Annie in the L'ortolan Kitchen, Assheton L'Ortolan
One of my reasons for applying to take part on MasterChef was that I hoped it would lead to all sorts of exciting new experiences and opportunities but whilst I certainly wanted to make a career out of food, working in a professional kitchen was never part of my plan. Unlike many other competitors, I had no wish to start my own restaurant, café or patisserie, mainly because it was unlikely to fit in with family life. As a result, it didn't immediately occur to me that getting some experience in a top restaurant kitchen would do much to help me achieve my goals of writing and teaching about food and cookery. But then two things happened in quick succession to make me change my mind.
On my 40th birthday my husband surprised me with dinner at the L'Ortolan Chef's Table, an experience that I would recommend to anyone. Not only was the menu incredibly inspiring and all of the dishes we tried utterly delicious, but I was also fascinated by the way the kitchen worked. Contrary to my expectations it was calm, ordered and quietly efficient. There were no raised voices, let alone shouting, and the obviously harmonious team worked together to produce beautiful and mouth-watering plates of food. Elliott, the extremely patient head chef running the pass, must have been exhausted by the end of the evening during which I fired endless questions at him about ingredients and techniques. Not only did I have a fabulous birthday celebration but I also left wanting to learn a great deal more about how that kind of food was produced.
Coincidentally, a few days later I was offered the opportunity to do just that through a family connection. Elliott very generously agreed to let me come into the kitchen for a lunch service once a week during which I hoped I would pick up some tips about techniques, flavour combinations and unfamiliar ingredients. I approached the kitchen with some trepidation on my first day, unsure about what to expect and whether or not I would just get in the way. Thankfully, the first thing Elliott did after introducing me to everyone was to give me a job trimming a large batch of spinach leaves. It was hardly challenging but had the great benefit of making me feel useful whilst allowing me to absorb the atmosphere of life in a working kitchen; so different from my experiences of being in pro kitchens on MasterChef, in contrived situations and surrounded by television cameras and producers trying to create and capture the drama.
I absolutely love my weekly visit to the L'Ortolan kitchen. I have learnt and been able to practise so many techniques, from boning out saddles of lamb and shaping tuille cones to helping plate up at the pass, and I have been exposed to flavour combinations and ideas which I find incredibly inspiring. My husband always looks forward to my day at the restaurant because invariably I come home buzzing with new ideas and immediately set about recreating one of the dishes that I have been involved in preparing that day. I have been amazed at how generous all the chefs are with both their time and their knowledge and now have absolutely no doubt that this experience is going to do much to help me achieve my own ambitions. Long may it continue!