Alex Coombs Kitchen Experience
I have always been interested in cooking. My mum had a paperback book of recipes by a guy called Philip Harbin. He was thinning on top with a beard and the jacket cover of his book superimposed his bald head in an egg-cup. That image fascinated me. Head as hard-boiled egg.
The first thing that I ever cooked for guests ( my Primary School Head Teacher and her husband) was stuffed cabbage leaves. I was nine at the time and can’t remember any of the other details. I would like to say that this was the start of great things. It most certainly wasn’t. But for many years I cherished the illusion that I could cook really well. This was firmly based on ignorance and wishful thinking rather than fact.
Occasionally, as time passed, I would sign up for cookery courses which kept the dream alive. Nothing fancy-schmanzy, Adult education courses. Basic stuff. Then, as so often happens in life, things changed by accident. In my mid-thirties, I became a house husband and when the kids started school, I had a bit of free time on my hand. I thought, cookery classes ? There were none suitable on the Adult Education booklet. On a whim, I phoned Aylesbury College ( this was pre-internet and that’s how things were done, you got on the blower) and asked if they did cookery classes. Yes, they did. NVQ Level 1 & 2 Food Prep and Cookery, a course for trainee chefs in the industry. One day a week. Oh, I said. Did I have to be a professional chef ? No. How much was it ? Very cheap, and it included all the raw ingredients that you would cook with in the price. I sent off the money, bought the recommended Chef’s starter pack ( Chef’s whites, an apron, a rudimentary knife set – that was very exciting- what were they all for ? And a skull cap). So, on a Wednesday morning in September, with some trepidation, I drove to Aylesbury College to start my course.
Eighteen or twenty students, all aged sixteen ( so young !) and me, forty (so ancient !). Older than some of their dads. Then I saw a figure sitting at the back, beckoning me to sit next to him. R was my age. He was retraining as a chef after a work-related accident had made him change career. We paired together in the college kitchen in the afternoon (morning was for theory) and became good friends.
On week three, R said, ‘would you like a job in my restaurant ?’
‘I can only work weekends,’ I said.
So on a Friday night I walked into the kitchen of a Loch Fyne fish restaurant and any notion that I knew anything at all about cooking was immediately shattered into a million pieces.
It was crazily intimidating. In about three hours a team of about five chefs would do about two to three hundred meals. That meant the head chef was probably cooking around about fifty main courses per hour for three hours, about a minute of time per item. The skill involved was stupendous.
Totally unskilled and bewildered, often panic-stricken as the ticket machine remorselessly spewed out orders -I was on salads and cold fish platters. I wasn’t trusted to cook anything. I couldn’t cook anything, come to that. I was too useless. So much for my old ideas that I knew my way around a stove, I most certainly didn’t. Eating in restaurants and watching cookery programmes does not teach you how to cook.
Five minutes in a commercial kitchen is enough to disabuse anyone of that notion. There I remained, plating salads, marvelling at this weird new world where people worked seventy hour weeks for the minimum wage, shared tiny flats, never saw daylight and produced wonderful meals. I was regarded, kind of affectionately, as an eccentric idiot. But, I’m a hard worker and I was reliable, that counted for a lot.
I left Loch Fyne and worked in various other places, a hotel where I did a huge amount of breakfast shifts and worked for a Head Chef ( who is still a close personal friend )who was exceptionally good, a rosetted and Michelin star background. This was a fascinating and unexpected aspect of cheffing. I never worked anywhere personally that was famous, but I did cook alongside, and was encouraged by, chefs who had. It’s not unlike playing football for your local village and having Premier League players drop in from time to time.
I left the hotel, did a stint in a Conference Centre, a couple of bars, and wound up as sous-chef in an award-winning gastro-pub. I could cook breakfast for two hundred people by myself, I could single-handedly do fifty plus main courses. I had finally become reasonably good.
I don’t work in the industry any more, but I still am in close contact with several ex-colleagues. It’s the kind of job that encourages polarities, I’ve met some of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with and some of the worst.