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A day in the kitchen: January 2013

posted Feb 5, 2013, 12:52 PM by Dinner Lady   [ updated Feb 7, 2013, 11:12 AM ]
If someone were to tell me that I would be spending the next day in the kitchen from 9-5 I would think it was either Christmas Eve, or someone was playing a cruel trick on me.  I love cooking, but I'm not that dedicated. Either way, I would require much cajoling, some friendly reinforcement from Mrs Doubtfire, someone magical to entertain the children and a large whiskey as a reward in the evening.   In actual fact, on a cold and frosty Friday morning, I woke up early, became a train commuter for a day and arrived at 9am as planned in central London.  My dream had come true.  I was going to spend the day in the kitchen of a famous top restaurant. I had needed no cajoling, having said a very happy and excited farewell to Mrs Doubtfire and the children, in the knowledge that Mrs Doubtfire was going to join me for that large whiskey and a gastronomic feast in the evening as our magical Nanny Poppins looked after the children.  

My mission: to investigate how restaurants manage their food waste; My qualifications: longtime housewife (in charge of ordering, budgeting, planning for meals) and family cook; My expectations: being able to stand and watch what happens in a day in a kitchen, as long as I was able to see through the fog of "@$"&#" (I've seen several episodes of Masterchef).  My experience: a day I will remember for the rest of my life, welcomed by a bunch of friendly, yet highly professional and talented people who allowed me to put a pinny on, roll my sleeves up and get well and truly messy. And not a blue word or raised voice to be heard all day. 

After a tour of the kitchens, introductions to key members of staff and the essential health and safety training, I was immediately put to work in a chef's jacket and apron.  I joined the pastry section, which initially panicked me given that my pastries tend to crumble, my sponge cakes don't rise and I have no finesse.  I was told that this is where most people start off, as it is the more laid back section of the kitchen. As I got going, I also wondered whether it is because mistakes made with a load of flour, sugar and butter are much less costly than mistakes made when cooking lobster, duck breast or expensive fish fillets. As I brought together the dough for the lemon tart, all I could do was smile, pinch myself and savour every moment of this experience.  I watched and chatted to people about food, and whilst doing so, the most delicious morsels were offered to me to taste. I was in culinary heaven.
Throughout the day I reflected on the similarities and differences between the family and professional kitchen.  Immediately I could see that reducing food waste in the kitchen was a top priority .  As the chefs explained to me, throwing away ingredients is as good as chucking crisp bank notes in the bin.  The same is true in the family kitchen although I wonder whether we modern Dinner Ladies fail to link the two so explicitly.  Jacqueline Percival, in her book Breadcrumbs and Banana Skins: The Birth of Thrift, suggests that our Granny Dinner Ladies were better at this than we are, maybe because standards of living were on average lower than ours have been in recent years; and a much greater proportion of the household budget was spent on food.  Watching and talking to the chefs I could see a range of strategies that they used to prevent waste of food and money: careful planning of the menu to make the most of all of the ingredients (trimmings of fish fillets made into other dishes; discards of carrots that have been chopped to perfectly measured little matchsticks are made into purees to decorate the plate and delight the diner), intricate monitoring of consumer trends, meticulous stock taking and careful ordering to ensure there is just enough but not too much of any ingredient, and ultimately very careful work expected of all staff so ingredients are not wasted.  These are all things that the family cook can do, but often falls short for a multitude of reasons; we Four and a half bellies have been attempting this in our Waste Watchers challenge, albeit probably less successfully.  


Worst of the Waste

  • half tub taramasalata - I do this too many times. I get tempted by the 2 for £2 offer and buy taramasalata and hummus. I promise that this time I shall eat them both up. I end up throwing half of one away. I promise never to fall for the offer again. I fail. 
  • 1 mouldy orange

Best food saves

  • I had a tupperware of left over red pesto pasta extravaganza in the fridge. I added it to the Sunshine in a Pot Pasta 
  • Using up the left over bits of the Christmas cheeses (small ends, drying out, not appetising to spread on a cracker) to make cheese fritters