I was 15 at the time, and in a co-op program in my first professional kitchen at the Carlton Hotel. The chore at the time seemed straight forward. Wrong.
Pour gallons of milk into the largest double handed pot you can think of, one I could have easily fit into. Add 6 whole onions studded with cloves, bay-leaf, and thyme. Bring to boil, but make sure it doesn’t boil over, otherwise, you’re in big shit!
Take a second same sized pot, and add 6 lbs of butter. Melt slowly then add 6 lbs of flour. At this point, I would be standing on a milk crate in order to get the over sized wooden paddle in the pot to start mixing. Mix the butter and the flour to a sandy texture which is now called a Roux. I then had to get the pot off the stove and into the oven below to cook it out for 45 minutes. This seemed to take forever until Steve Treadwell, The Chef de Partie came over to give his approval. I had worked up quite a sweat and my face was burning from the heat when I was informed the easy part was over! No shit, he wasn’t kidding!
Back up on the milk crate, the milk had come to a boil and Steve had dragged it off to the side to simmer as I listened to his instructions. The hot milk, ladle by ladle, was to be strained over the Roux while stirring vigorously in order to make the Béchamel into a consistent paste. The more milk I added, the thicker the sauce became, the harder I stirred. I wasn’t even 1/3 of the way through when I thought my arm was going to fall off. Suddenly I heard a rant from the other side of the kitchen: “Didcock, you’re not wanking over there, get on with it!”
If I tried to rush the process and put too much milk in at once, I couldn’t move the paddle. Soon the bubbling cauldron was a thick white sauce and the heat was lowered as Steve moved the pot off to one side. It now had to cook for two hours but needed to be stirred every 5 minutes in order not to catch on the bottom. I was at best relieved to be away from the stove for a while at least!
Over an hour had gone by but I was back up on the milk crate. It now had to be strained. Not once, but twice! Are you fucking joking!?
The stove was turned off and with a huge ladle I had to strain the sauce through strainers into buckets, pumping it through, changing arms as I tried making sure there were no lumps. Even on a milk crate, I could barely reach the bottom of the pot as I struggled to tilt it to get the last few ladles. I hope we didn’t have to make this every week!
There was a moment that day, where I went into a trance, wondering if this is what being an apprentice really meant. I was then startled by Steve yelling at me from across the kitchen “Didcock, you smell something burning?” as he sniffed the air.
“No Chef!” I replied. There was a pause as I continued to pump the last few ladles into the buckets. “Didcock! You sure?!” Steve repeated.
What I wasn’t aware of was that Steve had stood behind me whilst I was on the milk crate. Absorbed in my task, he ignited the rag that was attached to my apron with a lighter. It had begun to smoulder as I worked my way through those last few ladles.
“Didcock! check the ovens! You sure there’s nothing burning?”
I stepped down from the milk crate bending down to open each oven door. “No Chef!” I would say.
The smoke had begun to come over my shoulder as I realized my jacket had ignited. The next minute, Steve picked me up and I found myself fully emerged in the dish pit sink.
“Welcome to the Kitchen mate!”
Food Story - Nigel Didcock