What really goes on in a world-class inner-city restaurant kitchen? The Adelaide* Magazine threw Katie Spain in at the Waymouth Street deep end to find out.
Photos by Sven Kovac
I have a confession to make. I’m not exactly an A+ in the domestic goddess department. I’m more of a D- (and that’s being generous). It’s not like I come from a family that’s devoid of culinary skills: Nana baked, my grandma worked in hospitality and my mum is a whiz with a whiz.
I’m not averse to mess either. After growing up on a dairy farm I’ve been covered in more milk and gunk than your average newborn. One of my first city jobs was packaging alfalfa sprouts in a Ridleyton warehouse, so I’m not afraid of hair nets or stray legumes – I simply prefer to eat out than in.
So, when I was asked to work a busy shift at popular local restaurant Press* Food & Wine, I quivered in my high heels. Everyone knows all chefs are screaming, knife-wielding psychopaths like Gordon Ramsay – right?
Luckily I’ve eaten at Press* regularly enough to know the menu (and cellar) inside out.
“Sure,” I said. “Piece of cake” – secretly hoping I’d get some.
But everyone who knows me baulked when they heard the news.
“What? You!? In a professional kitchen? You’ll have to wear flat shoes! How will you reach the oven knobs? You’ll probably have to wear a hair net. I bet they make you chop onions…”
Head chef Andrew Davies, however, didn’t think twice about laying this inquisitive lamb out for the slaughter. “Send her in on Friday – we’re busiest then.”
Busy is an understatement. From the moment Press* Food & Wine opened its heavy black doors two years ago, they have been swinging off their hinges.
The hungry masses flock and scoff (Last Supper style). Over 140 diners sit in the upstairs loft-style space and walk-in eatery below. Press* won Popular Choice and Best New Restaurant in the 2012 Advertiser Food Awards and was crowned Australia’s Hottest Value Restaurant and top SA restaurant in the Hot 50 Restaurant Awards run by The Weekend Australian Magazine.
The restaurant attracts an eclectic blend of media moguls, models, actors and politicians mixed with everyday folk (like me) with a taste for provenance on a plate.
”Maybe I’ll plate up for royalty,” I mused the night before, still taking it too lightly.
Then my shift happened.
Friday morning, 8am, and the restaurant’s kitchen is a hive of activity. It’s strange to be in such a well-trodden public space before it officially opens.
“You ready?” says Andrew, a glint in his eye.
“Er… yes…” I reply.
An apron is flung my way as I enter the kitchen; a long, narrow affair at the rear of the building fitting up to 10 staff (and a journo) at a squeeze.
I meet the team.
There’s Ben Fenwick, a chef from New York with a deft hand for desserts, kitchen manager for the day Mimi Rivers, masters of meat Matt Britten-Jones and Max O’Callaghan, who man the grills, apprentice Samantha Moore and 20-year-old Will Doak, who takes me under his very long wing.
First stop: the larder section where my task is, you guessed it, chopping onions. “Have you handled knives much before?” he asks. “No,” I reply warily.
For the record, chopping onions (well) is difficult. While the troops around me work their way through the kitchen with the finesse of a group of synchronised swimmers I swap the knife for a mandoline and work at the pace of a snail, petrified of losing a finger.
It’s difficult to avoid distraction. There’s so much going on. Sheets of pasta hang like curtains above a steel workbench in the centre of the kitchen. Beside me, Ben seals the surface of a chocolate tart with a miniature blowtorch.
Mimi breaks my sweet bemusement to inform me that the mandolin is one of the most dangerous implements in the kitchen. I reduce the snail pace a notch.
“How about we get you started on some broad beans?” Will suggests diplomatically.
As I peel the slippery little suckers one by one, my new pal talks me through kitchen etiquette. Benches must always be kept clean and organisation is key. We’re prepping components for the salads that will be concocted later tonight. It’s all about logic and accurate measurements for ease of preparation during the hectic service period to come.
Ingredients are placed in sealed plastic containers, labelled with the date and stored away in the cooling room like a tower of Tetris blocks. “Wow… I thought you chopped ingredients as you need them.”
A room full of chefs look at me in amusement – ”She’ll find out soon enough” written all over their faces.
And I do. Hours flash by as we chop, peel and stir in a race against time. I apply butter and sugar to soufflé dishes, carefully prepare meringue mixture for raspberry bombe Alaska with pineapple and vanilla anglaise and cut frisbees of butter to be perched on organic charolais scotch fillets.
All the while Andrew keeps a watchful eye over proceedings. “Watch those banderilla – you don’t want people speared in the mouth”. I blush. It turns out my skill at skewering olive, agiña pickled pepper and anchovy together leaves a lot to be desired.
With each tick of the clock, service draws near. Tick, tock, tick, tock.
“ORDER IN… quinoa and lentil salad!”
And so it begins.
It doesn’t take long before I’m out of my depth. Tasked with separating sticky beef short ribs I watch the show unfold, awestruck as I work elbow deep in marinade.
“Behind!” “Sharp!” “Hot!” Everyday words take on serious meanings.
“When someone yells ‘behind’ get out of their way – fast,” Aaron Reid says.
Tasting menu orders roll in… Press* burgers appear on the raised bench in front of me – fried chicken, grilled octopus, lemon wedges. Unlike the order in the kitchen, diners take a scattergun approach to the menu – it’s madness.
Entrees, mains and desserts take shape. Kitchen banter stops. The well-oiled machine is in full swing. Orders fly, grills spit and time stands still.
To tell you I made it through the culinary marathon and completed dinner service would be a lie. After chopping mountains of parsley and plating up scallop and avocado with miso dressing (a proud moment), I untied my apron at 8.45pm and retreated, exhausted, into the night. It turns out I can’t handle the heat – but I’m not bad in the salad department.
From now on, dining will never be the same. Behind every dish there is a face, a story, a producer and an inspiring leader like Mr Davies. I salute you all.