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Fat Duck: The Dreaded Grapefruit

After we finished the wrapping, Graham, the Fat Duck’s sous chef, appeared and thumbed a few sweets. Then he led us over the road to the prep room, which would be our prison for the next month.

It was 100 yards or so away from the restaurant, in an old building perched on the side of a car park. The prep room was downstairs - and Heston’s famous laboratory upstairs. I wondered what sorcery was going on up there, and for some reason thought about the Soup Dragon in the Clangers. But there were no tours to be had, or soup for that matter, and they quickly got us to work.

A young chef called Laurent ran the prep room. At first I thought he was French – he had a unique blend of Gallic arrogance and nonchalance – but it turned out he was Swedish.

My first job was measuring out the venison and frankincense tea into 65g portions. It was probably the easiest job in the kitchen, but I managed to mess it up. I had to pour the broth into small plastic bags and vac-pack them. But a couple of bags exploded, and I’d clean the vacuum packing machine down and start again. They could tell I was a novice – it wasn’t just the Tesco bag containing my two blunt knives that gave me away.

I spent the rest of the morning prepping asparagus spears for the ‘salmon poached in liquorice gel’ dish on the taster menu (see photo above). Each one had to be perfect. You cut a circle just below the bud, and peeled the stalk into a slender white arrow.

Eighty were needed for service, and the amount of waste was shocking. Handfuls of perfectly good trimmings, glistening like slimy green tagliatelle, were thrown in the bin. And so much for that sleb chef guff about seasonality and local produce – it was March, and the stuff was from Peru. But it was hard to knock Heston Blumenthal for food miles when some of his customers flew thousands of miles just to eat there. Some of them had carbon footprints bigger than Wales.

The jobs kept rotating and quickly became brain-numbingly dull. One minute we’d be slicing exquisite Joselito ham into julienne strips for the snail porridge, the next we’d be cutting onions on the slicer. It reminded me of those factory lines I’d worked on as a student. It was the sort of humdrum work that I’d always promised myself I’d never do again.

We stood there four to a bench, peeling and chopping, and making banal conversation. There were three girls mid-way through their stages.

Claudia, a gnomish girl from Germany, had just finished a stint at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. She told us how the G8 summit leaders had stayed there, and how they’d had to cook as FBI agents looked on. The publicity from the world’s media was so good, the place had been packed out even in January. She gushed about head chef Andrew Fairlie’s signature dish of home-smoked lobster with herb and lime butter sauce, and described how the shells were smoked over the chips from old whisky barrels.

Claudia was a gifted chef, and even though she was on a stage like the rest of us, she did service most days on the pastry section. Her parents ran a restaurant in Germany and it turned out she’d been cooking since she was a young child.

There was also a shy Irish woman called Louise, who barely said a word the whole time I was there. Much louder was an obese American called Kate. She was 22, and had just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.

Her only pro-kitchen experience was three months part-time in a backwater restaurant in Wisconsin. After another two months at the Fat Duck, she was going to spend the summer as a personal chef cooking for a retired couple in the States. She was clumsy and had no notion of personal space, and grabbed everything like a toddler in a cake shop.

“I’m competitive,” she explained.

“I noticed,” someone said.

More than once I narrowly avoided losing the tips of my fingers as she blundered around the kitchen. She talked about her family incessantly, and as the hours ticked by, repeated the same stories. But she was always good-humoured – which was more than could be said for me.

After a few hours, we were led over the road for staff lunch. It was a manic affair. Trays of food were lined up by the pass, and a haphazard queue formed as waiters and chefs fought for meals. We ate in the dining room, pushing each chair as far away from the laid tables as we could. Glass and the threat of admonishment sparkled over the napkins.

Less than an hour later, the wealthy and famous would start filling the same posh leather seats with no inkling that some sweaty-arsed chef had just been sitting there. Waiters skulked in corners as we ate, watching every forkful and speck of spittle with spite. The atmosphere did nothing for my digestion.

Without thinking, I put a clean fork on the table and was screamed at from across the room. It was one of the big French cheeses in the front-of-house squad.

“Don’t put your fork on there!” he yelled.

Laurent went white.

“You’re supposed to get as far away from the table as you can – turn the chair outwards,” he hissed.

There were two meals a day – lunch at 11am and supper at 6pm. They were the only times in the day we could rest our feet. And for five minutes we gobbled down our food, heads down and little talking.

The rest of the time we stood in the prep room, occasionally ferrying large plastic boxes between the prep room and the kitchen. They didn’t seem heavy when you first lifted them, but you had to walk slowly with your arms outstretched to prevent spillage, and then wait for a gap in the traffic as you crossed the blind bend.

And just when you thought your arms were about to give way, the worst bit was to come - weaving your way through the dining room. The fear of dropping ten litres of turbot stock over the carpet with an hour before service was terrifying. The waiters made it worse - it was almost like they were willing you to do it. Eventually, at collapsing point, you’d dodge your way through the chefs in the broom cupboard kitchen, your arms burning with panic and fatigue.

Then it was best to get out as quickly as possible. If you stayed too long, a chef would collar you and get you to carry another box back to the prep room. If your timing was out, you could be yo-yoing back and forth, taking your life in your hands every time you crossed the high street.

But the task I dreaded most was the grapefruits. Even the chefs at the Hinds Head, Heston’s pub next door, knew about the grapefruits. The chore summed up everything you need to know about the fastidiousness and downright ridiculousness of three-star Michelin cooking.

First, you peeled each grapefruit, without bruising or cutting the pink flesh. I was easily the worst. More often than not, I’d make a tell-tale gash, and pink watery juice would ooze like an open sore. Then even more carefully, you’d take the white pithy globe and tease it into segments. Then with a paring knife, you’d pick out any pips and carefully peel away the white, and lay the pink flesh on towelling paper to soak up the juice.

Then you picked each segment, flicking off tiny, juice-filled pearls on to another piece of towelling. The work was fiddly in the extreme. Even the slightest pressure would burst them. Once we had covered one piece of towelling with grapefruit pearls, we’d begin on another. After an hour, your fingers were numb with the detail, and the urge to scream and hurl a grapefruit across the room was overwhelming. Some chefs used a toothpick to pick the pearls, but there was no easy way of doing it.

Four grapefruit had to be picked for lunch and another four for the evening (the pearls were used as a garnish for the salmon dish - see photo above), and I hated every second of it. If this was cooking, then I was in the wrong game
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