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“Here you go”, says Deborah, marketing manager at The Roundhouse, handing me a brand new white chef’s jacket. I’m fairly excited – and not just because my lapel now reads ‘Chef Katharine’. I’m here to spend the evening in the kitchen of this fine dining establishment, one of our twenty nominees for our awards, alongside not one, but two head chefs. Eric Bulpitt, formerly of Jardine Restaurant, recently did a stint in world number one restaurant, Noma, while PJ Vadas has spent time working under Gordon Ramsay in London and recently competed in the San Pellegrino Cooking Cup. I’m curious to see how these two stars work alongside each other. Curious and, despite my awesome new chef’s jacket, ever so slightly intimidated!
After a brief staff meeting – held in a fairly spectacular location: outside, looking up towards the Twelve Apostles, and down to the ocean – I head inside to set up the dining room for service. “It’s Valentine’s day tonight,” Joakim, the sommelier, jokes with me. “Lots of couples!” Waiters Collins and Anthony are busily rearranging tables to accommodate them all and I hover around trying not to get in the way.
At 5.30pm, the small army of waiters assembles in the round room, which is the heart of the building. Maître d’ Jonathan and Joakim hand out clipboards, and brief them on the guests they will each be serving. Later they’ll be greeted by name, and receive menus addressed to them personally.
“Would you like a cappuccino?” Joakim asks me after the briefing. “It’s a tradition, before service.” I gulp down the delicious brew, made with Bean There beans, before slipping into the kitchen.
Out of the frying pan
It’s a long thin kitchen, broken up into separate sections. First is the meat station, with sous vide baths, and a host of cast iron pans lined up on the stove. Beside that is the vegetable section, where cubes of butternut and asparagus are already being fried. There are also pots with hats of cling film, gently rising as the liquid beneath heats up. “It’s to stop the sauces getting a film on them,” Eric explains. Last of all is the garnish station, where towering, tattooed garnisher Jacques (affectionately called Bear, by the other chefs) selects the pieces of chickweed, nasturtiums and other wild herbs to garnish the plates. He has also constructed the simply beautiful veggie patch, which has become one of the restaurant’s signature dishes.
Tonight, PJ is about to rush off to meet a supplier and then to a birthday, but first he shows me around the cold room. Eric is crazy about foraging, and here are stored some of his spoils. There are pickled fennel flowers with a remarkably strong flavour, and nasturtium berries, which are salted and cured and begin to taste like a piquant caper. Then there are the boxes of hardes, made with mullet, pickled Cape May and orange blossoms with the most amazing orange aroma. Eric pops inside to pick up some ingredients before rushing back to his station.
“So, what’s it like working with two head chefs?” I ask PJ. “People always ask that,” PJ says, slightly bewildered. “But Eric doesn’t have an ego; I don’t have an ego…” Having seen them together in the cold room, poking at produce, I can see how their excitement is shared.
Before service begins in earnest, Eric turns out a dish he’s been working on for everyone to taste. It’s a perfectly cooked piece of Cape gurnard with green asparagus, crispy mini onion rings and thyme stock with celery oil. The rest of the sous chefs materialise with forks, and Joakim arrives to work on wine pairings.
“It needs an older wine,” he says, “with less fruit so that it doesn’t overpower the asparagus.”
The guests are arriving. In the kitchen, there’s a sense of anticipation in the air. There’s a call for hands, and platters of aperatifs and piping hot olive bread begin to go out.
At this juncture, the maître d’ Jonathan arrives, with exciting news: a certain famous individual will be dining here tonight. After a slight frisson, the kitchen returns to normal.
“We treat everyone the same,” says Eric with a shrug. The team, it seems, works on the assumption that everyone in the dining room is a rockstar. It’s business as usual.
If you can’t handle the heat…
The first docket comes in, and the mood changes from one of anticipation to intense focus.
“Four minutes,” shouts Eric from the centre of the pass, where he’s plating food, and managing the traffic of ingredients coming in. “Oui” comes the chorus of response from the team.
Another staff member, Sherwin, manages the traffic of dishes going out, ensuring that the whole table’s meals are ready at the same time, and calling for hands when they are. If there’s ever a chance it’ll take more than ten minutes, Eric sends out a complimentary amuse-bouche – cauliflower puree with ox cheek served in a closed jar. A shot of smoke is blown into the jar before the lid is hurriedly closed, so that the smoke will rise out when guests open them.
“You said six minutes eight minutes ago!”
For a good hour and a half this pace is maintained. I keep my head down, scribbling notes furiously, and try not to get in anyone’s way.
By nine o’clock, the mood is winding down. Only Salomi in the pastry section is still busy, lifting steaming soufflés out of the oven. The other chefs return to a state of friendly banter, ribbing each other as they clean down their stations.
“You’ll have to come back tomorrow and see it from the other side,” says maître d’, Jonathan. Having tasted tidbits all night, there’s no way I’m turning down that offer. But right now, despite not having cooked a single thing, Chef Katharine is exhausted.
By Katharine Jacobs