The Leiths Diaries: One year on

This is a post in The Leiths Diaries series. Read more here.

Leiths School of Food and Wine

I’ve been thinking about doing this post for a little over a year now. Mostly because life has gotten in the way. But also it seemed a bit more tidy to round the series of Leiths posts off with an after-the-fact summary.

Rather than evaluating the usefulness of my Leiths Diploma, because let’s face it, I was never going to be a restaurant chef, I thought I’d write a little on what I’ve done since I left.

While at Leiths, I started working on the Chinese edition of Pomp magazine. As the magazine was published every two months, it gave me a lot of time off in between. So after I finished the diploma, I used the months off in between to go to the South of France and try my hand at being a private chef.

I had a great employer and the job was easy. I liked that I got to cook different things every day, and had to think about what I was cooking every day, but I didn’t really have the freedom to cook the sort of food that I wanted to cook.

Cloches, 25th Anniversary Celebration Menu at Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, Monaco

Being in the South of France also gave me access to some of the best restaurants in the world. I was lucky enough to visit Le Louis XV, Alain Ducasse’s three-star Michelin restaurant in Monaco. There, the food wasn’t as refined and petite as some of the new gastronomic restaurants but the sauces and flavours had an intensity that’s not found anywhere else. It was an education on flavour.

I also went to Mauro Colagreco’s Mirazur which revealed an alternative to the classical French cuisine. One where the concentration of flavour was more delicate, where the food had equal finesse and where the raw materials were held in the utmost regard, in the way that some of the world’s best restaurants are now approaching food.

Back in London, I was ready for a fresh new challenge so I started working on Life in Luxury. It seemed at the time quite clear that Pomp wasn’t for me and as it happens, they could no longer afford to pay. Suddenly I was a fully fledged freelancer with lots of little projects. A freelancer who was at once writer, editor, publisher and who could be a chef or a sommelier or a number of other things.

Soon, Life in Luxury was up and running; In Pursuit of Food had been split into In Pursuit of Food, Amateur Wine and IPOF Travel; and the portfolio was finally revamped.

Now what?

There was certainly little time for thumb twiddling on the breadline. A consulting project here and there, little writing assignments now and then and finally a brief stint on the “travel desk” at CNN brought me to a restaurant book project. (More on that later I’m sure.)

It seems a year on from Leiths, I have both strayed further from food and gotten closer to it than ever. With each new food project, a little more was revealed to me about my relationship with food.

I still like cooking, but on my own terms – not that I have much time to cook anyway. Besides, I like eating a whole lot more. I love writing more than ever, especially about things related to food – the people, the techniques, the setting; because more goes into food than just the produce. I guess Leiths has sent me on a different culinary journey in the end.

But really, I’m still learning. That doesn’t ever really stop.

The Leiths Diaries: The Wine Lectures

This is a post in The Leiths Diaries series. Read more here.

Food and wine matching at Leiths School of Food and Wine

Before I started the Leiths course, I wrote about wanting to learn much more about wines. I wanted to be able to understand and write eloquently about its history, culture, production, economics, politics and more. That was probably a little over-enthusiastic. After all, the course only pitched to the Intermediate Level of the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) qualification.

But that is not to say that I gained little from the course.

The wine lectures, delivered by a mixture of WSET qualified speakers (including several Masters of Wine and prominent wine writers) and co-ordinated by Richard Bampfield MW, ran once a week over the intermediate and advanced terms of the Leiths Diploma. (The Foundation level exams took place during the foundation term of the Leiths Diploma.) Each week was a different topic with a few wines to taste and often food matches to consider (I guess that’s the Leiths aspect of the course, rather than part of the WSET qualification as standard). It all led up to the WSET Intermediate Level exam in May – a multiple choice exam with no blind tastings. (Yes I passed.)

So what do you actually learn?

Well, having written about wine here and there, I knew a lot about the topics that I had researched and very little about everything else. This course gave me the opportunity to understand and explore the production process of wine, which I never really understood completely from dashed winery tours. I also learnt much more about grape varieties, the sorts of wines they produce and how they should and could be matched to food. The lectures by Nancy Gilchrist are particularly good. But the thing that was perhaps most obvious was that I learnt how to taste wine.

Food and wine matching at Leiths School of Food and Wine

For work, I get invited to a lot of wine tastings. Most of them are not particularly useful because I have no business interest in wine – I don’t, at present, make wine recommendations or retail wines. So, much of the time spent at tastings are on finding out about stories behind the wine producers and sometimes about the state of the wine market both domestically and internationally. But that’s really for personal interest.

When I go to tastings now, I will of course still be able to discern whether or not I like a wine but also I will be able to critically evaluate a wine. It does seem to permeate to an innate skill.

Is it really useful right now?

Well probably not. But I do have a few ideas on things I’d like to do in the future for which that would be helpful. It’s a bit of a gamble really. In the mean time though, I can happily keep up with my more learned wine peers.

The Leiths Diaries: External speakers

This is a post in The Leiths Diaries series. Read more here.

Cheeses with Tom Badcock at Leiths

The external speaker is one of the key components of the Leiths Diploma. It’s not that any of the contents go towards the Diploma – nothing you learn in these lectures are tested in the exams. Rather, it helps to give a more rounded view of the food industry. I suppose in a public school context that would be the extra-curricular activities which takes the education process over and above the compulsory curriculum.

Is it beneficial? Well yes, and no.

While the contents of the lectures do not form part of the compulsory learning, attendance is. The lectures are scheduled into the curriculum and takes place instead of the regular demonstrations, generally lasting for about two hours. As these things are, not everything is of interest to every one. But the great thing about Leiths is that they really take your feedback into consideration and in the advanced term, career specific lectures have been made optional.

In the intermediate term, we’ve had speakers from butchers, fishmonger, cheese dealer, truffle hunter, chefs, food stylist, entrepreneurs and more. Some of the speakers have been absolutely fascinating and really offered an insight into their corner of the food world. And they have been varied enough to really give food for thought to students who might not know what they want to do after the Diploma.

There were some particularly memorable ones. Henry Harris of Racine, who I had met previously in Aldeburgh, was fabulously entertaining and had some great anecdotes about working in a restaurant. Tom Backcock, the cheese man, came in with some 20 cheeses for us to try and provided guidance on cheese making. Food writer and stylist Jennifer Joyce gave some great direction on food styling  and working with magazines.

Some of the lectures, admittedly, were less than inspiring and felt like hours of torture. I guess food is one of those things where someone else’s enthusiasm really translates but so does their negativity. And of course, there’s the subjectivity of whether their topic is interesting.

On the whole, though, they have been more useful than not. Aside from the specialist knowledge and insight, it was also a great way to make contacts. After all, you never know when you might need to talk about lactic cheeses or someone to advise on the best truffles.

The Leiths Diaries: What I’ve learnt so far

This is a post in The Leiths Diaries series. Read more here.

Knife skills at Leiths

In January I started the Two Term Diploma at Leiths School of Food and Wine. It seems that after 12 years at school, three years at university and six months training to be a journalist, I was back to where I started: at school. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I saved up and signed up for the course to gain a solid foundation knowledge about cooking. This, I figured, would help me to improve my writing about food and drink and focus on the finer details. The days speed by when you’re cooking all day and writing all night. I’ve already completed a month on the course – time to share a few of the things I’ve learned so far.

Speed – it comes from preparation:

The thing that I really worried about before starting the course was being able to cook at speed. At home, I cooked for pleasure and at a leisurely pace – not something chefs have the luxury of doing in the kitchen. In the first few weeks I struggled to finish on time. Then I realised that the reason why the students doing the full Diploma were so good was because they had everything they needed ready and knew what they were doing. When I started doing the same, I got a whole lot quicker.

Organisation – it’s part of your preparation:

One of the most tedious and time consuming aspects of the course is the time plan, something I haven’t had to do since Food GCSE at school. It’s basically a piece of paper with all your ingredients and instructions on, including what you should be doing when. As annoying as it is to do, it is incredibly useful in helping you to be organised. Of course, it’s no good if you don’t know what’s on it so you need to absorb as much of it as you can. In the kitchen, it should only be a frame of reference rather than something you look at every two minutes.

Presentation – from mise en place to plating up:

When you cook for yourself, family and friends, flavour is generally more important than presentation. But sometimes even when you put together a considered arrangement on a plate, it somehow doesn’t look like it would in a quality restaurant. Perhaps that’s because the very premise of restaurant food is that it needs to be presentable so from the outset, the food is prepared and cooked in a specific way. For example, the presentation side of fish is always cooked first, the knuckles on poultry are always trimmed, any exposed bone is always scraped clean and so on. Your beautifully presented dish really started with perfect preparation and careful cooking. That said, don’t forget to do any post-processing before you serve it.

Knife skills – practice makes perfect:

This one is probably the oldest nut of wisdom in the book but it’s very true. It’s not just about hacking a carrot any old way though, you have to roll-slice it. That is, leaving the tip of the knife on the chopping board and lifting only the heel of the knife so you can push forward and down to cut in a rolling motion. In essence you’re moving the blade through the food rather than straight down which makes chopping a lot easier and cutting yourself much less likely. Admittedly it’s not the most natural movement to start with but with practice it does work. You will need a very sharp knife and chefs’ knives are exceptionally sharp – much more so than regular knives it seems. But don’t fear your knife, you’re more likely to cut yourself while cleaning it.

(First seen on Looking to Cook)

The Leiths Diaries: Cooking for 50

This is a post in The Leiths Diaries series. Read more here.

Empty plate with knife and fork

Cooking for 50 is not something you want to think about let alone do in the first three weeks of a cheffing course. But there’s nothing quite like being thrown in at the deep end to acclimatise.

Within a week of starting at Leiths, we were informed that we had to cook for 50 in groups of four. Panic ensued – we were still practically navigating around the kitchens with orientation gear, how will we cope?

The pre-assigned groups were a mixture of those who had started the previous term and the new recruits. That was a saving grace really since the incumbents were briefed last term so theoretically someone in the group knows what they’re doing; we hope. Even so, it’s not the easiest exercise when none of us were familiar with each other, how we worked or had ever catered to such quantities with restrictions.

We had to design a two course menu, with a budget of just over £200, which was both seasonal and demonstrated sufficient skills to serve up to 50 people. All the preparation and cooking had to be done between 9.30am and 12.30pm and cleaning finished by 2pm so we could attend the afternoon demonstrations. There were also other rules like the food can’t be delivered to Leiths and we had to cater to people with special dietary requirements. For the exercise, this seemed like a lot of restrictions but I guess that’s the nature of catering in real life.

The group I was in was made up of two newbies and two incumbents. We were lucky in some respects because we weren’t one of the first groups to cook so at least we had the opportunity to see what other people were cooking and also taste the food that was being cooked for us. The results leading up to when we were due to cook had been hugely varied and some were reassuring while others were daunting.

We opted for a chicken, leek and cider pie recipe from the Pieminister Cookbook to be served in a de-constructed fashion. Instead of the pastry in the book, we decided to make our own rough puff pastry shells to sit on top of the filling when we serve it. There was also a side of potato and sweet potato mash and blanched spinach. For the dessert, we went with a chocolate mousse with shards of almond praline. Catering for special diets, we were going to create small portions of the pie without gluten and dairy and serve it without the rough puff pie topping. The alternative dessert was caramel oranges.

Things are never so straightforward of course.

Owing to the short supply of spinach, kale was used instead. The eggs, fridge cold in the morning, were too cool for the mousse and started to curdle. The caramel for the praline was always in danger of burning. The first batch of pastry started life as an amalgamation of shortcrust and flaky pastry before we realised our mistake and switched to rough puff. But true to the nature of pastry making, it was taking as long as it possibly could and certainly much longer than we had anticipated. The oranges for the alternative dessert went astray too. Throughout the process, it was a constant juggle of pots, pans and hob space. And the washing up, it was a mountain that grew exponentially.

But in the end, with a slight delay in service, the kale was fine, the mousse was rescued, the caramel set perfectly and the pastry puffed up. It wasn’t perfect but we got there and the feedback had been mostly positive. And despite struggling between the free-from options and the standard portions, we managed to keep the two separate, no doubt much to the delight of those eating them.

The oranges never did turned up though.