Within moments I had created carnage with melted chocolate all over the work top, over my hands and on the floor. I clumsily squeezed out several dollops which unfortunately resembled rows of tiny brown turds rather than the after dinner treat that was intended.
Our incredible dinner at Le Champignon Sauvage (back in November 2016) made such an impression on me that we booked to go back there again for lunch at the first available opportunity. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t possibly have imagined that just a few months later I’d be in the kitchen cooking with David Everitt-Matthias and his team, but that’s exactly what happened.
Following our lunch visit David invited me to join him for the day to get a ‘taste’ of what really goes on in a 2 Michelin starred kitchen. Being a massive foodie I’ve watched the TV shows with Michelin star chefs shouting and swearing at professional chefs, throwing food that isn’t 100% perfectly presented straight into the bin and generally being terrifying to the point of disbelief. When I walked through the door of Le Champignon Sauvage at 9am on Wednesday morning, I took a deep breath, and was ready to face whatever was about to be thrown at me (not literally, hopefully).
When I walked into the kitchen I was greeted by David who told me to get a jacket, and apron and to read the bitter fudge and chocolate truffle recipes he’d left out for me. My first job was to start weighing the ingredients which I was conscious of doing so at a ridiculously slow pace, and ensuring I did everything correctly, whilst desperately trying not to mess up. I was introduced to Dan who was happily singing along to the radio tunes whilst butchering some lamb – thank god they weren’t going to ask me to do anything like that! It was Adam’s birthday and whilst he was doing prep work for the desserts, he also had to make a cake before 11am for the rest of the team as part of a birthday tradition.
Whilst stirring the chocolate to make my fudge, I asked David (who was picking my stirring spoon out of the boiling pan each time I left it there – c’mon I was nervous) what time everyone else had arrived to start work. He told me that the kitchen team start at 8am, they have a break after lunch service at around 3pm, which is when David will regularly go to the gym (he tries to go 6 times a week), and the chefs are back in the kitchen at 5pm to start prepping for the evening dinner service.
Despite everyone being extremely friendly and approachable, I try really hard not to ask too many questions about where to find ingredients. I need some butter for my truffles so I head to the store-room. The shelves are stacked with neatly arranged labelled containers, filled with every dry store ingredient you could possibly need. Inside the fridge, the chilled food is placed carefully and wrapped with cling film so the contents can be easily identified. As I walk back into the kitchen I start to look around taking note of the tidiness around me. I feel the urge to pass comment to David about how incredibly organised everything is. He explains to me that they have to be organised due to the lack of space, and although it’s hard to imagine the kitchen being any smaller, it once was. David said that when the building next door became available (in 2005) they were able to extend the kitchen (he pointed at a dark line of tiles on the floor). He’d requested that a line of the old tiles would remain to remind him of how much more space they have now.
My next task was to (help) Adam with the chicory choc rocks. This was a bit like a science experiment as the chicory essence, sugar and water had to be heated to an exact temperature and then stirred into melted white chocolate. The mixture then turns into a sand like texture, which eventually transforms into tasty little chocolate rocks. Adam then serves up the slices of birthday tart that he’s made and opens the gifts that his colleagues have bought for him. As a special birthday gift, David treats his team to dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant. He said that as they had a few birthdays close together recently that they are planning a dinner soon. Of course David wouldn’t reveal to me where they were going when I cheekily asked, but I think I could have a good guess.
I’m now sent over to work with Dan, yes that’s right he was the chef who was earlier butchering the lamb, although now Dan has several whole skinned rabbits laid out in front of him. Dan pulls out the liver and kidneys from inside of one of them and asks me to do the same! I’m incredibly squeamish when it comes to anything bloody or dead, and this was something I hadn’t done before. He then showed me how to fillet the rabbit with a knife and asked me to put my thumbs in-between its bottom, pulling back the leg bones until we heard them break with a loud crack.
My next job is to help George remove the roe from the scallops which were on the dinner menu. As I placed my scallops onto the tray George advised that I needed to put the flat side face down and not on its side as I’d previously done. When I asked him how long he had been working in the kitchen at Le Champignon Sauvage he told me that it was his 2nd day of a 2 week work experience. I was genuinely shocked as he seemed to know exactly what he was doing and I’d assumed he was a full-time chef.
I hadn’t met Chris Monk yet, but he was making what appeared to be some kind of sausages, which in actual fact was the Boudin of rabbit on the lunch menu. I took an occasional glance over to try to watch what Chris and David were up to whilst I trimmed the stalks from the fresh delivery of pied blue aka ‘blue foot mushrooms’ I’d been given to prepare. As I was anxiously slicing away, with the odd mushroom stalk flicking across the kitchen, the other chefs were now getting ready for service. I was given a bite of the rabbit sausage to try, only to be told what it was once it was already in my mouth. For some reason I’d never really liked the thought of eating rabbit much, but I now had been converted.
David bought out a tray and the chocolate truffle mixture that I had made earlier and had since forgotten about. He showed me how to pipe the mixture to form rows of truffle shaped chocolates, they all needed to be the same size. Within moments I had created carnage with melted chocolate all over the work top, my hands and the floor. I clumsily squeezed out several dollops which unfortunately resembled rows of tiny brown turds rather than the after dinner treat that was intended. David sympathetically told me that he also isn’t a huge fan of working with chocolate and scurried away with the disastrous tray of chocolate turds.
As the canapes were being made for the first guests, I was also given one of each to try, as well today’s amuse bouche – a parsley panacotta. A plate was also made up especially for me to sample the rabbit loin, rillettes and parfait. Every part of the rabbit was used, including the legs and kidneys which I had been working with a little earlier. This is the where I assumed my help would be redundant as it was time to start preparing and plating the starters. I stood and watched as Chris started cooking the fillet of Cornish pollock, in the meantime David had asked for another plate of food to be put together for me. It was the Cornish squid which was on the lunch menu, served with roasted lemon puree and an incredible pearl barley risotto.
I’m pulled out of my false sense of security and quickly finish my squid lunch as David tells me that it’s back to work. Who me? He asks me to cook the summer greens on the hot plate, and as he’s starting to plate up the rest of the mullet starter, I think I’m now back in the safe zone. As he squeezes perfect droplets of white onion puree onto the dish, David then asks me to have a go. He shows me how to smear the sauce, just like we’ve seen professional chefs on the TV fail miserably each time their peer hands them the spoon. My first attempt was appalling and I had to wipe the plate clean and start again. By my 3rd go I kind of got there with a little more help from David.
David and I talk a little more and I decide to ask him where he gets his inspiration to create new dishes. He said: “I’m naturally inquisitive and I like to forage, finding new ingredients to cook with. This will often provoke a new idea and a different way of thinking about things.”
We then start to chat about dogs, holidays and unusual produce. David asked about my favourite restaurants and I mentioned that I was particularly fond of Adams Restaurant, Birmingham in the UK and I told him of my experience of being invited into the kitchen of Per Se in New York.
I’m also allowed to help plate up the Pollock when it comes to the main courses and then I go back over to see Adam as he is on desserts. The white chocolate parfait is placed carefully on top of a jelly by Adam who then allows me to finish the plate with delicate pieces of raspberry and tiny basil leaves. I’m thankful that he doesn’t ask me to scoop the raspberry sorbet into a quenelle, saving me from any further embarrassment. George and I then helped Adam with plating a hazelnut cake with roasted pear and brown butter ice cream. Once these had been sent out, I was then able to sample both the sorbet and ice cream, both were of course delicious.
It was an unusually quiet service, which in hindsight was lucky for me as I was able to spend so much time with David and the other chefs. Once the lunch service was over which meant it was time to clear away. Everything was scrubbed and cleaned within an inch of its life by the whole team. Although David had said to me in the morning that he didn’t expect me to wash up, I felt it was only fair that I got stuck in too. Surprisingly there is no extra paid person cleaning the pots and pans, everybody pulls together until all of the work is done. I notice David is at the sink, so I join him, grab a tea towel and start drying.
I take the opportunity to ask David if he does the cooking at home. He said that Helen doesn’t like to cook, so he will make simple dinners like a stir fry for the two of them and on a Sunday he will usually cook a one pot meal. Again the subject moves back onto ingredients and we talk about flavours. As an example David tells me that he rarely cooks fillet steak, he will be more likely to cook with rib eye if he chooses to add it to the menu as it has more flavour.
At around 2:30pm and after all of the cleaning is done, David fetches my tray full of chocolate turds from the fridge and tells me I have one last job. I am asked to coat them in cocoa powder and distribute them into 2 bags which he then takes off me to vacuum seal. He hands me the 2 bags and a huge slab of fudge that I had also made in the morning and told me they were for me to take home. I can’t begin to explain the relief I felt when I realised they were not going to be served to paying customers – I hoped that was never intended to be their fate before.
It was only as I walked out of the door that it occurred to me just how physically drained I felt. Knowing that the team of chefs and front of house staff would be back in a couple of hours to do it all over again, gave me an enhanced appreciation of the energy and endurance these remarkable people put into their profession. It was an incredible experience to work behind the scenes in one of my favourite restaurants.
*I was not asked by anyone to write this blog post about my day in the kitchen at Le Champignon Sauvage. Thank you again to David and Helen for inviting me and for giving me the opportunity to work with you for the day.