After she competed and won the Nestle Toque D’Or competition, Chef Samantha Watkins was hungry for more. Her tutor from Loughborough College, Darren Creed called us. Would there be any way we could get Samantha some work experience in a London kitchen? Having chatted with Samantha, we knew there was one chef in particular who inspired her. A quick phone call to Sally Abe, and Samantha was welcomed to the Pem Restaurant in Conrad St James. Here’s her journal from her two invaluable weeks…
When I first arrived, I was greeted and shown around Sally Abe’s Pem Restaurant. Absolutely stunning room, with so much attention to everything. I felt it definitely set the standards of what the food was going to be like – even before tasting anything!
My introduction to everyone in the kitchen was made and each person was super friendly. I wasn’t made to feel uneasy, which I could have felt stepping into a new environment. I went to the starter section and was introduced to the starter dishes, then prep was underway.
I was learning new recipes and was encouraged to try the elements along the way, which taught me how the individual components work together on the finished plate. It was a very busy day prepping, with Tuesday being the first day of the working week.
Service came along and I was allowed to prepare some canapés that were sent out to customers. I wasn’t just a bystander; I was part of the team and helping to send out orders which made me feel very included.
Today was a fairly quiet day, however this gave the kitchen team a day to develop and produce dishes for the new season. The team were developing a quail dish that looks stunning and will be fantastic as the seasons begin to change in September.
Again, I had the opportunity try the different elements of the dish and discuss with the chefs how the production of the dish was thought through, where the inspiration comes from, and how flavours are placed together.
I observed the main courses go out, and was shown the section – with a tour of how they organise themselves and their mis-en-place before every service. Neatness, cleanliness and organisation definitely make for a calm and precise service.
So far, everyone’s been super helpful and lovely. They always encourage me to try each element of the dish – this helps me understand the flavours on my palate and teaches me some of the knowledge and understanding behind why they prepare certain things in certain ways to enhance flavour.
A busy day with a lot of covers coming in for dinner (40). I was involved in a variety of dishes. In the larder section there was a Duck Salad, a Rarebit with Tomatoes and the Canapés. I got to experience a busy rush within the Pem which was very interesting.
Everyone works together so well. It is very calm. Even if a mistake happened within the kitchen (mistakes can happen in every kitchen) no one was shouted at or blamed; they were just spoken in a calm manner and encouraged to quickly correct the mistake. They were also asked if they needed a helping hand.
This showed me good leadership and how important the relationship within the kitchen team is. Some kitchens, years ago, used to be verbally violent and unfriendly. This is well documented, but those practices are now out of touch with the modern kitchen. The Pem truly has that family feeling about it.
Today was a very good day. It wasn’t crazy busy but I was allowed to help out and learn the plating techniques of every starter. I was also put in charge and responsible for the canapés in the kitchen.
This gave me a sense of importance within the kitchen even though I had only been there for a few days. I felt like I mattered and they valued my presence. They really included me as part of the team. At no point in time was I put aside to do menial tasks, they all made sure I was involved and learning.
The staff at the Pem make sure you feel valued in the kitchen regardless of who you are or what your position is. It was very fun being involved in the team. I could feel my own confidence growing.
Saturdays – the team decided to start a bit later as there wasn’t a lunch service. There was a lunch planned in China town for everyone to go out and try out new dishes in a restaurant and I was invited along, too.
One of the chefs ordered a range of dishes to surprise everyone. The dishes ranged from jelly fish to duck tongue to chicken feet! It was very enjoyable to spend time and get to know all the staff outside the kitchen and for them to involve me made me feel part of the team. Afterwards Billy & Ella (2 of the chefs) and I went out to get some bubble tea and sat in St James Park to talk until we had to go back into the Pem to get ready for service.
Today’s service was a steady pace and not too busy. One of the kitchen chefs takes the responsibility to produce snacks for all the kitchen staff to nibble on throughout the service so no one is kept hungry. The snacks can vary – from fruit pieces to little snacks created from a different style of cuisine. This way everyone tries something new. This also allows the chefs to be creative with the snacks as no day is ever the same.
My second week. Tuesday is always the busiest day as there is so much of preparation to do.
As I was on larder last week I progressed onto the hot side of the kitchen and got to help prepare garnishes that go on the mains. I have learnt new flavour pairing and techniques that have helped me progress with my knowledge. I also headed into pastry to have a go at some of the pastry plating.
Was a quiet day however it gave me a chance to wander to each section of the kitchen and ask questions about the dishes and how they’re made.
The odd quiet time gives the chefs a chance to develop dishes for the next season. All the chefs have a chance to try a new dish and encouraged to have an input. It was very interesting hearing the head chef talk about how they work around seasons and why they choose the ingredients for the dish. I heard how the team represent the ‘feelings’ of a season in new dishes.
I also spent time in the pastry section and was shown some of the delicious elements that make up some of the Pems’ desserts. I made some scones and watched some amazing plating happen.
I tried to plate the chocolate peanut dessert and it took me 3 attempts until the chocolate piping was good enough to be sent out. The pastry chef has a high standard of how each plate should look and if it’s not to her standards she starts again. Each plate is consistent. They were very patient and encouraging with me.
OMG what a day! It started off as usual and I arrived at 1pm to start prep before dinner service. I was helping between larder and hot section of the kitchen. As before I was doing prep. It was a quiet day so I was told I could finish early.
I had then had a reservation made by Sally for me to dine in her restaurant! I was surprised to say the least and excited to have such an experience on the other side of the kitchen! I was not expecting that.
Upon arriving I was greeted as any other dining customer. I was led to my table that was dressed beautifully with a golden feather which represents the Pem. I was assured by the waiting staff that I’d be looked after and that they would provide me company as I was dining on my own. This made me feel so comfortable.
I was treated like a VIP and they certainly made me feel like one. As I am vegetarian my options are often limited in many restaurants I eat in, however at the Pem they went out of their way to produce a vegetarian tasting menu for me. It was a 5-course meal along with canapés and petit fours.
Truly an incredible dining experience and to go above for me to produce such a dinner was truly incredible. Along with the meal I had some cocktails which were recommended by the waiters as I tend to be quite indecisive when it comes to choosing drinks. Quite unique tasting cocktails that would be hard to find anywhere else and were truly indulging.
Even though I had worked in the kitchen for a little over a week and knew some of the dishes that were being produced, the waiting staff still treated me like a new customer, explaining each dish and assuring I was happy with everything.
My whole meal was perfect but, I would have to say my favourite course would have to be the wild mushroom and egg dish from the starter as it was truly incredible, I personally love mushrooms but the way the way the dish came together with all the ingredients did really just make you want to smile and go for seconds.
I had a truly incredible dining experience and didn’t feel lonely for one minute as the staff checked up on me and took their time to sit down and talk to me. Definitely a meal that I’ll never forget!
So today I had a chance to get more involved in a different part of the kitchen. The pastry section. As a chef I tend to focus more on the larder however I do tend to enjoy the occasional pastry making.
In the pastry section I was helping to produce mis-en-place for an event that was happening in the hotel so I was making a lot of new elements which I had never done before. The pastry chefs were very educated to how and why there are certain ways to make something and made sure to tell me so I could understand.
It was a very interesting day, learning a different part of the kitchen. It was much cooler and more relaxing. I have also been given a lesson on chocolate writing! To have this skill as a chef may not always use it but definitely a skill to know. One of the pastry chefs Cameron is very skilful at chocolate writing and helped me understand how to hold the bag correctly, understand the speed and height to write from but also the fact that it takes time to learn which made me feel better as it’s not easy as it looks.
As I had been practicing, I managed to fill the whole marble table in chocolate writing saying happy birthday 30 times in different fonts and sizes. I had gone through one of the piping bags and had to get another as my practice wasn’t over yet.
The pastry chefs were very encouraging of my work and proud at any moment it progressed from a squiggle to an actual word. I really enjoyed the pastry section as they allowed me to develop my skills even though I made a bit of a mess they were very nice and calm about it all, helping me along the way.
Today was my last day. I had enjoyed the past 2 weeks immensely and am sad it had gone by so quick.
Today I had an option of going to any section of the kitchen to help. I chose the larder as that’s where I had enjoyed it the most. Today was a very quick but busy service as many of the customers arrived at once. It was a good service to end for my last day because I could make and send out dishes on my own and truly felt part of the team once and for all!
At the end of service there was a lot of dancing and singing during clean down, it was really a fun atmosphere! I had enjoyed it so much working at the Pem and will definitely be coming back to dine, the whole experience has been superb with all the knowledge I gained from the chefs will not be forgotten! If anyone is thinking of going to the Pem, it’s a must! The whole dining experience and the food is unlike anywhere else you will find. Truly an incredible place of work and I’m so happy to have beenpartofitforatimeof2week!
Huge thankyou to Sally Abe and het team at The Pem, the Savoy Educational Trust, Koppertcress UK and Darren Creed, Loughborough College