‘Nick! Trousers!” Yes indeed my keks are once more collapsed around my ankles as Ian Pengelley, Head Chef of Gilgamesh, has spotted. Fortunately they are chef’s checked trousers worn over my normal ones so this Grandpa Simpson moment is not too embarrassing for the ladies from Good Housekeeping and the BBC who are also on this cookery course. In fact my trousers continue to have a life of their own for the whole six hours we are in the kitchen, either choosing to drop just as I am scooting back to my station with a red hot pan of melted sugar, or when I have both hands full with a wok in one and pak choi in the other. ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ has become ‘Whoops Vicar!’
And this really is a cookery course for anyone who has been watching Hell’s Kitchen and cockily thought, ‘I could do that.” Some courses give you a cheffy hat but you stay clean, mostly just watching the action in a genteel trade-off, but not this one. Ian wants you to get the real feel of what it’s like to be in the hottest place in the restaurant and to experience the pain when something goes wrong. Believe me, when you’ve just spent time you couldn’t afford laboriously peeling cherry tomatoes, only to have Ian suddenly appear behind you and say, ‘That’s s***, do it again” and then lob the whole lot into a nearby bin, you get a tad tense.
Gilgamesh is of course the mega-space in Camden Lock. A fantasy of elaborate carved wood and ornate decoration it looks like it was designed by a rapper with a taste bypass. But then the whole OTT thing is also its USP, along with a glass roof that rolls back to let in the fresh air. Oh that and Ian’s excellent Pan Asian cooking, which is always very well received and not surprisingly since Ian is a respected expert, most notably as former Head Chef at E&O in Notting Hill. These cookery courses are available to anyone, but today’s is sponsored by Comvita Manuka honey, a magic ingredient which is genuinely highly rated and used by Ian in his dishes. It’s a honey sourced from New Zealand’s remote, pollution free native forests and is unique in having a very high anti-bacterial property and is famous for general well-being and of course having a very fine taste. It comes as ‘standard’ honey but you can also buy it as pollen for even more health-enhancing properties, as well as a vinegar for cooking.
So after collecting our chef’s tops, aprons and comedy trousers, it’s off to the kitchen to be assigned our workstations and the first challenge. Comvita Honey glazed Char -Siu pork. The ingredients for the marinade are all set up for us, but Ian makes us try and guess what they are by taste, touch and smell. The yellow beans are fairly easy, the sesame cream less so. Ginger is easy and so is the garlic and spring onions but the fermented bean curd is a puzzler. The whole lot goes into our large pestle and mortars to be pounded up. No food mixers here, the pestle and mortar bruises and crushes the ingredients to get far more flavour out and the resulting paste is slathered all over the pork neck and fillets as well as, in my case, my work area, my arms and a substantial part of my shoes.
Comvita Honey Parfait needs honey and water placed on the searing hot range at arms length with a digital probe thermometer stuck in every now and then to see if its reaching the 135 degree mark. Meanwhile I’m getting RSI as I whip cream in a big tin bowl; ooh but it’s murder on the wrists this, but eventually it all goes nice and stiff. Ahem. All that now remains is to bring over the lethally superheated honey and water mix and add slowly (to avoid curdling) to beaten egg yolks and then fold in the cream. Done and done, although a slight graininess tells the professional staff helping us out that I may have only just avoided splitting it. Into the fancy molds and into any freezer space we can find and fight over. Just like a real kitchen I am informed.
We also learn the importance of hiding your favourite and necessary tools away so that other stations can’t ‘borrow’ them. When it all goes mad during service, you don’t want to find your spatula gone AWOL or your cling film rolled away. Ian’s staff are consistently helpful and impressive in their ability to take a flapping trainee and calm them down and sort them out and even lending things to help. I promised not to tell where Ian’s deputy keeps his clingfilm stash
The wok cookers are incredible bits of kit; think a large jet engine but mounted vertically. One knee kick turns it on and another turns it off. ‘On’ produces a flame that will boil a wok full of water in a moment, and incinerate my ginger and garlic mix almost instaneously, ‘off’ saves the day. Soon I am stir-frying Pak Choi with bravado and oyster sauce and the wok contents are catching fire most impressively. I can see Ian’s team shaking their heads they are so impressed. Taking the wok off the flame without turning the flame off first is also interesting and quickly sets fire to the ceiling. Actually Ian points out, when order is restored, that these wok burners are pretty feeble compared to the ones he used to use in Hong Kong and Vietnam. He’s keeping pretty calm really considering all that’s going on and off and onto the floor.
Six hours, and a demonstration of Dim Sum making and vegetable flower creating, later we are serving up; three dishes each, one in a marvellous fog of dry ice. It’s remarkable we got anything on the pass really and it makes you realise, as you regard your rather feeble effort, just how very, very hard it is to do things to the standard Ian demands and to do it every night without fail. This is a cookery class that puts you through the mill and as you finally sit down to eat what you’ve cooked and drink a glass or three of wine with Ian you enjoy the blessed peace and quiet.
Manuka Honey info can be found at www.comvita.co.uk
Ian Pengelley’s master classes in Pan Asian are run on Saturdays. Click here for more info.