My Culinary Journey

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Sitting on a three person bench at Pearson Airport with my mom and my brother, I count the minutes until the time my plane departs. We are waiting in silence. Nothing is being said for fear of tears and sorrowful words. This opportunity is once in a lifetime, and although it is sad to leave people and things behind, it’s better to stay positive. More time passes and I decide that the time has come for me to get up and say my goodbyes; first my mom. She has surprisingly kept her composure well thus far and I wonder how much longer it will last. I give her a hug and the answer runs down her cheek. She gives many words of encouragement and reassures me of her unwavering love and how much I will be missed. My brother, slightly less sentimental, gives me a hug and we agree that we will see each other later. I walk towards the gate and hesitate before turning to look back, not sure what I will see. I finally do and see my brother holding my mom’s hand and comforting her. I am relieved that my brother is able to be here, he will be able to console her on the way home.

I wait outside my gate for an hour after checking in, before I hear my plane called over the speaker. I walk towards the desk and hand over my ticket. I get on the plane and try to imagine all the things that will happen to me over the next year of my life. I will be living in London, England for one year and the possibilities are literally endless. I am feeling grateful that my flight is overnight because I am leaving Toronto at eleven pm and arriving in London at eleven am. This way I can spend my night sleeping as usual and wake up rested and ready to tackle my new day, only I will be in London. After I finish my book about an aging rock band called Too Much, Too Late, I start reading my new Anthony Bourdain fiction. I listen to my iPod and finally fall asleep.

London, England

I awake to breakfast and a beautiful overhead view of England. A little cloudy and overcast but still lovely, there are a lot of football stadiums around the landscape, which emphasizes the importance of the game here.

I check out of Heathrow Airport surprisingly fast and get a taxi. The driver takes me straight to the Hilton London Metropole and I pay him fifty pounds, which I calculate to approximately one hundred and ten dollars. As I step out of the taxi, I see the hotel for the first time. It is huge with a west and an east wing. I later discover that there are over eleven hundred rooms here. I get my staff house keys and head to my new home.

Six Macroom Road

The taxi stops outside and I see a fairly worn down house with a littered lawn. I walk inside and it is not much better. There are leaves, dirt and old mail strewn around the corridor. The rest of the house is much the same. It is not a great place and not well maintained but it is liveable. My room is a single but has two beds in it. It is smaller than I’m used to, but it is a free bed with a roof over it. I meet some of my housemates and they seem pretty cool. As I meet the rest over the next few weeks, I find like everything else, I enjoy the company of some and there are others I would prefer to avoid.

Hilton London Metropole

Monday arrives and I take the bus to work. My first two days are induction days. On the third I found that I would be working in the main kitchen doing banquets and staff food for the canteen. I make my way there and I meet the chefs. The executive chef is Nigel Frost; the sous chefs are David, Paul, and soon Tieri; my chefs de partie are Jess, Callin and Robert who are all three, surprisingly, from down under. The rest of the chefs I meet over the next week or so, but those are the main ones.

On first impression the kitchen seems to be run very well. Everything is smooth and planned out each day. There is a magnetic wall to one side that carries print outs of all the upcoming functions for the week. The working chef de partie has a clip board with the functions of the day and a list of everything that needs to be completed. There is a lot of working space in the kitchen with areas dedicated to raw fish, raw meats, and vegetable preparation. There are three Bratt pans for bulk cooking, two boilers for blanching vegetables and pasta and a big stock pot. There is also a large flat top stove for sealing (what they call searing) meats, and three flat ranges with removable plates over the flame. There are two freezers, two blast chillers and six fridges (fruits, vegetables, dairy, larder, raw meat and raw fish.) Blast chillers I have never seen or used before but they are very convenient for cooling food to a safe temperature before storing it in the fridge.

Over the next week I do a lot of peeling and chopping, slicing and dicing. It seems like they are giving me busy work but almost everyone is doing it the same sort of work, so I don’t mind. I get the feeling they are trying to get a feel for me, to see what I can do and what I can handle. I am determined to show them that I am good at what I do, I know my stuff, and I am worth their time.

As time passes, they start giving me tasks that involve more skill. The first was to make chilli for the staff canteen. After that I started making more food for the staff canteen. I made curry, sweet and sour pork and chilli a few times. I put my all into it every time and asked questions to understand the things they told me to do. I hoped they would notice my eagerness to learn. I started to get jobs making food for the actual banquets and guests. I was asked to make an asparagus risotto as the starch for a banquet for six hundred. I have also made tomato sauce, vegetable ratatouille, and asparagus ravioli.

Since then I have been able to cook many things for both staff and banquets. I even had the chance to be a main player in a few banquet services.

One was a finger buffet. We were serving beef Wellingtons, ground lamb kebabs, chicken skewers, breaded bocconcini, and mini vegetable quiches. I worked with my chef de partie Jess for the first bit. I plated all the food except the Wellingtons, which Jess did. She left to take care of other things and I took over everything and was able to keep up with the servers and keep everything hot and running smooth. I then cleared the service kitchen and put all the food and tools away.

Another time we were doing a fork buffet and had four stations running; American, Italian, Asian, and French. The function started with about six of us working and we each had a specific job to do and take care of. I was in charge of the Asian food section. I kept on top of my plating and helped out whoever needed me. When service started to slow down we went down to two people working, Million and myself. Million was the main larder chef for the function so he kept leaving to check his salads and sauces and I was running all the sections alone. I kept on top of the plating and cooking of food and was working directly in front of Nigel. I feel I made a good impression on him. I was confident and strong. Another time I was appointed as the sauce chef. This chef is the last to touch the plate before it goes out for service

The hotel has two main banquet rooms that hold up to one thousand each (Kings and Monarch), another smaller one (Palace) and a lot of meeting rooms. Each room has its own kitchen for service. All the food is prepped in the main kitchen but when it comes down to service time we move everything to designated kitchen which has ovens, stoves, hot lamps and fridges.

They have a seemingly fool proof system at this hotel for handling plated functions. The starch and the vegetable are prepared in the kitchen and plated using a conveyor belt. The plate is put on the belt and each chef puts a different element on the plate. It is a smooth procedure and is time effective. At the end of the conveyor belt the plates are placed on a trolley and put in the fridge until service time. The meat is seared off and put on oven trays on a trolley. When it comes to service time, the meat is cooked in the ovens in the designated kitchen area and the plates are reheated. Then people are assigned to either plates or meat. The plates are put on the window and the meat is placed on the plate. Then one of the senior chefs will pour the sauce on while it is on the window and the servers will collect it from there. Everything runs very smoothly and there are hardly any hitches or problems.

The chefs in the main kitchen are all well educated in the trade and I feel that I can learn a lot from all of them. I really enjoy working in this kitchen and I am gaining confidence in my cooking and in questioning my superiors on issues I do not agree with, or I feel could be done better. For example, when I asked about eating dinner, I was told that they used to make food for the chefs to eat but have stopped. I took it upon myself to make dinner that night. I made baked pasta with chicken for everyone, including the executive chef and sous chefs. It went over well. Another instance I was told to soak noodles in water and season the water with sesame oil. I thought that a bit odd as the sesame oil would wash off when the noodles drained. I suggested putting the oil in after the draining and my chef agreed it would be better.

The hotel offers many different kinds of training for all the employees. I have done about five training days already. Including my two induction days where I learned all about the hotel and basic policies, I also had Development Day which covers more intensively some of the policies and outlines the different types of training one can and will receive. Another was based on feedback and how to give and receive it. I also did a Core Values Day which covered two out of the four Hilton core values, the other two will be done next week. Most importantly I had a basic food hygiene class. We learned all about proper food hygiene in a kitchen, cooking temperatures, etc. I got one hundred percent on the test and will receive my certificate soon, giving me a second food safety certificate.

Over the next ten months I will move around the hotel. In a month and a half I will spend three months in the hotel restaurant (Fiamma), then three months in larder and finally three months in pastry. In each area, I have come to understand, the people are very different and the jobs are varied. I will have many opportunities to expand my abilities and continue to learn.

The Sights

I am finding the city of London to be a very fun city. One of the biggest differences that I have noticed between London and Toronto is that the streets are not in a grid system. The streets just go all over in all directions and through roundabouts; it is a lot harder to learn your way around. Some other things are that the tube is a lot bigger and more confusing, there are a lot more buses, most bars close at eleven pm, instead of the two am of Toronto bars, and people can smoke indoors. It is taking some getting used to but I’ve met a few people from the hotel and staff house that I have been out with. People here love to party and have a good time. My first few weeks here I refrained from doing too much touristy stuff figuring that I would be doing a lot of it when people came to visit me. This proved to be true last week when a friend came from Canada to visit for a week. We did all the things that tourists usually do. We ventured out to Buckingham Palace first. There we saw the changing of the guards, the bird sanctuary in St. James Park, Buckingham Palace, and a parade out of the gates. It seemed to be a very good day to go and see this area as a lot was going on. Later we saw the House of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey, but only from the outside. She was staying at the Hilton Trafalgar, so in turn we got a fill of Trafalgar Square. Over the week we found Oxford Street, which is big for shopping. We came across Piccadilly Circus which is close to Leicester Square (where the movie theatres are), Soho (where a lot of good bars are), and Chinatown (where good cheap Chinese food is). We also went and found the famous London Bridge, from the nursery rhyme. This was a little less extravagant than I expected but found that Tower Bridge was beautiful and nicely decorated. We had lunch by the Thames River, and went on a Jack the Ripper tour that evening. The highlight of the week was going to my first soccer game. We went to Craven Cottage which is the stadium for the Fulham Football Club. They were playing Charlton (another team from London). It was very exciting and Fulham won. I got the first goal on video using my digital camera.

And Sounds

In the next few weeks I plan on seeing Pearl Jam in concert and am going to a couple more music shows. The London music scene I have heard is amazing. I have come across many British bands that I really like such as The Streets, Bloc Party, and Travis. One of my many goals is to immerse myself more in this scene and see all that London, and England in general, has to offer musically. I have already starting enjoying DJs more than I used to back home, thanks to a couple of the chefs I work with.

I have been living here in London for one and half months. I miss my family immensely and all my friends can never be replaced. On the other hand, I really love living in this city. The people are really fun and know how to have a good time, there are loads of things to do and people to meet, and, most importantly, the kitchen I am working in seems perfect for me. The chefs are all understanding, patient, organized, and know that it is important to take a Friday night after work and drink your face off.

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