2011, Personally

Haggis, neeps and tatties canapes. One of my few dishes I'm actually happywith.

It’s safe to say that last year was one of the strangest and most awesome I’ve yet to live through.

I started off managing the Euston Tap, yet another job I wasn’t really qualified for but somehow managed to get with relative ease. It started with 80-hour working weeks, scrambling to organize an operation with problems ranging from rude staff to raw sewage, but after a few months we got to a point where I could work only 50 hours a week and I was really starting to enjoy myself. It was never an easy job and it wasn’t one I would have stuck with for long, but I took pride in it, and in the end it was the only full-time job I’d ever really liked. That’s partly down to a very large supporting cast of hilarious and big-hearted characters, both behind the bar and in front of it, and to regular episodes of outlandish comedy and grim tragedy. (On two occasions I had to dig shit out of the toilets by hand, which at the time was decidedly the latter, but in hindsight seems more like the former.) I always felt that the Euston Tap would make an awesome setting for a ridiculous reality show. They could call it The Only Way Is Euston.

Graham the cellarman, with the barrels that are endless.

Of course, when the MasterChef final aired I was more than ready to move on. Ready, but not at all prepared. As far as career changes go, winning a game show and being thrust into the national spotlight, if only for a moment, is a hell of a way to do it. It was abrupt, immediate, and dramatic. Because of the conflict created by being known for my culinary skill despite having no real experience of professional cooking, there has been the odd rough spot: pop-ups with inconsistent food and service, or demos and classes that were too convoluted to follow. But I’ve learned from my mistakes, and as my kung fu instructor says, you can’t learn to cook rice by talking about it. You’ve just got to do it.

My life has been pretty exciting and chaotic ever since I left Wisconsin, but what followed MasterChef has probably been the most exciting and chaotic eight months of my life. When I heard that I would be going to work at the Fat Duck, I felt a sort of thrill I haven’t felt in years – it was a childlike giddiness, the way you feel on Christmas Eve when you think you might be getting Legos. The two weeks there were incredibly enlightening and educational, difficult but at the same time surprisingly fun. I was also invited to brew my own beer at the Black Isle Brewery and BrewDog; this would have been a dream come true at just about any brewery, but these guys gave me a huge amount of creative control and treated me like a real guest rather than a marketing tool (even if that’s what I was). We made some awesome beers that I’m very proud of, and I developed some lasting professional and personal relationships with them.

Where the magic happens.Testing miso for Mr. Squirrel at BrewDog.

There have been big projects like campaigns for Malaysia Kitchen, KitchenAid, and Oral-B, and smaller gigs, like speaking at the Japanese Embassy and Unilever, cooking for Trevor Sorbie, and testing microwaves on the Gadget Show that have all kept me quite happily busy. There is always the fear that the offers may start to slow as my 15 minutes count down to zero. But even when they do, that will be a fine opportunity for me to focus on much bigger projects, like a book or a restaurant – which is already in the works.

Despite warnings from successful restaurateurs – who pretty much universally tell me not to open a restaurant – I still want to open a restaurant. That’s the dream, and I feel like now is the time to do it. Professionally, I’m still well unprepared and inexperienced. But I fear I may always feel like that, so I may as well just close my eyes and jump. Conan O’Brien said something in his interview on Marc Maron’s podcast that really spoke to me:

Get yourself into situations where you don’t have a choice. I really think that’s the definition of accomplishing a lot of things in this life. I have some part of me – because I’m not a brave person, I don’t think of myself as someone who has a lot of guts – but I will get myself into situations where the house is on fire and there’s only one way out, which is through the front door. And then people later on give you credit for going through the front door, and well, there was really no where else to go… the only way out is to survive it. If I had been taken off the air after six months, I would just become a Trivial Pursuit question.

I’m also not a brave person. I’m not very assertive or confident, but one thing I’ve learned about myself through MasterChef and everything that’s come after it – and this is probably true of most people – is that I can do things that I never thought I could do if I have no choice but to do them. I said before that it was awkward to be asked to run kitchens or cooking classes without any experience, and that I was unqualified for my job at the Euston Tap; I wasn’t just being self-deprecating. I really had no practical knowledge of how to run a pub except for a fairly good knowledge of craft beer. When I started, I had never changed a keg; I didn’t know how to condition ale; I had never cashed up, made rotas, or ordered supplies; and I faltered. I made mistakes and I struggled, but I had bosses, co-workers, and customers that were counting on me, and so I had no choice. I had to, as they say, shape up or ship out.

And that’s how I feel about opening a restaurant. It just has to be done. And I think it has to be done sooner rather than later because now is such an exciting time to eat out in London, and I think that my restaurant will fit in nicely with current food trends while also filling a long-standing void. I’ll speak more on that in my next post.

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3 thoughts on “2011, Personally

  1. Mike says:

    NIce reflection on your year. I agree that “having no choice” is a great way to propel yourself forward but I don’t think you give yourself enough credit for bravery. Lot’s of people don’t even put themselves in the position of having no choice because they are too afraid. So I say Bravo! to you because you are indeed brave.

  2. Milli says:

    I came out of uni with an architecture degree with such a passion for food I had to try it. I asked a restaurant if they would give me a trial as I had no cooking qualifications. The first morning I arrived I had no idea what the chef was talking about with a ‘mise en place’ and my first job was to pre poach 20 eggs in the same massive pan to heat through later for service, the concept itself was baffling let alone how I was going to keep an eye on 20 eggs, I had thrown myself in the deep end, but without knowing it. It’s important not to overthink things, to just go full throttle and think ‘what’s the worst that can happen’. I am excited for you, here’s to the year ahead!

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