Writing my first cookbook, A Lot On Her Plate was one of the most challenging, creative and rewarding projects I’ve ever embarked on. As anyone who writes for a living knows, putting fingers to keyboard and bashing out a body of work that you can feel proud of involves a hell of a lot of solitary, thoughtful time – even if it’s a cookbook rather than a prose piece. As such, I’ve spent much of the past two years sitting at my office desk at home alone (and more recently in the company of the dogs in my life), thinking and writing. Sometimes I’ve found myself hunched over the laptop for hours, only managing a paragraph or two amidst chaotic thoughts, internet procrastination and emails. Other times – usually very early in the morning, with only a steaming cup of tea for company – I’ve found quiet, productive calm, collected my thoughts and gotten into the writerly flow. But it never comes easy. I don’t think writing something like a book ever really should.
During this creative time, I’ve also spent many hours cooking up my ideas. Even though I came to cooking through my career as a food writer, it’s very often the cooking that I find to be the most enjoyable aspect of my work. I’m a bit of a ‘do-er’, you see. I always was. Even as a child, when the rest of the family were gathered around the box for a film or Corrie omnibus, I was there too, but I was on the carpet making a huge mess – drawing a new badge (anyone else have a badge making set?), or sewing flares into my corduroys (I was VERY cool).
The physicality and action of cooking, along with the very tangible, edible results and the reactions of the people I’ve cooked for – even if that turns out to just be me, my boyfriend and my dog – is the part that fires me up. Imagine my delight, then, when the opportunity to spend a week cooking for actual real life customers – at a wonderful restaurant in Marylebone in central London – came my way. Carousel is an incredible and ingenious idea – it’s a proper, grown up, 50-cover restaurant – complete with an open kitchen (and a charcoal grill) – but its whole thing is that while it has a full time kitchen team of fantastic, experienced chefs, it welcomes chefs from all over the world into its kitchen to cook residencies. And it’s had some incredible chefs cook there so far, including Bjorn Van der Horst and the guys from Berlin’s Lokal – and then there was me, who wouldn’t have the gall to call herself a chef having never done it for a living, joining this team of really talented people to provide a fully-immersive A Lot On Her Place experience – cooking recipes from the book.
To say I was daunted is an understatement. I’ve spent time in many professional kitchens for work, and I’ve ‘staged’ days at different places for experience, but, aside from my supper clubs, I’ve never cooked and ran a restaurant service for that many people. I felt decidedly out of my depth. Luckily for me, the team of chefs I was working with at Carousel – Tom Ryalls, Matt Voisey, Rue Barry, Becky Wilkinson and Ollie Templeton, have a wealth of experience between them at top restaurants like St John and Moro, and, aside from making me feel very welcome and being a great laugh, totally nailed cooking my food for a restaurant full of people night after night. They showed me things that really elevated some of the dishes from the book to make them more ‘restauranty’, like smoking our own beautiful sea trout for the trout salad starter, and scaling everything up to be bigger and better, making huge vats of romesco sauce for the spring onions and gastros full of crispy taco shells for the tuna. Massive thanks to Matt and Rue for stoically manning the deep fat fryer in the basement!
On the first day of the residency I got up super early and took a trip to New Covent Garden market to buy some flowers to decorate the tables, stocking up on foxgloves (my favourite), tropical leaves and tiny pink pineapples which got loads of compliments. The place look wicked! I loved meeting Ollie at the restaurant each morning and watching him build and fire up his beloved charcoal grill, and it was brilliant to have that at our disposal for charring lemons, grilling asparagus and cucumber and searing the bavette for the bavette carpaccio. I had been a bit worried about also cooking the lunch service as well as dinner, but we kept it to a ‘capsule menu’ and I’m actually really pleased that I got to showcase more dishes from the book – the bavette carpaccio turned out to be a big winner, as did the orange and ginger madeleines, which we made when we ran out of cheesecake.
As well as my brilliant chefs, we had some solid support in the kitchen from the ace KPs Danny and Alturo – both Spanish guys who helped everything run smoothly and kept the place in tip top shape. The front of house staff too were fantastic and really great fun to work with (not to mention brilliant at mixing an end-of-service cocktail), and being part of such a passionate, talented and creative group of people was a fantastic experience. I loved our staff dinners, which team members took it in turn to whip up each day, giving us a much-needed quick break between dinner prep and service.
We were packed-out almost every night and it was fabulous to meet people who knew me through my food writing or Instagram/Twitter and people who have the book at home, as well as introducing the book to a new audience and Carousel’s loyal customers. Seeing the diners’ responses to the food, and having people come up and tell me that they enjoyed my recipes and had a great night was an utterly incredible feeling, and something that I never imagined happening two years ago when I was hunched over my laptop writing the book.
Physically, the week was utterly knackering. I’m used to being on my feet all day for food styling, but working all day and then all night gave me even more respect for chefs who do it week in, week out. The stress of keeping on top of all the dishes and making sure there was enough of everything each day was also exhausting, but the adrenaline rush after service was a massive buzz I could get used to. Would I do it again? You bet. Watch this space…
I’d like to say a massive THANK YOU to everyone at Carousel – to Ollie, Ed, Tom, Matt, Rue (every time I hear Uptown Funk I see you dance), Becky, Alturo, Danny, Al, Phil, Monica, Yolanda, Ive, Will, Anna and everyone else who worked during my residency and helped make it totally epic. Thanks for the legendary afterparty too. Can’t wait to come back soon!
Thanks to William Templeton for all the pictures in the gallery above.