Our reporter finds out what it's like to work in one of Heston Blumenthal's restaurants
What is it like to work a day in one of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurants? Reporter Simon Meechan spent a day at The Crown in Bray to see if he could stand the heat of the kitchen.
When I was asked if I fancied working a day in one of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurants, memories came flooding back to me of working in restaurants up North as a teenager.
I was surrounded by swearing, chain-smoking angry men, and one time I snapped the base off a wine glass while cleaning it and impaled the stem into my hand. I still have the scar.
But I had a feeling that, at one of Blumenthal’s Bray joints, the atmosphere might be a bit different from a back-alley pizzeria in Northumberland.
So I agreed to join the staff at The Crown in Bray High Street on a Friday morning before Christmas.
The Crown is the least formal of Heston’s three Bray eateries and brands itself as a traditional village watering-hole, but with a modern menu, drinks selection and service. It doesn’t have any Michelin stars, unlike its siblings The Hinds Head or The Fat Duck, but it definitely isn’t a two-mains-for-a-tenner boozer either.
I arrived just before 10am and was met by Matt Larcombe, The Crown’s head chef, who presented me with my chef’s jacket.
First I was given a sharp knife and a pile of bones. My task was to follow Matt’s lead and trim the marrow from the bone before dicing it, so it could be used to make a steak sauce.
Within a minute my short-comings became apparent, as the knife slipped. I winced, and Matt knew exactly what the marrow-virgin had done.
“Cut yourself?” Bingo.
Gloves off, hands washed, tiny wound covered, and fresh gloves on, it was back to the marrow.
After a few attempts, I think I managed to trim some pieces that were passable. Or so Matt kindly said, before probably slipping away and re-doing everything, or fetching the ones he’d prepared earlier.
Around 11am, the action stopped so staff could sit down together for lunch cooked in the kitchen. This was an opportunity to socialise, before assistant manager Liam Kelly quizzed the front-of-house team on the menu and product knowledge. This included memorising what sides the mains are served with, and stories behind some of the dishes.
The front-of-house staff told me it is imperative to know about what they are selling, but they are given the chance and guidance they need to learn.
After the pancakes and bacon, it was back to work.
The Crown is a 16th century building. The kitchen is small but the space is used as efficiently as possible and the cosiness gave me the chance to chat with the chefs.
As I trimmed more marrow and, presumably, held up the entire operation, I asked Matt and his team about their jobs.
What came across was their passion for what they do and their pride in working where they work.
There is an international feel as well, with Australian and North American accents audible in the kitchen.
Matt and sous-chef Rob Chasteauneuf explained the whole Heston team comes together to discuss, design and tweak dishes. Staff are also encouraged to dine at his restaurants through free and discount meal perks.
I was shown some tricks of the trade. Batter for the pub’s popular fish and chips is a secret recipe and it was partly applied through a sort of batter-gun. There were waterbaths and other gadgets which I didn’t really understand, but produced impressive results.
What was striking was a complete lack of panic at any point. Ok, it was a lunch service, but it was a Friday afternoon and seemed lively enough.
Matt let me help him plate up some mains and was kind enough to fix them when my presentation was not up to scratch. But, as my ineptness became increasingly apparent, my main role switched to sampling the menu’s dishes, including fish and chips, cauliflower soup and mushroom parfait. This side of the job I rather enjoyed. Tasting, I was assured, is part of quality control and product knowledge.
Dishes were plated out calmly, carefully and with a lack of four-letter tirades. It created a positive atmosphere, and there was a friendly relationship between the kitchen and front-of-house. The two camps have often been very split in places I’ve worked before.
By 3pm, the lunch service was finished and I moved on to the bar.
The pace slowed down a bit mid-afternoon as diners vacated their tables but a steady stream of drinkers kept service going, as most of the staff took in their split-shift break.
I helped pull some pints and keep the bar clean and talked drinks with pub supervisor Russell Lewington.
As a student, I worked in a pub which attracted students and locals but I never had to learn about wine or spirits, other than ‘red/white’ and ‘house/premium’.
The Crown staff know their drink and Russell told me the more senior staff get a say in what premium products go behind the bar.
It showed that Crown employees care about what they’re selling and take pleasure in making educated suggestions to the customers on which drinks complement their meal or snack.
I was out of my depth here, but Russell assured me that staff can join the business as greenhorns and are given the time and opportunity to learn, as long as they show a genuine interest. Most, he said, are quick learners once they’ve got the guidance.
As for my ‘shift’, what did I learn? At this level, the professionalism of the staff is clear, as is the support they get in reaching the levels required by Heston. It turns out chefs are nice, and are not all the red-faced panic attack inducing ones I worked with in my youth.
And I’m pretty good at ‘tasting’ food.