Professional kitchens are tough places – so try walking into a new one every week.
Imagine reading a CV that lists 52 different employers in the space of year. From Michelin-starred restaurants to fish and chip shops, to coffee farms in Brazil, to a tea plantation in Darjeeling. The itinerary of a farmer? Brewer? Butcher? Baker? Glancing at the career section, you may well wonder how someone with precious little professional cooking experience could end up with a different food job every week for a year.
Yet, believe it or not, this has been the story of my life since June 2013, when I began travelling west around the globe, visiting the world’s greatest culinary destinations to work right alongside some of the planet’s greatest chefs and food producers, all the while chronicling my adventure on my blog foodishboy.com Deep down I always had a burning desire to travel.
While my parents, both professional dancers, spent the better part of their youth travelling the globe, until last year I had rarely ventured further afield than your average bourgeois European beach resort. So when I decided to quit my desk job back home in London and take a year out to explore the world, I was finally fulfilling the ambition of a lifetime.
Long obsessed by all things culinary, I was intent on using the year to make the transition from amateur food lover to something a little more serious. What I could not anticipate in the beginning were the true dimensions of the project. But after one fateful night down the local pub, a drunken declaration was made to all those who would listen: one year, five continents, 52 food jobs.
I arrived in Bangkok 40 jobs into my world food odyssey, after surviving a catalogue of culinary challenges. So far I’ve brewed sake in rural Japan with co-workers who spoke no English (luckily my Japanese was flawless…); cooked a seven-course taster menu in Iceland while the head chef enjoyed a night off; and joined a Los Angeles religious cult devoted to organic vegan food. I also distiled in the town of Tequila, went frog-slaughtering in Beijing and cooked on the Orient Express en route to Machu Picchu. But despite all my jobs to date, Thailand presented some of the trip’s steepest challenges, cooking in two of Bangkok’s leading restaurants: David Thompson’s Nahm and Ian Kittichai’s Issaya Siamese Club.
My time in Bangkok kicked off in the Issaya pastry kitchen. Thai pop music filled the the air, mingling with the aroma of tempered chocolate, candied sugar and freshly baked financiers. All around me, the pastry girls delicately piped macaroons, sculpted cheesecakes into ladybirds and built tiny cotton trees out of freshly spun candy floss.
I stood in due reverence at the sweet delights being assembled in their exquisite beauty. Though the many weeks I’d spent in other pastry sections stood me in good stead with Kittichai’s French patisserie skills, things were set to get a lot more challenging in the hot kitchen.I was amazed at the intricacy of Thai food, the way that complex flavours were married to create dishes that sing a refrain rich in sour, sweet, salty and spicy notes. Like a lost boy I struggled to assemble the dishes as the orders came pouring in.
When the kitchen is in full swing, there is certainly no time to check a notepad scribbled with less than legible directions about ingredients and steps. Perhaps the only saving grace was the content of Issaya’s menu, much of which it inspired by Kittichai’s work in international kitchens. This meant I was able to transfer some skills from my own international experience: China had taught me how to handle a wok, my time in Peru had the Thaistyle ceviche covered, and a week in one of Australia’s finest seafood restaurants meant I could be trusted to deal with a few live lobsters for cooking. I just about made it through service without any major calamities.
While Issaya’s reinvention of ‘Thai classics’ via modern techniques gave me some foundational understanding, the following week at Nahm was an altogether alien experience. David Thompson’s emphasis on authentic Thai food meant traditional cooking methods, made all the most challenging given David’s attention to detail. You would assume this would make for a difficult week inside Asia’s best restaurant, but head chef Prin Polsuk and the rest of the team were unbelievably generous in the time they took to explain not only the processes for each dish, but the history and traditions behind them.
Above all, the greatest pleasure during my time at Nahm was the number of sample plates passed in my direction to devour on the job. From the umami rich smoked fish innards curry with chicken liver that oozed salty goodness to the wagyu beef with cucumber mint and sour leaf, each dish was unforgettable for its striking distinction and depth of flavour. Thai restaurants in the UK too often serve food with a homogenous taste, drowned in coconut milk and horribly sweetened with excessive amounts of palm sugar. It was a great privilege to work with such a fantastic team and sample a taste of the ‘real’ Thailand.
Two weeks is by no means long enough to immerse oneself in this rich and diverse cuisine. But the time constraints of my project have sent me on my way to India, where I’m due to cook in a Sikh temple for 10,000 people before continuing on to Paris to work in the renowned bistro Le Chateaubriand.
The brevity of each foodish experience has been by no means easy. If you know how tiring it is to start a new job, imagine starting 52 new jobs in a row. To add to this, there’s all the traveling, writing, planning, and of course finding some time to enjoy some of the places I’m visiting. And then there were the missed flights, robberies, and my fair share of disasters. But when I think about it, the kindness, generosity and hospitality of people around the world who taught me everything I know now make me feel humbled and endlessly grateful.
This article was adapted from The Foodish Boy. Follow Alex’s journey working a different food-based job every week for a year at foodishboy.com or tweet him @foodishboy.