Tough Cookies, by Simon Wright

The cut-throat world of the cordon-bleu chef

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The Independent Culture

A few weeks ago, I sat opposite Britain's leading chef while he stirred his coffee. For two minutes or so, Gordon Ramsay devoted his formidable powers of concentration to the froth on his latte. On page 33 of this book, I discovered the reason for his interest. When working as commis chef with the Parisian maestro Guy Savoy, Ramsay was so badly paid that he took a second job making coffee at the Café Bastille on Sundays.

A few weeks ago, I sat opposite Britain's leading chef while he stirred his coffee. For two minutes or so, Gordon Ramsay devoted his formidable powers of concentration to the froth on his latte. On page 33 of this book, I discovered the reason for his interest. When working as commis chef with the Parisian maestro Guy Savoy, Ramsay was so badly paid that he took a second job making coffee at the Café Bastille on Sundays.

"My waiters look at me now when I say it's not a latte because it's a cappuccino, they've taken the milk too far and you can't mix it so the milk stays on top of it and it's just sad. And they think I'm a fucking lunatic, but I know how to make a proper latte ..."

Based on extended interviews with four of Britain's top chefs - the others are Heston Blumenthal, Shaun Hill and Marcus Wareing - this absorbing and lively work explores what it takes to make the grade in the "hot, intense and terrifyingly fast" world of haute cuisine. We're plunged into a medieval milieu of slavishly long hours and instant retribution for misdemeanours. Ramsay received a boot up the backside from Albert Roux ("it fucking hurt") for peeping at a soufflé and had a plate of langoustine ravioli thrown at him by Joel Rubuchon when he overheated the foie gras sauce.

As exemplified by Ramsay's latte, all Wright's subjects are borderline obsessives. Blumenthal reveals that he translated La Nouvelle Cuisine by the Troisgros brothers aged 16: "Using a dictionary. Word by word."

Even if fuelled by fervour, it's not easy to rise through the ranks. Wareing explains the obstacles he faced in his first London job at the Savoy Hotel, where he is now in charge of the Grill: "You don't know what chervil is, you don't know what chives are or basil, believe it or not. You come from colleges where you're taught the bare minimum." Wareing also encountered obfuscation at Pierre Koffman's once-legendary Tante Claire: "He was more interested in bollocking me for the staff salad than for the restaurant food."

A former editor of the AA Hotel Guide, Simon Wright is not averse to putting in his own tuppen'orth: "Maybe I'm being overgenerous, but British hotel food is by and large repellent." He explains why so few chefs measure up to the standards set by his heroes: "Catering [seems] a last resort, full of people there as a final or only option."

And anyone considering a career in the restaurant business would do well to take on board Wright's rules for good food: "1. Good Shopping; 2. Things cooked accurately; 3. Putting things together that belong together; 4. Stop there."

Revelatory, principled and entertaining, this enjoyable book explains why so few of our restaurants are excellent and so many are mediocre.

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