Star turn – A day in a michelin star kitchen

This is one of the more interesting commissions I’ve had lately – in March, I spent a 14 hour day working in the kitchen at the Cliff House Hotel in Waterford with Martijn Kajuiter and his team. This piece was published this week as a result. Thanks to Shane O’Neill for allowing me to use his excellent photography. He’s also blogged about this job and you can read his thoughts, somewhat amusingly entitled ‘When Alex met Martijn,’ here.

This story has generated a lot of interest on Twitter, and I’ve picked up a lot of foodie followers as a result. Hopefully you find it interesting – Alex

Star Turn
Published in The Sunday Business Post on May 15th, 2011, by Alex Meehan

How hard could it be? I’ve just persuaded Martijn Kajuiter, the Michelin-starred chef at the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore, Co Waterford, to let me do a stint in his kitchen.

Now I’m wondering exactly what I’ve let myself in for.

It won’t be a case of dropping in for a couple of hours – Kajuiter has made it clear that he expects me to do a full shift and that I won’t be getting any special treatment. It’s a little more than I bargained for, but it’s an opportunity that’s just too good to miss.

Kajuiter is one of the very few – six to be exact – chefs in Ireland who hold a Michelin star, and is the only one of that small group who is based outside Dublin. Born in the

Netherlands, the 35-year-old came to the Cliff House in 2008 at the invitation of owner Barry O’Callaghan, having worked with some of the biggest names in the culinary world, including Pierre Koffmann, Marco Pierre White and Henk Savelberg.

A physically imposing man – he is 6 feet 8 inches tall – Kajuiter has established himself as one of the most innovative chefs working in Ireland. Winning a Michelin star in 2010 and keeping it in 2011 has put his restaurant on the map, and made the Cliff House a place that people go out of their way to visit.

While it’s hard to put an exact value on winning a star, at a time when many Irish hotels are struggling to stay open let alone turn a profit, the Cliff House enjoys enviable occupancy rates.

‘‘When we opened, everyone said, ‘oh he’s aiming for a star’ because of what we were serving, but I really wasn’t,” says Kajuiter.

‘‘I was looking for happiness in life, believe it or not. I wanted to work with a great team, be creative and cook in an amazing place. I wanted to do that with my wife and kids alongside me.

‘‘Of course I’m proud of our achievement – I am a chef after all – but the star came because of our approach and our commitment to quality, not because we set out to get one.”

What makes a Michelin-starred kitchen special? Obviously to the diner and the Michelin inspector, it’s the food on the plate – the quality of the ingredients, their seasonality, the design of the dish, the presentation and the taste. But that’s only one part of the picture.

Consistency is the real challenge. It’s one thing to be able to put together a plate of food to Michelin standard, but it’s quite another to do it on a busy Saturday night in a full restaurant, executing each and every plate to the same standard, and making sure that every dish gets to each diner at the right temperature, and at the right time.

Achieving this means starting early.

When I arrive in Kajuiter’s kitchen at 11am on a Saturday morning, the place is already buzzing. It’s relatively small for an operation of this size, but it’s functional. The main kitchen area is constructed around a central island of stoves and ovens, with each station operating in its own distinct area.

Meat and fish are in one corner, as are pastry and desserts, stocks, baking and garnishing.

At the front is the pass, the place where garnishes are finished and assembled dishes pause under the heat lamps for the few critical seconds it takes to get the chef’s approval before they are sent to the dining room.

Kajuiter shows me around, introducing me to a succession of slightly harassed looking junior chefs who are busy making stocks for sauce bases, preparing garnishes, making fresh pasta and ravioli, and otherwise prepping for lunch service in the bar and dinner in the main restaurant that night.

All of the ingredients are sourced locally – on the menu tonight are scallops from west Cork, organic salmon from Bantry Bay, Waterford spring chicken, Helvick monkfish, Black Angus beef, lamb from Lismore and duck from Skeaghanore.

For the kitchen staff, service starts in earnest at around 6.30pm, and once the first guests are seated, there is no longer time to tidy up loose ends.

One mistake can derail the whole effort, and making sure that doesn’t happen takes an enormous amount of advance preparation.

For the senior staff, the working day starts with the daily morning meeting, which is held in the dining room over freshly brewed coffee.

Kajuiter and his second in command, sous chef Dirk Mooren, sit down with Paul and Nick (the meat and fish chefs), and Gareth and Patrick (pastry, desserts, baking and petit fours) to dissect the previous night’s service and discuss their plans for the evening ahead.

Kitchens are notoriously rough and ready places to work, and while Kajuiter is soft spoken and respectful with his staff, there’s no question about who’s in charge. He is ruthless in identifying where things could have been tighter the night before, and when a suggestion is made for a potential special, he quickly points out that it’s not seasonal enough.

‘‘We have a journalist with us today, but I don’t care about that,” he says. ‘‘Everyone is to do things exactly as you otherwise would. He should see things as they are. No pretty faces just for today.”

With that, we’re up and off. The others head back to prep, and Kajuiter brings me out to one of his newly-built greenhouses in the grounds of the hotel, where he grows some of the more delicate and perishable herbs and edible flowers which he uses in his dishes.

There’s cress, marjoram, pea shoots, chervil, beetroot, rocket, fennel, sweet woodruff and edible viola, or Irish molly flowers, as well as a vast array of other unusual herbs he’s grown from seed.

Seasonality and the use of local produce are at the heart of Kajuiter’s food, but that creates its own problems.

‘‘This isn’t Dublin – if we run short of something or sell out of something, we can’t just nip out to get more,” he says. ‘‘We’re in Waterford, and that means careful planning and working with the seasons.”

With this in mind, a few years ago he came to an agreement with the managers of St Raphael’s residential and daycare centre In Youghal to bring its organic nursery back to life.

We spend part of the afternoon in the two large poly tunnels there, picking out fresh produce from the evening service.

Back in the kitchen, as the afternoon wears on things start to heat up, both literally and figuratively. Junior chefs are shouted at when it looks like standards might slip; a fire alarm goes off when someone overloads a tumble dryer, but the kitchen staff barely stop to acknowledge it; and when the staff meal is served at around 5pm, it’s eaten standing up.

It’s an intense working environment, so it’s natural that emotions run high.

The staff are all extremely skilled in their own right – most of them could easily get a head chef job somewhere else if they wanted it – but they stay because they know they’re getting the kind of experience that will stand to them for life.

At one point during the evening service, what seems like a full-scale riot breaks out in the kitchen as Kajuiter picks up on a mistake.

One of the line chefs has got his timing wrong, resulting in three main courses being ready to go at the pass, while one more is late.

The chef is not a beginner, but this is a rookie mistake.

To make matters worse, when he’s asked about his timing, he tries to cover for his error, something which riles Kajuiter more than the initial mistake. He gets a severe dressing down, while around him, his colleagues avert their gaze and keep working.

The atmosphere is extremely tense, but five minutes later things are back to normal and all seems to be forgiven.

‘‘There might be shouting or harsh words, but it’s forgotten about quickly,” Kajuiter says. ‘‘If I’m out of line I’ll apologise. I don’t believe in a culture of fear in the kitchen. It doesn’t get the best out of people, and you don’t keep staff.

‘‘People who work here do it for more than just a pay cheque.

Every single person has a function in the kitchen, and they all make it work. If the kitchen porter doesn’t deliver the goods, we’re all screwed.”

Kajuiter is acutely aware that a Michelin star can be a double-edged sword. While it has sent the profile of the Cliff House sky high, it has also probably led some people to presume that it is out of their price range.

‘‘A Michelin star puts you in a box,” he says. ‘‘It makes people think you are expensive and exclusive, but that’s the wrong way to look at it.

‘‘Having one star means that you are an exceptionally good restaurant in your own category. It’s about what’s on the plate – your restaurant could be in a shed in the middle of the mountains, but if you are cooking fantastic food, you could get a star.

It has nothing to do with being expensive, or Having Wedgwood plates, or what the room is like.”

Prices haven’t gone up in the restaurant since the star was awarded – a three-course meal costs €65,while an eight-course tasting menu costs €85.Matched wines cost €25 or €40 per person with the tasting menu.

If Kajuiter could ask one thing of his customers, it’s that they don’t pre-judge the experience of eating in his restaurant.

‘‘Sometimes people have such high expectations that if one little thing isn’t how they think it should be, then the whole experience is ruined for them,” he says. ‘‘If something isn’t right, it isn’t right – and please tell us if that’s the case – but this isn’t a competition between the kitchen and the guest. It’s a celebration.

We want you to be thrilled.”

It’s 8.30pm, and service is in full flow. The restaurant is packed; 72 guests are eating dinner tonight, and 14 of them are having the tasting menu.

Earlier in the day I’d prepared garnishes and helped with prep, but for the last hour or so I’d been watching from the sidelines, as service started in earnest.

Suddenly Kajuiter is explaining tome what he wants done and how to do it.

The dish is a salmon starter I saw prepared earlier – the organic fish from Bantry Bay is served as a ballotine, as an ice cream and also marinated, along with preserved cucumber and beetroot textures.

It has to be plated up with herbs and leaves in just the right place, and with sauces added dot by dot, in the right order and quantity.

At the pass, it’s topped with a glass dome, and a special gadget is used to ignite oak sawdust, which is then pumped under the dome.

The plate is then whisked away to the dining room, where the server presents it to the diner by lifting off the dome and releasing the smoke. It’s a clever take on smoked salmon – or maybe smoking salmon would be a more accurate description.

By now I’ve watched quite a few of these plates make it to the pass and enjoyed the theatre of the final preparation.

Now, Kajuiter is beside me. ‘‘So you’ve seen how to do it, yes? Okay, time to get those pristine whites dirty.”

He has me plate up with him, watching each step to see if I’ve got it right.

The atmosphere is suddenly tense, and I’m aware that he’s not treating me like a guest in his kitchen any more – we’re working on food that is going out to the dining room.

‘‘Okay, that’s good. Do four more.”

He moves away, leaving a plate for me to copy and I’m on my own, concentrating as hard as I ever have.

The noise and bustle behind me fade away while I hunch over the plate.

A minute later he’s back, examining my work.

‘‘Yes, that’s it. Good. Okay, take them to the pass.”

At the front of the kitchen, the restaurant manager and two servers are waiting.

Kajuiter is beside me, telling me to hurry up.

I load up the smoke burner, switch on the pump and get ready to light the wood. It’s a fiddly job, and Kajuiter is getting impatient with the delay – there are paying guests waiting for this food, and the salmon must go to the table at exactly the same time as other dishes, which have just arrived on the pass.

I’m suddenly painfully conscious of the audience of servers, management and other chefs watching me from the corner of their eye.

‘‘Okay, go! Add the smoke. Like that. No, add more. Okay, and the next plate. Hurry up. Get it right. Too slow! Okay, there. It’s done. SERVICE! Go go go!” The plates are taken away, and I’m struggling to turn the blowtorch off. I’m sweating and my heart is racing. Kajuiter is smiling.

‘‘How did that feel? Scary, huh? That’s how Marco made me feel my first service with him. It’s a buzz, isn’t it?”

Fourteen hours after I arrived, I’m sitting in Kajuiter’s office having a coffee. In the dining room, the last guest is nibbling on petits fours, while in the kitchen, the staff are starting the clean-down process, scrubbing the room until it gleams and is ready for it all to happen again tomorrow.

Including amuses bouches, sorbets, starters, main courses and desserts,430 plates of food have left the kitchen this evening. It has been an exhausting and exhilarating experience.

But, most importantly, it didn’t kill me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: