Contrary to what most people think, being a chef is not a very creative job. Certainly not while you are working your way up, when your job is to execute the dishes that the head chef wants, the way the chef wants them.
In fact the implication that being a chef is creative is very misleading and often leads to disappointment in young chefs, who assume that they will be cooking their own dishes, based on their own ideas, as soon as they’ve come on board.
That is one of the reasons why I encourage young chefs to cook at home, as this is where they will be able to experiment – and, hopefully, to realise that ideas which work in the head do not always translate to the plate.
I have a chef who has been with me for at least 12 years. He now cringes when he thinks back to his first week, when he took me to one side and asked when he would be allowed to come up with ideas to put on the tasting menu.
I seem to remember that the room fell silent, rather like when Oliver Twist asks for more. I tried to explain how difficult it was to invent a brand new dish that is good enough to go out to customers. There are so many things to consider – the ingredients have to be the best, the dish must arrive in front of the customer in perfect condition and it has to fit in with the style of the restaurant. These are not things you learn at college, even if you were top of the class.
We laugh at it now: more than most, he understands the process of learning what works and how long it takes. He soon became a very creative and vital part of the team, and nowadays his ideas will often find their way on to the menu.
I remember when some beautiful red mullet arrived in the kitchen of a restaurant that I was working at back in the 1990s. I had only been a chef for a couple of years, although I was older than most, and for some time I had been making it my business to eat at top restaurants and read everything I could get my hands on.
The food at this place was very simple and we were in need of something to accompany the plainly roasted whole fish. I had an idea to cook some fennel for a long time to bring out its natural sweetness and lose some of that raw aniseed flavour (it tasted a bit too much like toothpaste to me).
I had a vague idea of what I was going to do, and I must have earned the trust of the head chef because he told me to go ahead. When you cook a dish in a restaurant kitchen you have to cook a lot of it, and this in itself is a challenge: that idea you tried out on a few people at a dinner party might not scale up as easily as you thought.
I took one of the restaurant’s huge frying pans and added some olive oil while I chopped the Florence fennel bulbs into thin strips. When the oil was hot I added the fennel and fried it until it started to brown and soften.
I then added a good slug of Ricard (a pastis similar to Pernod but stronger and, I think, better) and the flames leapt from the pan as the alcohol mist caught fire.
When the flames died down and that burst of aniseed softened, I let the Ricard evaporate completely before I squeezed the juice of a large orange or two into the pan.
I let the fennel cook slowly until it was sticky with the reduced orange juice. I added some salt, a squeeze of lemon and checked it. It tasted good – but there was one problem.
It was brown: the colour of some corduroy trousers I had when I was little. Certainly a colour for clothing rather than food. The head chef voiced his disappointment at the colour and wondered whether we should serve it; but it was too late to replace it on the menu with something else, as service was about to begin.
When I sent the first red mullet out to a customer I added some fresh bright green fennel fronds, a splash of olive oil and a squeeze of fresh orange juice to the braised fennel, and the whole thing glistened and sang.
I waited anxiously to see whether the dish would be sent back because of the off-putting colour but instead the waitress called into the kitchen to say that the customer had said the dish was one of the best things they had ever eaten. I couldn’t have written it any better.