Friday 1 August 2014

Club des Chef des Chefs

I love a conspiracy theory. I particularly like the idea that there is a global cabal of shadowy figures who control governments and the financial system, be it the Illuminati, the New World Order or the Freemasons. And I absolutely love the fact that there are people who genuinely seem to believe that stuff. Those people are either incurably optimistic or have never worked with committees, or tried to organise an office Christmas lunch. Human beings en masse are slow-moving, impossible to coordinate and totally indiscreet.

On the other hand, last week I attended an event which I think gives validity to the conspiracy theories. The global cabal? They are chefs. Le Club des Chef des Chefs, in fact. Think about it: what better way to control the world than by feeding the heads of state a delicious supper before you implement your evil plans to exert control over them? *insert evil laugh here*.

So, every year the personal chefs to the world's heads of state get together in a different country and further their nefarious schemes by learning stuff about each others' cuisines and food traditions, and work with some local apprentices.

The event I was invited to attend was a cooking demonstration, described as an "inspiration morning" for some of the apprentices at Brigade. Being of faintly cynical bent, I wasn't actually expecting to find myself inspired, but I found the whole experience genuinely moving and inspirational. You see, Brigade is run as a social enterprise, working with people who have experienced homelessness to find employment in catering and the restaurant industry. They work with the Beyond Food Foundation to provide apprenticeships and work placements, leading to recognised professional qualifications. Fantastic organisation (they are a registered charity, so if you follow that link, you can see more about what they do and possibly throw them a small donation); some of the alums came along to the demo and are now rising through the ranks at well-respected restaurants.
I just really liked Brigade's light fittings. The outside is plain black
Three of the chefs demonstrated dishes. Mark Flanagan, chef to the Queen, made Arbroath smokie croquettes. Cristeta Comerford, chef to the President of the United States made ham and biscuits. Hilton Little, chef to the President of the South African Republic made bobotie. It's worth saying again - the Queen's personal chef showed a bunch of kids how to make croquettes.

Because this demonstration really was all about the apprentices. All the other chefs were watching (and occasionally being led away by various journalists for interviews), but there was no sense that the chefs were showboating for their peers or particularly conscious of the massed cameras.
Mark Flanagan with captivated apprentices (photo by Matthew Dickens from One Edition)
Mark emphasised the importance of basics and detail. As he made the panade for the croquettes he stressed that the apprentices will probably be making roux every day of their working lives. When he stripped the fish from the bones he reminded them to use their fingers to ensure that no bones sneak in - I'd imagine that particularly since President Bush vomited on the Prime Minister of Japan these chefs must all have nightmares about food-related international incidents.
(photo by Matthew Dickens from One Edition)
Cristeta chose ham and biscuits to represent links between the US and UK - the Smithfield ham was from an area of Virginia close to where the first permanent British colony was established, while the marionberries she used for the accompanying marmalade are a blackberry cultivar from the Pacific Northwest. She talked to the apprentices about good practice in cooking - always cleaning up after yourself, learning to trust your senses and your instincts rather than relying on kitchen gadgets. She was also wearing a stunning ring which definitely caught the imagination of one of the apprentices.
Dammit - you can definitely see the difference between my pic and the professional ones!
I found the reaction to Hilton's bobotie quite funny. As he was describing it, you could see mental images forming around the room - curried minced beef with apricot jam and chutney, topped with raisins and custard? What the heck? I totally understood why one of the apprentices asked what time of day you would serve this dish. I have had bobotie before and not been particularly impressed by it, but this version was very aromatic and absolutely delicious. I snaffled a copy of the recipe, so I will have a crack at it soon.

After the demo I had a bit of a chat to Hilton's fiance, who said how much the chefs all love this annual event and the chance to pass on their experience and commitment to food to a new generation. I think that's so lovely. There is something so impressive about a group of people at the top of their profession giving their time to help develop the talents and inspire the passion of a group who are just starting out. The apprentice system at its best is a brilliant thing, which I think is being lost in some trades. I appreciated my time at university but I am not 100% convinced that every vocation needs an academic approach. Or that having a degree makes you better at your job. The mentoring aspect I think is particularly valuable, and I would imagine that for the Brigade apprentices, having experienced barriers to education and employment, that mentorship must be invaluable. As I said, I found the experience moving and inspiring, both the work that Brigade and Beyond Food are doing, and the Club des chef des chefs. As far as I can see, the future of the world is in good hands.
The Club des Chef des Chefs, with apprentices, graduates and Leon Seraphin, chef trainer at Beyond Food (bottom left) (photo by Matthew Dickens from One Edition)

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Very suspicious meeting of chefs, Alicia. :)
Fun and can't wait for your bobotie recipe!


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