Le Manoir

A few weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to work in the kitchen at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. Arriving on Monday morning it was with excited trepidation that I sat in the lounge, waiting to start my work experience, in the exact same spot where my Auntie Nets and I had previously eaten canapés a year before. I needn’t have worried, the whole team were friendly, welcoming and keen for me to get stuck in. In a nutshell this is what I learnt and took away from the experience:

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  • How young a lot of the chefs were:  With the exception of the more senior chefs and those working in the pastry kitchen, a lot of the chefs had come straight out of college or from their first kitchen. This at first surprised me however hiring younger chefs is logical. They are more malleable having not yet picked up potentially bad habits, have a willingness to learn and above all have the stamina required for such an intense job.
  • How male dominated the kitchen was: This was not entirely surprising and I was glad to see that there were women working full time however the ratio was 8:1. By contrast, 6/7 work experience, who were there when I visited, were women. This could be interpreted negatively, that women, like myself, want the experience but not the lifestyle that comes with it. Yet I don’t believe that it is the hours or the workload that is a turn off – in fact two of the women I met were nurses working at Le Manoir in their spare time! At present, the professional kitchen seems to be a largely a testosterone dominated environment owing perhaps to the historical trajectory and physicality of the job. Times are changing however, a lot more women are working in kitchens, especially in London, and I am confident that in the future a more even balance will be found.
  • How clean the kitchen was: I have without doubt never worked in such a beautifully clean kitchen. Everyday at 6pm everyone stops what they are doing to have a complete clean down. This is absolutely brilliant, it makes you more efficient and creates self pride that translates into the food. Also, not to sound like a total nerd, but I was amazed at the clever drainage system, which meant that the floor could be completely cleaned within minutes, using a bucket of water and a brush.
  • The amazing discipline held by all the kitchen staff: One of the reasons I wanted to have experience at  Michelin star level is because of the discipline it instils. The accuracy needed to ensure complete consistency, that if something is not perfect it is remade and you start again. Whether it was weighing out 11g canapés or probing the temperature of every animal protein that went up on the pass or making sure that every utensil was spotlessly cleaned. On a personal level, as a creative chef who has previously adopted a more relaxed approach, this was extremely beneficial and something I will take with me on other jobs.12547289_1555226714799276_99277568_n
  • Lack of creative opportunity: Discipline and the need for absolute consistency comes at a creative price. Whilst there is the occasional chance for the commis chefs to pitch an idea that may land on the menu, this is not done on a regular basis. With so many elements to each dish and in a kitchen as large, there is little opportunity for creative freedom. Instead it is a largely production process mentality, focusing on preparing and creating each individual element for each dish to an exactingly prescribed formula.
  • The importance of seasonality: This is something I already champion in all my cooking and was another largely motivating factor for going to Le Manoir. It was a privilege to be able to work with such incredible ingredients. By cooking seasonal produce, you reap both the taste benefits and are able to charge a premium for ingredients that are at their most affordable.12599095_1511729022463626_1780803353_n
  • Maximising your time: This lot have it down to a tee, be it using a mandolin to slice veg for a puree so that it cooks quicker, using vacuum pack bags to save storage and ensure freshness, thinly slicing an onion against the grain so that it breaks down quicker or scaling out your ingredients for the bread the day before. With everything made fresh everyday- time efficiency is key.12502007_970631676344937_927770780_n
  • Building layers of flavour: The key to the success of a lot of the dishes both sweet and savoury is that they take 1 or 2 principal ingredients and then build layers of flavour by using said ingredients in different ways. By playing with texture, the flavour profile is intensified on the palette, leaving you feeling as if you have never tasted a real mushroom (for example) before.
  • The buzz of service: I have always known that I work best under pressure, be it leaving an essay to the last couple of days at uni or recipe testing a feature in an entire day. Back in Sheffield, working the Sunday breakfast service was as exhilarating as it was exhausting but it was only at Le Manoir plating the meat mains for 72 covers that I truly understood the ‘service buzz’. Like the endorphins you get after a run, you can see why it is addictive.12627971_1518342721803555_288935854_n
  • All consuming: Once I had been working at Le Manoir for a few days and was used to the routine and knew my way around the kitchen, I felt as if I had always been there. I went to bed thinking “what section would I be on?” “What would I be preparing the next day…?” The environment, the hours and the camaraderie make it an all consuming experience, one in which there is very little time for anything else. For me this was personified by the rural location of Le Manoir.
  • Exercise: There is no doubt about it, working in a kitchen that also doubles as a hotel, serves 80 covers in the dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner plus extra private events- keeps you fit. More than keeps you fit- it burns an insane amount of calories. I have never met so many slim chefs.
  • No swearing/shouting policy: This is good. Really good, although once or twice, I did have to watch my own mouth to keep myself out of trouble! It means, in theory at least, that if someone has a problem they have to communicate what is wrong through a polite and professional manner.
  • Staff treatment: Le Manoir is now implementing the 12 hour work day, something that is very commendable, yet which is hard for some of the chefs to get their heads around having been used to working 16 plus hours. Once a year each member of staff is treated to the full ‘guest experience’ meaning that they come to Le Manoir, eat a meal in the restaurant and get to spend a night in one of the rooms. This is a fantastic way of recognising the hard work given by all members of staff.
  • Environmental sustainability: The fact that Le Manoir grows everything it can in its own gardens is incredible – the micro herbs were freshly picked from the garden each day.  Furthermore food waste is composted meaning that it goes back into the soil creating a complete eco cycle. That being said, the perfection required at this level of dining, which dictates the size of a broccoli floret and a perfectly cut fondant, for example, is not for me. The experience made me realise that my cooking will always be rustic, because it is driven by a need to use every part of a ingredient, regardless of its aesthetics.
  • The chefs: I want to say the biggest thank you to everyone who works in the kitchen. I cannot express how amazingly lovely they are. A special mention to Michael, Andy, Ben, Matt and Glen for never failing to put a smile on my face.