are on their own. They want to display their culinary technique rather than having the simple desire to feed people and make them happy.
I despair of young cooks who know how to lacto-ferment asparagus but can’t fillet a fish. It reminds me of young guitar players who can do blistering, shredding 100mph solos but can’t get through a whole song on an acoustic guitar.
All of this explains why I was very happy when I came into the kitchen recently and there was a clearly homemade cheesecake on the pass during prep time. I was told that it was there because it was “cheesecake Tuesday”. The chefs had decided that someone was to bring in a cheesecake every Tuesday and at the end they would all vote on the winner.
I must say the standard was high and Dan, our head chef, is still bitter that his peanut butter and jam version didn’t win. Kirstie, our talented pastry chef, was over-ambitious – her cheesecake fell apart; while Ronan the gardener was highly commended for his lemon version.
But the recipe below for walnut, honey and sea salt cheesecake was the eventual winner. It was made by Carole, the cleaner, who is a similar age to me. Being a mum, she knows you have to produce the goods, to a high standard, day in, day out.