David Wilkinson - 15 Jun 2016

It shouldn’t happen to a chef

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Catering for me is bit like watching one of those massive passenger aircrafts taking off. Hundreds of tonnes of people, metal, luggage and fuel taking to the air being held up by nothing more than air pressure, something you can’t even see. Everything about it says that it should work but you have to grudgingly accept that it just does.

Likewise everything about catering says that disaster is waiting around every corner but 99% of the time all the parts that are moving in different directions suddenly come together at the crucial moment and the day is saved. So what do I mean by moving parts?

Well everything is so liquid and hard to predict. You may find that the food you have ordered has suddenly become unavailable or undeliverable for any number of reasons. There may be floods in Spain where your fruit and veg is coming from, an outbreak of foot and mouth in South America or there’s suddenly an issue with a Scottish salmon farm. The M25 may be closed because of an accident, your drivers van has broken down or French Air Traffic Control has gone on strike again. Although to be fair you can predict the air strikes as it seems they happen every bank holiday.

Then of course there are people, and as soon as they get involved you have trouble! It might be that one of your chefs is sick or running late, you may have been given the wrong menu or numbers from the catering coordinators, or your delivery has for some reason been left at a hotel on the other side of London! Most mistakes, however, are just innocent misunderstandings. A typical example of this would be last week when I ordered 150 chicken pies for staff but instead received 150 chicken thighs.

Not very dramatic, I’d have to agree, but sometimes a small mistake can end up causing havoc. Many moons ago in my Savoy days we had prepared a small lunch of smoked salmon, fillet of beef and a dessert I can’t remember for 13 people. Imagine our surprise when the banqueting head waiter came to collect his starter for 130 rather than 13. What fun we had cleaning and carving smoked salmon for 117 people in about 5 minutes! I still can’t believe that the butcher could produce 117 6oz fillet steaks at the drop of a hat either. Someone needed to check his ordering.

More recently here at One Great George Street my South African chef was telling the French head waiter that he had made that famous Scottish smoked haddock soup, Cullen Skink. In a genuine case of lost in translation the said soup appeared on the menu as Scottish Skunk; we didn’t sell any. On another occasion I had a trainee chef from Columbia working here who was asked to label and put away a container of poached quail eggs. We later found them in the fridge curiously labelled “Squirrel Eggs”.

Over the last 30 years there have been countless such incidents that I remember with fondness and even the worst ones I have learned to laugh about. I have promised myself that one day I shall write a book an include them all.

There is one incident however that still makes my blood run cold. A series of unusual circumstances led to a driver making a poor call on a Saturday morning and a couple’s wedding breakfast nearly didn’t happen.

It must be 10 years ago now that this fiasco took place and it all started with a call from my butcher in Coventry. We had pre-ordered 200 rumps of lamb for delivery on the Friday before the wedding on the Saturday as I like to work at least a day ahead to make sure I’ve got everything in place.

As I said the butchery called on the Thursday to say that they were having trouble completing our order for the Friday so could they deliver it on the Saturday morning. As you can imagine this didn’t sit easily with me but they had never let me down before and they promised to get it here early, so I agreed.

I arrived at work on the Saturday morning about 11am and found my Sous Chef in a bit of a state.

“Chef, the lambs not here yet” she said and I felt my heart sink. Being late on a Saturday morning all the office staff at the butcher had gone home and I was beginning to fear the worst. Eventually I managed to get through to my Rep who was in Waitrose shopping with his wife.

To his great credit he dropped everything and shot back to the factory where he of course found our lamb. As it turned out the driver had seen our boxes of lamb labelled up “deliver to One Great George street” but thought “they don’t have deliveries on a Saturday” so took it upon himself to leave it behind.

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So it’s now 12.30pm, my lamb is in Coventry, I’m in Westminster, the wedding breakfast is at 3pm and just to add some spice into the mix it’s Trooping the Colour and the roads in central London are all closed.

To this day I don’t know how we did it. My Rep chucked the lamb in a mini cab and he flew down the motorway to London. The nearest he could get to us was Victoria so I had three chefs running with boxes of lamb through the crowds of tourists back to George Street like a demented Basil Fawlty’s tribute act.

We got it here, threw it in the oven and pretty much served it straight away, bang on time.
I remember receiving a lovely letter from the happy couple complimenting us on a wonderful meal, especially the quality of the lamb.

There is a God.

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