How, exactly, does a restaurant like The Fat Duck, housed in a simple cottage in the English countryside and run by a self-trained chef, earn both a Michelin three-star rating and, in 2005, the “Best in the World” designation by Britain’s Restaurant magazine?
That’s what Ciarán Duffy, executive chef of Tristan, wanted to know — so when he learned the Fat Duck was accepting applications from those interested in a two-week stagier (apprenticeship), he sent in his curriculum vitae.
Duffy, of course, is well known around Charleston as the man who turned Tristan around with big, bold tastes to complement the rich decor, after earning his James Beard Foundation chops at his previous employer, Rainwater, in Atlanta.
His family in England and Ireland were pleased as punch when he sent word that he’d been accepted to do the stagier at the Fat Duck, where he’d have the chance to learn from Heston Blumenthal’s staff sleeve-to-sleeve.
Blumenthal is known on both sides of the pond for his relentless pursuit of perfection in cooking — that is, molecular gastronomy, which uses chemistry and physics to achieve pinpoint accuracy — and his explorations of the ways that taste, smell, and memories can work together to create a satisfying and memorable experience at the table.
A different cooking style, indeed, but Duffy promised himself that he would go “with an open mind and an open heart,” learn as much as he could during the “culinary boot camp,” and return to Charleston ready to roll with it.
He arranged for a room in nearby Maiden Head, a 20-minute walk from the Fat Duck restaurant. “Actually a good motivator to start some new habits,” he decided. He reconciled himself to two weeks away from his beloved Mountain Dew, figuring that Lilt, a UK- and Ireland-exclusive soft drink, would do, packed his iPod, some tools of the culinary trade, a copy of Blumenthal’s latest book (to be signed), and a journal.
Upon his return, he shared that journal with us. Here are some select bits from his two-week adventure at the Fat Duck in England:
29 January 2007
3:30 AM GMT
I am somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, not sleepy, and this is starting to feel like a true exploration. I have started to read Heston’s book, In Search of Perfection, and I can tell already that we have the same passion for using the best products, both local and from the far corners of the world. The concept of molecular gastronomy doesn’t get me excited, but it makes me think about tweaks and spins and a different way to look at the same ingredients. When I get off the plane, I need to find a train to Maiden Head. It’s supposed to be in the 40s the whole time I’m here, and raining, no doubt!
I make it to Maiden Head and get a taxi. My goal is to go to the Duck and walk back to the room to time it; pace myself for what will be my ritual for the next 13 days. I will find out in about three hours that I should have found the room first. Eighty-pound rucksacks start to get heavy!
The room! Honestly, it is a box with a separate bathroom. I don’t care. I unpack, shower, and shave so that I can have a stress-free start to the day tomorrow.
30 January 2007
I haven’t slept yet and it isn’t nerves. Damn jet lag! I watch TV through the fuzz and work on some note cards with weight and temperature conversions. It isn’t every day that I cook in Celsius and grams/kilo.
Still can’t sleep. Tomorrow is going to suck if I don’t sleep.
I managed to get an hour or so in. I shower just to refresh, dress, and I’m out the door! I have a 20- to 30-minute walk and I’m still feeling the strain of carrying that bag all day yesterday. I have to suck that shit up. Push on!
Arrive in Bray and go right to the prep house. I am not going to walk right into the main restaurant. I know my place. I knock and am greeted by Jonny, chef of the prep house. We go right in to the prep kitchen. I have a hard time calling it that as there is no stove, hood, or dishwasher. It looks like a laboratory. Pretty cool!
Jonny takes me over to the restaurant to get the tour and meet the rest of the kitchen staff. It is very small. Fifteen tables, all fourtops. The tables are all being set for service and, noticeably, the tablecloths are being ironed on the tables.
Back to the prep house and Jonny has me helping with some of the meat fabrication, packaging for sous vide cooking, and moving some stuff around. I asked the question! How often does Heston come around? Look, I know he’s busy: a second book on Perfection, a Fat Duck book, the Perfection TV show, guest chef-ing around the world, and generally having great success, being considered one of the best in the world. The Duck is booked for lunch and dinner three months in advance!
Well, we are getting close to lunch time being over. Every now and then someone from upstairs comes down, uses the Cryovac machine, and runs back upstairs. I’m not sure what they’re doing or if I should ask.
Getting through the dinner rush and I haven’t had time to think. Accuracy and detail seem to be the mantra in the prep house. I was wondering what we do after dinner prep. Well, funny you should ask: 170 fresh-killed pigeons, 20 kilos of fresh truffles, eight cases of quail, Foie Gras, and some vegetables are being delivered, brought over from France today, and need to be dealt with before we are released. The pigeons have to be cleaned; the hearts and the livers separated, and the rest of the insides are trash. Then they are hung up in the walk-in cooler, all 170. It takes about three or four hours. The quail get ground up whole in the meat grinder for the quail consommé stock. Whole quail! $$$$$$!
The long walk home…
31 January 2007
Can’t sleep, I am so tired. I have to keep myself entertained with crappy British television.
Mountain Dew, I miss you so much… I need caffeine and lots of it…
Get to the Duck and the produce has just been delivered, so right off the bat, working. The produce is put up and we start the prep list. I try to retain as much as possible but honestly, you don’t stop moving! I have asked questions and already forgotten both the question and answer.
First Heston sighting! He was going in and out of the prep house. At the end of the week, the chef, pastry chef, and Heston are going to Vegas to do a dinner at Robecheons. I want him to sign my book, that’s it. I don’t expect to sit around at the pub and philosophize about food, but he can sign my bloody book.
I am scheduled at the Hinds Head Pub, which is another property of Heston’s, only 100 feet from the Duck’s front door. Heston has researched cooking methods and recipes from 400 years ago and is re-enacting those menu items in the pub. Amazing! This should be cool.
Pastilla is a job that requires accuracy that is borderline psycho. You butter two pieces of brick dough together and then cut it in three strips using one of the plastic guides. Add 25 grams of the pigeon mixture and roll it up. It has to be perfect: perfect corners, perfect seams, perfect… AHHHHHH and they all have to look the exact same…
Push on out the door, all the food is across the street. Everyone is dreading the idea of cleaning all the truffles. Jockie asks about Vegas and I tell him as much as I can without actually being there. I ask him not to wear shorts with dress socks and shoes.
I dread the thought of sitting down for dinner. I won’t want to get back up. I will ask Paul for some chocolate when we get back. The sugar will pump me up a little.
Packing it in for the night. We did the math: close to $4,000 in truffles. Clean up and go home.
01 February 2007
I think I got almost three hours sleep. Finally! It wasn’t a lot, but it helped. Push on! In the shower, shave, and out the door; a candy bar and soft drink and I am flying.
Report to the pub. I will work with the dessert person for the morning and then the hot after lunch. It’s fascinating the amount of effort that has been taken to make the menu as authentic as it is. Professors have done research, and Heston has referenced all kinds of historical documents. There hasn’t been a menu like this in over 500 years. The price point is a little higher than that of typical pub food but the flavors are amazing. The dishes are even prepared using as little modern convenience as possible. If America was just a little older, it might fly over in Charleston.
Lunch was busier than usual. 100 versus 45! I am looking forward to the walk home. Only moments away from relaxation…
EPILOGUE: Duffy survived the full two weeks and has returned to Charleston with a whole new appreciation for repetitive motions: chopping, dicing, again and again, no, more like this, that’s it, now here’s more, etc. He eventually did get his copy of Heston Blumenthal’s book signed by the legendary chef. “A charming fellow with an English countryside accent,” was Duffy’s take. He is already at work on new menu items at Tristan inspired by his two weeks with the best of the best and is pondering ironing the tablecloths.