Lessons from the kitchen…..
A couple of weeks ago I spent a day in the kitchen at the Petersham Nurseries just outside Richmond on the banks of the Thames.
This was a Mothers’ Day gift from my three children who know I love cooking and – more importantly – eating.
They also know that this restaurant is right at the top of my list. I have eaten in many parts of the world from Hutongs in Beijing to five-star Michelin restaurants in Europe and street stalls in Jakarta. The one collateral benefit of being a foreign correspondent is access to some pretty good grub. Yet, the Petersham Nurseries stands alone in its unique style, setting and food.
So when the day came, I was naturally quite nervous. I am a good, family cook with a few key basic skills under my belt but it doesn’t go much further than that. I can knock up Shepherd’s Pie, Fisherman’s pie and I can do a fairly respectable risotto but that is as far as it goes.
The Petersham Nurseries, founded by Sky Gyngell (a genius chef) more than ten years ago and now run by an excellent team of people, is a completely charming environment with a focus on sustainable ingredients cooked and delivered in a way that feeds your eyes as well as your mouth without being full of pretention. It is exactly the kind of food I wanted to cook but needed as bit of momentum to get going.
The kitchen at Petersham Nurseries is small, charming but confined. The restaurant – for the uninitiated – is positioned at one end of a real gardener’s nursery which specialises in wonderful plants and vintage accessories.
It was originally started when the owners Gael and Francesco Boglione asked Skye Gyngell to set up shop. She started just under sixteen years ago with two gas rings and a great deal of commitment. I suspect unrelenting determination runs through her veins. Her father Bruce was a ground-breaking producer in the UK whose impact on Breakfast TV was legendary. Since then the kitchen has been led by a number of talented chefs. Damian Clisby previously at Hix and the Cotswold House Hotel is there now.
What I learnt in the kitchen helped me enormously. I have repeated their potato salad no less than four times in the fortnight since spending my day in a professional kitchen but I also learned some transferrable lessons for my own professional life. This seemed unlikely as I started to prepare scallops at 8.30am but it is nevertheless true.
Throughout the morning I could see a clear picture emerge of how each dish was being assembled. Each member of the team had a designated area and knew their tasks for the morning. They were calm, focused and (critically) safe.
As a journalist I have spent a large part of my career in 24-hour news. I have an overwhelming temptation to fly by the seat of my pants as a matter of course. This has very little value in a kitchen where organization and preparation are crucial.
The line-caught scallops I cleaned, prepared, de-gritted and set aside started emerging just after midday as a beautiful starter (I passed the baton to someone else when it came to the difficult stuff). The (now famous in my family) potato salad which started as a bowl of slightly unappealing pink firs – once sliced covered in crème fraiche, mustard seed dressing and spring onions – looked delicious and sat alongside roast chicken and watercress really well.
The purple artichokes – which in the morning looking like they might be at home in an HG Wells novel – gradually took shape and became a first course which I later wolfed down as part of the deal.
So I learned some new dishes. I was given some brilliant instruction in knife skills which means I may no longer risk taking my finger tips off at frequent intervals and I will never look upon preparing a scallop in the same light as performing open heart surgery again.
The life lessons were as follows….
• I learned the undisputed value of moment by moment organization. Never work in a mess no matter how small.
• Working with the best components handled with simplicity is the best way to succeed….at almost anything
• Approach a big task a bit at a time to reduce pressure….in other words 70 covers seems like a lot when you are up to your elbows in crème fraiche but little by little the end game becomes easier to see, resolve and enjoy.
So I would advise anyone who wants a great experience – with the possibility of learning a number of underlying lessons – to book a day in a kitchen.
An army may march on its stomach but a good kitchen is run like a military unit and that can teach us all something about leadership, focus and achievement.