The Foodish Boy
When I was child a shameful incident occurred. Having long looked forward to our trip to Italy planned for the summer, Mother announced that they had a change of heart and we would instead holiday in England. Tantrum does not even begin to cover my response. I kicked, screamed and shouted. I thought my parents must have been joking. They weren’t joking. I didn’t want to sit on a sodding pier, eating fish and chips in the rain. I wanted to perch myself on an Amalfi Coast veranda and work my way through the multitude courses of an Italian lunch. I cried for a week.
I would like to say that this was out of character but ever since I was young I had these occasional snobbish tendencies, especially when it came to food. My parents often wondered how an ordinary Yorkshire lad could behave in such a way. Perhaps if I had been born a decade later some of my behavior could have been excused by branding me a ‘foodie’. But this was the early 90s and with ‘foodie’ culture yet to go mainstream, my parents reached their own conclusion. I had ’Lord Snooty’ syndrome – a condition inspired by the Beano’s character of an ordinary boy who happened to be an Earl. So when I announced my ambitions to cook around the world, my parents wondered how the Lord Snooty would survive 12 months backpacking on a shoe string budget. With jobs like in week 36, I’ll tell you how.
Trying to secure a food job in China proved difficult. With just two weeks to my arrival I worried I would fail to find a single job. Then I stumbled across Bespoke Beijing, a company that creates bespoke Beijing experiences crafted by a team of industry experts. If they could accommodate the needs of Katy Perry and Dennis Rodman surely they had the wizardry to help with my Foodish endeavors? Luckily, founder Sarah waved her magic wand and in no time found me a placement at the five-star luxury Kerry Hotel in Beijing’s CBD. The next thing I knew I was in the back of a blacked out BMW, being chauffeur driven to start work in one the hotels main dining areas — the Kerry’s Kitchen.
My week in Kerry’s Kitchen was like no other experience to date due to the sheer size of their operation. The kitchen not only prepped food for the main restaurant, but also for the two other onsite dining options, Kerry’s Pantry and Centro Bar, as well as for room service, private dining, and other functions. There were so many more links in the chain compared to a regular restaurant. My first day shadowing head chef Him was manic to say the least. We ran from butchery department to pastry kitchen, up floors, down corridors, and from restaurant to bar to ballroom. It was a very complicated and tiring, kitchen dynamic made even more remarkable given the high quality of food on offer.
Kerry’s Kitchen food, like many top hotel restaurants, caters for a range of tastes. With over 100 different pan-Asian dishes, I had the opportunity to partake in a huge amount of cooking: a meat masterclass; learning how to boil deliciously fatty chickens, butcher them and use the broth to make accompanying soup and rice dishes; a dim sum session, delicately folding soup dumplings ready for steaming at lunch service; and a wok session teaching me to master the high heat, heavy pans, and timings without looking like a lost child on his first day at school.
Perhaps the most challenging of all was the hand-pulled noodle masterclass, which a crowd of chefs kindly gathered to observe. The noodle master showed me how to knead and shape the dough. That bit was easy. Then came the pulling process. My onlookers were already starting to giggle in anticipation. The master picked up the dough, stretched it out and folded it in half around his other hand. With every repetition the strands doubled in number and halved in thickness until he had beautifully slim noodles. Then it was my turn…I don’t even know how to being to explain my incompetency. There were odd sized noodles, half-broken noodles, strands stuck together and huge lumps of dough in between. My finished attempt looked more like the work of Jackson Pollock than that of a noodle master.
After so many masterclasses, the chefs informed me that I was going to have to do some work. My role? To run the grill section in the open kitchen and cook to order some Yang Rou Chuan — a cumin lamb kebab typically found in China’s Muslim quarters in areas such as Xi’an. Little did I know this was another stitch-up for their amusement. I soon began to notice what was happening. I am British — I have high standards of queuing etiquette. My customers were Chinese and didn’t seem to know what a queue is. As the restaurant became busier, the grill section began to resemble nothing short of a royal rumble. Several times I had to ward off a bloke the size of a sumo wrestler as he tried to grab the kebab on order for an elderly couple. It was all frightfully stressful.
My week at Kerry had one condition. If I was going to work at the Kerry, I needed to enjoy the full Kerry experience. And who was I to say no? After nine months of sleeping on floors, in crowded dorms, and tents, I found myself in a deluxe room with city views, a gigantic marble en-suite, a king-sized bed, and a chaise lounge for foodish musings. And it didn’t stop there. If I wished, I could have even used their luxury health club and spa. Instead I opted for a much worthier pastime…complementary cocktail consumption. On my last night I sank one last ‘Old Fashioned’ in the hotel’s Centro bar, and thought of how I had grown rather accustomed to my Kerry lifestyle. Someone better call my next hostel and warn them… Lord Snooty is on his way.