Jackson’s – further adventures of a gentleman chef

I’m still at Jackson’s every Thursday but I still live in a kind of titular haze. [For those coming in late] I’m certainly not a chef, I’m not technically an apprentice, and I’ve lingered longer than the typical work experiencer. Dilettante, duffer, hanger-on, kitchen fop, thirtysomething man in kitchen scene… I think I was settled on gentleman chef in the sense of the gentleman farmer rather than any particular gentility. A kind of jolly good involvement while others go about the work they do every day, well. I described this in a separate conversation and I was asked like wandering in and spending 20 minutes fixing your apron?, which is exactly what I do do, so I guess there must be something in it.

What I do after I carefully arrange my apron and check my hat’s on OK varies from week to week. Last week I was taught how to do chocolate decoration using a small piping bag made from baking paper and made orange and poppyseed biscuits as part of the meal’s end. The week before that I seemed to have spent a couple of hours taking the leaves off herbs. Not quite as straightforward as it seems, coriander goes in the salad spinner to dry, mint doesn’t because it’ll break the leaves and they’ll blacken. Parsley varies from leaf to leaf and the tougher ones should be the ones left whole as garnish. Vietnamese mint gets separated into shoots and leaves. The best way to rinse them is in a bowl but don’t do what I did and pour it through a strainer because you’ll just pour the sand over the leaves again. It’s good if you can guess the right amount that will fit into a container and they should be covered with a dampened paper towel.

During service I’d do my regular tasks of veg and two salads but as there’s an extra person on I thought I’d ask if I could go down the other end and watch mains being done. The last Thursday I got to work the mash and pour the lamb sauce. This may seem a quite small thing to do and, out of context it is, but for me it’s a big deal. There is a direct link between what I put on the plate and what is put in front of a guest.


Last Thursday was a great day. As well as the usual small picking and prepping I made the bread rolls for the day, had dinner, and then took my place at the mains end with Michelle and Mark. It takes a little while to get people in, ordered and their entrees sorted and then it goes. It’s a small space and I try not to get in the way but I was assured I’d be worked around and over if I was. My first task was to make small “shepherd’s pies” in small tarts – the trick is to cover it neatly with mash without spilling gravy over the sides or dragging it up over the mash, it took me a couple of goes. As well as this I did over a dozen different things to my usual four or five. Four salads and two veges, zapping darioles in the microwave, saucing, truffled mash for side orders and roquefort mash for the plates – trying to get a balance between under and overcompensating for serving size and taste, cooking brussel sprout leaves, grabbing plates, making small piles of couscous and chutney, making sure I kept things hot, deep frying rabbit meat croquets and small pappadums, taking on criticism and adding a bit of chat, dashes out to the cool room AND, and this is the yes moment, plating a plate on my own. Centering a dob of mash in time for Michelle to place the wagyu beef on top; then on with the sauce; taking the chanterelles, bacon, and onion mix from the pan balancing it on top; further balancing several brussel sprout leaves; giving the plate a clean; and then calling the order. Mark was good enough to say “that’s the Jacksons there” *blush*, I learnt that if you faf something up, e.g. my unsuccessful balancing act, you only get about two goes at fixing it up before it just becomes a mess. But yes someone’s steak course in the degustation menu presented by me, bang right between their cutlery. Should have taken a picture.

The experience so far has been entirely positive for reasons well beyond just the culinary aspects. As a person who is fond of instant gratuity, the process has been slow but entirely appropriate. Things learnt well are always learnt properly from the basics and worked up to. In one sense it resembles a dojo where you don’t start by practicing head kicking 20 encircling challengers or insisting that you be taught the crane kick. I’m also a person who generally takes criticism very badly and very personally and I’m getting this worked out of me. Frankly being told off by a seventeen year old apprentice is humbling and appropriate all and the same time and I’ve never been told anything that was unfair or incorrect. It’s the small details that get picked up on that make the staff so professional, if I couldn’t accept this I’d be a sobbingsniffy wreck. Learn, move on, and do it right the next time. It’s also eight or so hours of work, worky work, work that is referred to as real or honest work, and unlike, I dunno, digging ditches, it’s interesting and demanding. And what’s more it’s team work in the way that a thousand catch me I’m falling workshops aspire to – I think people are too good at what they do and too busy to have time to develop a dysfunctional workplace. And they feed me pork belly, I should return the favour by not singing at work – they deserve better.

Mental note: winged plates, entree bowls, veg bowls, rectangular rabbit plates.


  1. Gracianne’s avatar

    As I was reading your post, and before I read the conclusion, I was thinking of martial arts. Or Chinese painters who learn how to copy the same bamboo for years before they are free to paint their own. I think I would enjoy very much having that kind of experience, starting with the small tasks, the peeling, the slicing, and gradually moving to more complicated.
    Why are you doing it? Just out of personal interest or is it professional?
    Oh and, I made it again, your steack with Sichuan pepper, really an excellent recipe. Thanks.

  2. Sue’s avatar

    They say that apprentice chefs these days demand to be the next Neil Perry/TV Empire Chef and that goes some ways to explain the high attrition rate. I agree with Gracianne, there is a certain beauty to a life dedicated to attaining skills that eventually form mastery.

    Given that I like you am terrible with personal criticism and impatience, it was heartening to hear that you are dealing with it so well. Your excitement with plating was so damn …. cute!

    Interesting too about all the different methods of washing herbs. I always have probs with getting my herbs to survive storage.

  3. neil’s avatar

    I worked part time at the Melbourne Convention Centre several years ago. There, the plates came down a conveyer belt and you were responsible for one thing only, but you had to be quick and sure. Yeah, the martial arts analogy was appropriate; there was a wax on, wax off moment for me when I had to cut 2500 garnishes of exactly three grapes in a bunch. Another time I had to calculate from one bowl of fruit salad, what quantity to cut up to make 200 bowls, alone, with no one else in the section. God help you if there wasn’t enough or too much. Your right, it was hard work, but very satisfying as well.

  4. Anthony’s avatar

    It’s common sense in a way, it’s often the small things that make a dish.
    Why am I doing it? It started as just wanting to find out what it was like working in a proper kitchen and I’ve kept at it and a lot of it has to do with just enjoying the experience. I don’t know if I’ve got an ultimate goal but it’s always good to be prepared if something ever comes up.
    Welcome again for the recipe.

    I would have been the same.
    I think it helps once you just accept theres a way of doing things and that way may not be the way you do them. Yeah I know the plating thing, I was kind of wondering if I needed to get a grip nor not but yeah very exciting.
    I think I need to get my herb garden cranked up again, it’s the best storage system.

    Sounds like something out of Modern Times. I worked in an aluminium window factory once and it was nice how once you had the task down pat you could drift off elsewhere.
    You have 10 apples… : )

  5. lee’s avatar

    I didn’t think it was possible but you actually made me miss working in restaurant kitchens!

  6. Lex Culinaria’s avatar

    I imagine many people in the service industry would share your fondness for immediate tips. Quicker you get the $$ the better, I always say. I imagine you’re also into instant gratification.

  7. Anthony’s avatar

    Ahh tips schmips, the hard working folk of the service industry need a working wage.

    I’m getting better on the gratification thing but yeah I get impatient waiting for vending machine chocolate bars to drop.

  8. Jeanne’s avatar

    Great post. I’m a) not fond of criticism and b) get extremely and vocally angry at myself when I stuff something up. So I doubt I could ever aspire to your zen-like acceptance and calm – but it was great fun reading about it!!

  9. Lex Culinaria’s avatar

    btw: Just got back from whirlwind trip down under (8 days is a real trial) nad was unable to locate a copy of Spice at local St. Kilda newsagent. Get on that will ya?

  10. Anthony’s avatar

    The killing the just waking up crayfish humanely with a chef’s knife got some interesting blue language going.

    Ah cheers for looking. The eastern mysteries of being in the hands of a distribution agency. Still you’d think if anywhere, St Kilda.

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