|A world-class pastelero|
|For several months during 2009, I was privileged to be employed as the pastry chef at Restaurante Ferrero, responsible for the postres (desserts) section. Based a mere 42km away in the town of Monòver in Alicante is a man who many chefs and gastronomes assert to be the world's leading pastry chef - Paco Torreblanca. So although it wasn't a surprise when he stopped in for a meal one day, it was certainly a massive honour for me to cook for this giant of the profession. He shook my hand and told me that if I decided to make pastry my career path, I should come and train with his team one day.|
The grandson of bakers and pâtissiers, Paco started work in a bakery at the age of 13. A year later his father sent him to Paris to apprentice with Jean Millet, a friend from the Spanish Civil War who had become one of France's greatest pâtissiers. After Franco's death, Torreblanca returned to Alicante, married Chelo Coloma and moved to Elda. In 1978 they opened Totel and a decade later, Paco was named Best Master Pastry Chef of Spain and was awarded the European title in 1990. International recognition came with elaborate sugar sculptures made in tribute to Pablo Picasso - causing him to be called "The Picasso of Pastry". Paco has won numerous prizes for his confectionery creations - including a 7ft masterpiece combining olive and pumpkin seed oil, dark Tanzanian chocolate, hazelnut mousse and Marcona almonds for the wedding of Felipe de Borbón y Grecia, heir to the Spanish throne.
|A very special place|
|For Muslims, it's Mecca. For Buddhists it's Kapilavastu. For those with incurable ailments, it's Lourdes, for Jews the Wailing Wall, for Orthodox Christians the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for Catholics the Portuguese village of Fátima. Many people across the planet of different ethnic groups, faiths and communities have somewhere special in their lives - somewhere they seek to visit one day on a pilgrimage.|
For chefs and foodies, its the tiny hamlet of Cala Montjoi, over the mountain from the town of Roses and down towards the sea. There you find a restaurant that isn't even open for half of the year. But when it is open, it's our Mecca, Lourdes, Bethlehem and Fátima all rolled into one. I've not managed to eat there yet, but when I found myself with a few days to take a holiday on the Costa Brava recently, I wasn't going to miss out on the photo opportunity. This is me with my friend and fellow chef Michael, at the global epicentre of contemporary cooking, El Bulli.
A very special customer
I'd just taken a two-week break in London, the first paid holiday of my professional career as a chef. It was Tuesday lunch - my very first working shift back at Comerç 24 - when this man walked into the restaurant and sat down to eat. Service was in full swing, the kitchen was busy and I didn't notice this particular customer at first. The order was called and I sent a tartare à la carte to the pass. The tartare wasn't special - it was prepared with the same passion for food and attention to detail that we apply to every dish. But the customer was very special. If you don't know who he is, let me tell you something about him.
Born in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat in 1969, he dropped out of school as a 15-year-old to join his elder brother in the kitchens of a restaurant in a village near Girona. He rapidly developed an interest in pastry-making and after a decade of training and practice became a great pastry chef. So much so that his first writings on the subject were honoured at the Périgueux 1998 World Cookbook Awards - alongside such celebrated culinary best-sellers as Teresa Barrenechea's The Basque Table, Wayne Gisslen's Professional Cooking and L'Atelier of Alain Ducasse.
He now owns and manages the small tapas bar Inopia on Tamarit in the Sant Antoni barrio here in Barcelona. Modelled on the original L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, it's an understated and friendly tapas establishment serving top-class produce beautifully prepared in classical Catalan fashion. And it has earnt some great reviews, which is not particularly easy when your family name and reputation precede you and set expectations of a far more experimental and exclusive fare.
If you still don't know who my lunch visitor was, he and his older brother Ferran own El Bulli, this week nominated world #1 for the third year in a row by San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants. The culinary revolution that began there two decades ago is the reason I'm in Barcelona today.
The Fat Man cometh
It makes no difference whether your whole professional life is geared towards winning one, or you think they are just a membership ticket to an exclusive club that you have absolutely no desire to join. Whatever you think about winning a Michelin star before it happens, you feel completely different when it happens. If that sounds pretentious, then I apologise. But some chefs strive their whole lives without recognition or reward, whereas I'm fortunate in having been just 20 years old when the restaurant in which I was working was awarded its first star. I can't claim to have been any part of the award, of course, as I'd only been employed there for a few weeks. But I'm incredibly proud of myself for having selected Comerç 24 as my first post-college training ground from 1,100 miles away. I put a lot of effort into studying the gastronomic scene in Barcelona and my researches came up with this place as somewhere likely to succeed. So here we are on Tuesday 20th November 2007, celebrating our Michelin star with some very fine Catalan cava. In the photo: Tony, Ian, Marc, Oli, me, Carles Abellan, Julie, David, Michael, Nadia, Cynthia, Jordi, Marta, Arnau, Antonio, Jordi and Danny.
Nuno Mendes @ Bacchus
People often remark that they have spent years searching far and wide for things that they eventually discover on their own doorstep. No, I haven't fallen in love with the girl next door. But, on the eve of my departure to Spain to live and work in Barcelona, I discovered an exceptionally good chef practising his culinary arts within walking distance of my home, at Bacchus in Hoxton. It was a real pleasure walking home after eating his food.
Nuno trained with Ferran Adrià at El Bulli and specialises in ultra-slow sous-vide cooking using a Gastrovac machine. His dishes, while not always perfect, take gastronomy in Britain to a level rarely if ever seen outside of The Fat Duck. Nuno balances pure competing flavours and textures with an delicate hand, producing just the sort of dish that I want to serve one day in my own restaurant. And more importantly, he does it with the same philosophy that I've already decided is fundamental to my own approach to food, evolving each dish continuously. Nuno Mendes knows how to reproduce classical music on the plate, but essentially he is a jazz musician always seeking to extemporise and develop his work.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees. Writer and broadcaster Tom Dyckhoff reported: "Absolutely, without a doubt, the worst meal of my entire life. Yep, lovely staff, nice looking place, but inept combinations of flavours, ineptly cooked, vastly expensive. Like El Bulli done by Rodney Trotter." Oh well, a critic aptly named I suppose.
Peter Gordon @ The Providores & Tapa Room
When you first start training to become a professional chef you have no idea where it will take you.
Will you will eventually become Head Chef in a large hotel, or will you raise the funding and open a small bistro of your own? Perhaps you'll become a patissier? Or maybe you will travel the world as private chef to someone rich and famous. My early years of training were a slow process of trying to figure out what turned me on in the world of food and what didn't.
By June 2006, after experiencing work at The Landmark and Gabrielle's, I felt that I was ready to look for a new work experience. With the aid of the Michelin Guide to Great Britain & Ireland and many hours of research on the internet, Dad and I drew up a list of over 150 British restaurants and we researched the chefs and menus of each of them.
For me, one chef stood out from all the rest. He was far from the most decorated in the profession - listed in the Michelin Guide but as yet unstarred. But the moment I discovered his website I knew I'd found exactly what I'd been searching for.
Writing to Peter Gordon to ask if I could come and work with his team at The Providores & Tapa Room, I said: "I found [your menu] was very different to that of most of the menus I came across; all of the dishes seemed extremely original, creative and adventurous, using diverse and interesting combinations of ingredients and techniques."
A couple of weeks later I was delighted to receive a response inviting me to spend some time working at the Marylebone restaurant... and the rest is history. I had a fantastic time working at Providores and the things I learnt in that brief period of time I'm still applying constantly in my cooking today. Two weeks after my first visit to that small restaurant kitchen my future path was set - I was utterly inspired by the prospect of drawing on the best of the planet's diverse cuisines to create new and adventurous eating experiences to help bring people across the world closer together. I had become a would-be fusion chef!
In a world when so many top chefs are caught up in the system and find themselves pressured into copying each other's dishes, Peter Gordon has dared to remain himself. He is a man with a global philosophy and the honesty and integrity to put it into practice. I feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to work alongside Peter and I look forward to repeating the experience one day.
The BBC Festive Good Food Show & The Restaurant Show
One of the exciting aspects of studying at Westminster Kingsway College is the field trips that the college organises for its students. Each year WestKing participates in a number of hospitality shows in the UK, including The Good Food Show and The Restaurant Show.
Students from the college run catering facilities at these and other shows and often participate (with great success) in culinary competitions. And we get to perform the mis en place for celebrity chefs who give public demonstrations at the shows.
This often means that we are up on stage in front of a public audience - a great introduction to working in with the media later in life!
In December 2005 I took part in The BBC Festive Good Food Show in Earls Court, London, in support of celebrity chefs including Gordon Ramsay, Raymond Blanc and Jean-Christophe Novelli, in the IKEA Christmas Kitchen.
This Master Chef turned up to give a demonstration and found himself without a suitably sharp chef's knife, so I lent him my Wüsthof. A few minutes later, this happened. Ouch! I do hope he was fully insured.
In September 2005 I attended The Restaurant Show at London's Olympia. In this photo wine connoisseur Oz Clarke and I both look a bit worse for wear, but you can be assured that the wine tasting was purely for professional reasons and I did spit it out after tasting, of course. Well, most of it at least!
Someone else who I admire a great deal and was privileged to meet at The Restaurant Show was Giorgio Locatelli. I've met him twice now and he always finds time to say hello and give encouragement to young chefs like me.
One of my Christmas presents the other year was Giorgio's beautiful book "Made In Italy" - the story of his upbringing, tales of food sourcing and cooking recipes from Giorgio's home country. Reading this book and looking at the superb photographs with which this book is jam-packed just makes you want to cook and to eat!
Two men who helped me get started
I owe a great deal to these two men.
Professor Cyrus Todiwala MBE (left), who lives near my family home in Hackney, gave me my first experience of a top-class professional kitchen. During the summer holidays 2005, Cyrus was kind enough to allow me to gain work experience in his Michelin Bib Gourmand listed Café Spice Namasté in Aldgate, learning alongside his excellent Head Chef Babar Salim. It was through Cyrus that I had my first media exposure.
Jafoor "Ali" Ahmed (right) owns the excellent Bengali restaurant "Joy" in Broadway Market. In Spring 2005 Ali gave me my first ever real work experience in his kitchens. It built my confidence to write to other chefs and broaden my experience... and I've never looked back since!
Last but not least
And last, but not least... I love Portugal and its food.
Find out how I came to love Portugal and speak Portuguese and read a few thoughts of mine about the food of northern Portugal.