By the summer of 2006, I had become increasingly concerned that I was not gaining enough experience in my craft. The year prior, I had travelled to France to spend a week in the kitchen of the Meurice in Paris. That stage would redefine what fine dining could be in my eyes; an impeccably clean, gigantic kitchen, staffed by a small army, serving at most 40 diners a service. There were 3 cooks working the amuse station alone! I had worked through the stations of my current kitchen, NoMI, and I longed for both a more challenging culinary experience as well as a life adventure. Speaking no French at the time, and having had a tough time trying to find my way around attaining a visa in France (France's unemployment was around 10% at this time), I set my sights on England as what promised the most potential for learning abroad.
I decided to stage at two restaurants over the course of two months in England. Through a visiting chef at NoMI (and since he has become a good friend), Mark Hellyar, I was able to attain a stage at The Fat Duck in Bray. And through my former chef at the Four Seasons Chicago, Robert Sulatycky ( a mentor who was very influential in my development), I secured a month stage at Le Gavroche in London. By design, I picked two very different restaurants. One, representing the contemporary cooking world's most modern; the other, a revered bastion of the old guard. I signed up for a 0% interest credit card (they were easy to come by then) to finance the trip, threw my stuff into a storage space, had a teary goodbye with my girlfriend, and got on a plane.
While I learned a lot of cooking specifics at Le Gavroche, it was the kitchen's day to day determination and drive that proved to be the best lesson learned. Life was not easy in the kitchen of Le Gavroche. Work began at 8am with a bang, as the cooks hit 5th gear right out of the gate to set up for lunch service beginning at noon. The kitchen is not air conditioned, and being located in a basement of an old brick townhouse, it got hot. I distinctly remember sweat pouring down my forehead as I double shucked peas at 9am for lunch. Following an aggressive lunch service, the kitchen was fully scrubbed top to bottom, and the cooks would go out for their afternoon break for about an hour before returning to prep for the dinner service. After another tough and intense service for dinner, the kitchen would be broken down again before the cooks left for the evening, at about midnight. I'd rush home on the tube back to Southwark, take a shower, and try to get 5 hours of sleep before doing it all over again. I quickly gained a serious respect for the cooks that had been doing this routine for years.
Chef Michel Roux Jr himself made a lasting impression on me as well. Many mornings I would walk bleary eyed into the kitchen at 8am to find Chef Michel at the butcher's block, already halfway through several racks of lamb. He's a chef's chef: a super focused, hard hitting, take no prisoners cook. He has these big blue eyes that seemed to penetrate to your very soul when he glared at you. He would butcher fish, cook tarts in the pastry kitchen, run the pass, kick you off the line and work your station if you were falling behind. He loved cooking, not being in an office. That has stayed with me ever since. While he could be an intimidating presence, he is a well spoken, intelligent man with a knack for penetrating insight and care for his cooks. It is a personality trait that I try to emulate.
My time at Le Gavroche would also further ingrain in me a love for the classics. I felt, if only for a brief moment, a part of something grand; to stand at the same stove as the many progeny that Le Gavroche has produced over the years: Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, and Marcus Wareing to name a few. On a day off, I stumbled upon a copy of Michel Roux Sr.'s autobiography Life is A Menu in a used bookstore for 4pound. And a signed copy too. The book became a companion on my train rides to and from work, a sort of appendium to my daily experience at Le Gavroche. If I was unsure before I went to England about what direction I wanted to take in regard to my cooking, I was no longer so when I returned. Between modern and classic, I would choose classic. This would inform me on my next move, to Las Vegas and to Robuchon.