Could you cut it?
If you can't stand the heat ... you know the rest. And until this moment, I've never even thought of putting it to the test. Food? Yes, I like it, especially when someone else is making it for me. Cooking? Can't say I'm fussed.
Well, that's not quite true, I do make my way to the kitchen now and then, but in a professional sense, kitchens are about as appealing to me as, well, blocked drains. And recent televisual fare hasn't added any incentive. Anneka Rice like a rabbit in the headlights with a floppy fillet of fish in her hand, Barry McGuigan looking like he'd rather go 12 rounds than whip up another barnaise and Jim Davidson, yes, well, the less said about that the better.
Flip the channel and things don't improve. The only person who's ever looked remotely comfortable in the kitchen with that shar-pei faced bruiser, Gordon Ramsay, is Janet Street-Porter. And that's mainly because she's got a vocabulary more choice than his.
Surely that's not what life in a real kitchen is like? The tears, the tantrums, the turning the air blue? That's all just for the cameras, I reckon. Still, there's only one way to find out.
It's a sunny Saturday evening and I'm off to work a shift at Duck's at Le March Noir in Edinburgh. A New Town stalwart, the restaurant's been serving a loyal band of customers for 20-odd years. But there's change afoot. There's a new head chef, Rob Mitchell, fresh from three years at London's acclaimed Glasshouse, and he's causing a bit of a stir. He's young, still only 29, although he's been cooking since he was 14. He's designed a new set price menu that's as ambitious as it is tricky to pronounce – ballontine, velout and remoulade anyone? And the word is, he's not just good with the French dictionary, he's just good.
As I arrive at 6pm, the blinds are pulled up, the door's propped open and the restaurant is a hive of activity. Carpets are being vacuumed, table cloths smoothed, and glasses polished. Each table has its trademark china duck perched neatly on it and the candles are ready to be lit.
In the kitchen, the radio is on and head chef Mitchell and his small team are doing their final prep for what will be a busy night. Mitchell looks even younger than he is. With a head of unkempt curly hair, thread-like bracelets around his wrist and his feet tucked into a pair of Birkenstocks, he looks like a surfer who's wandered into a kitchen to knock up something for the barbie. It's hard to imagine him striking fear into the hearts of his underlings, but then again, service hasn't started yet.
It's not the number of covers that's going to make it busy (there will be 34 diners eating tonight) but the fact that there are only two experienced chefs cooking – Mitchell and chef de partie, Stuart Palmer, 28, with another one working only his second shift on his trial run. He's looking nervous and it's making me feel better that there's someone almost as new as me. "With four trained chefs in here, it's perfect," says Mitchell. "But we'll be fine tonight." It's an hour until the first booking but already the kitchen's hot. "Just wait," says Mitchell with a grin.
As piles of garlic cloves are peeled and the ice buckets are filled, the avuncular owner Malcom Duck wanders around repeating his trademark word: "Winning." It's not a question, more a statement. Duck's spent long enough in an industry where restaurants fold like napkins to understand the power of positive thinking. As he flicks crumbs from a table his three front of house staff, Ewa Pajak, sommelier, and waitresses Wioleta Kretschmann and Charlotte Sommer, smile tolerantly.
The kitchen, tucked at the back of the restaurant, is Mitchell's domain. It's where the starters and mains are cooked. And where piles of dishes are washed. It's about the size of an average living room and given that there are two stoves each with eight fierce burners, two grills that are permanently on, two stainless steel prep benches, four sinks, a dishwasher and five members of staff at full strength – it's no wonder it's as hot as Hades.
Downstairs there's a second kitchen where the desserts are made; there's a well-stocked wine cellar, a walk-in fridge and various food-mixing contraptions. Right in the middle, there's a chunky butcher's block topped with four golden, freshly baked loaves. "They're mine," says Palmer beaming. "Two are rosemary and two are fennel. Want some?"
One of the few things I know about restaurant work is that you get well fed so I accept. Well, I wouldn't want to be rude.
As I munch, Kretschmann works her way through an enormous bundle of napkins, folding them into neat piles. "There won't be time later," she tells me.
Duck's has appeared in the Michelin Guide for longer than any other restaurant, and it's been awarded a Wine Spectator Award every year since 2004. But you're only as good as your last service and it's clear that Team Duck are out to impress.
So, I'm primed and ready, what can I do?
"We thought you could stand at the hatch to make sure that the plates are clean before they're taken through to customers," Mitchell says, deadpan. "You just dip one of these little napkins in the ramekin of vinegar water and then wipe around the plate, see," and he demonstrates.
Right, OK, I get it. I wasn't expecting to fillet fish, but plate wiping? I glance over towards the large sinks and Peter, the kitchen porter. It's obvious there isn't room for the both of us in dirty dish corner and for a moment I'm appalled that I actually want to argue my way into doing the dishes. I catch the eye of the new chef and for a moment I think I see that he might be thinking that washing dishes is a better option for him too. But Mitchell's the boss, so I dip my napkin and prepare to wipe.
7:15pm, the sun's still shining, the waitresses are poised like coiled springs. The first customers are in and seated and the wine's ordered. The orders arrive: two duck, two veal, two seabass and two lamb.
Palmer pulls out a huge white plate and starts to, what can only described as, construct the assiette of duck. Three slices of smoked duck breast are placed in the centre of the plate, the ballontine of foie gras is dipped in the pain d'epice (gingerbread crumbs to you and me) and then given a quick blast with a butane blowtorch before hazelnuts are scattered alongside a little bundle of salad leaves and the plate's finished off with two perfectly round blobs of balsamic vinegar and rhubarb pure. It looks as pretty as a picture and having tasted the duck earlier (I'm telling you, it'd be rude to refuse), it's delicious.
Meanwhile, Mitchell's started on the lamb and the veal and the temperature is rising. As the chefs work, they're bent down over the plates of food, balancing ingredients in vertiginous towers and checking from every angle that the plate is right. There's a concentration here – from absolutely everyone – that is really impressive. I feel a little contrite about the times that I've been underwhelmed by what I've ordered in a restaurant and ever so grateful that I'm not the one trying to pan fry gnocchi, liquidise soup and make spaghetti sit up neatly in a bowl.
The seabass is seared and pan fried before being placed on top of the steaming, freshly cooked pasta. It's then spirited to the customer by the waitress and the next orders are in. Two soups, two tuna, two veal, a hake and a lamb. Check on.
8:15pm, the kitchen's buzzing now. They don't move very far – it's not really big enough for that – but they move fast enough. Down to the fridge, up to the grill, a taste of the sauce, a sprinkle of herbs. Peter is a dishwashing wonder and the saying about having eyes in the back of your head was surely coined for chefs like Mitchell. At one point he's crisping up wild garlic, searing lamb, chargrilling three pieces of veal and he still catches that a soup order has been cooked on a burner instead of the flat plate so might be burned. He's not impressed, the new chef is really sweating and I'm wiping plates as though my life depended on it.
Far from the foul-mouthed antics of chefs on telly, there's very little noise in Mitchell's kitchen. I'm guessing that it's partly because it's just too hot to talk. Apart from the "beep" of the timer stuck to the wall beside him, the sploosh of the rinsing tap before dishes are stacked in the dishwasher and the thud of the fridge doors as ingredients are collected for each dish, there's no chat.
The concentration is palpable, the only smiles are when Duck sticks his head through the hatch to say, "Table 25 are delighted – the lamb's delicious." The only thing close to an outburst is when an order is sent to the wrong table. The new chef is struggling and Mitchell may not be shouting but it's clear that he's not happy. When he asks, "Are you ready?" the words are fired out with all the force of the butane blowtorch.
9pm, the one real job that I get – don't flatter me, I know wiping the edge of the plates with vinegar water is not a real job, although it is surprisingly stressful – is making doughnuts. I only get to do this because it happens downstairs beyond the watchful gaze of Mitchell. Have you any idea how tricky it is to get eight little bobbing bubbles of dough to brown evenly? Let me tell you, it's no easy feat. It's like douking for apples but with burning hot oil.
As I fouter about, the waitresses, who haven't stopped all night, rush past with bottles of wine and more fresh napkins and Palmer creates stunning desserts. There's pineapple with homemade frozen yoghurt and pretty little freshly baked madeleines and seemingly endless plates of cheese with quince, grapes, oatcakes and toast. I am starving.
The new chef walks in and since kitchens are orderly places – every dish, every frying pan and every member of staff has their place – it's clear that something's up. He's been sacked. He wasn't up to scratch and in the hard and fast world of kitchens, when you can't do your job, you can't stay. Suddenly, I feel a bit panicky about the doughnuts.
10:45pm, back upstairs the kitchen is still baking hot and Mitchell's starting to clean up. He's been in the restaurant since mid-morning but he's not looking remotely tired. Duck's still checking that everyone is winning, the last remaining customers have got that glow that comes from plenty of good food and wine and my taxi is waiting. Am I satisfied with my efforts? Well, the plates I wiped were clean and I didn't get sacked, unlike the unfortunate chef, so yes, I feel quite happy. Does Mitchell? "I'm glad they were happy out there," he says with a nod to the dining room as he pours himself a beer from one of the small jugs that have appeared to help fuel the clean-down, "but no, that's not the standard of food I want to produce".
So what's left to do? "I've got to sort out the staff buffet and then there's the ordering to do." What time will you get finished? "About 1am."
A nightmare? No, not at all, but I know what side of the hatch I want to be on. sm
n Duck's at Le March Noir, 14 Eyre Place, Edinburgh, EH3 5EP, tel: 0131-558 1608, www.ducks.co.uk
The restaurant is taking part in the Taste of Edinburgh, 29 May-1 June. Visit www.channel.com/taste for details.
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