Masterclass is definitely the right word. Stephen Gibson, Co-Owner of Pichet, had been into us once before on the One Month Course for a day long workshop and was widely regarded as one of the most engaging and informative chefs we met.
On the first day we got to work with him, we experimented with a mediterranean gnocchi dish, a fresh mushroom tortellini and a beautifully light shellfish broth with seared seabass. Everyone had a fantastic day under his tutelage . He was clear, concise, organized, everything you would expect the Head Chef of an upmarket Bistro to be. We all left Cooks Academy that day high as a kite on his infectious passion for good food. It was gorgeous to look at, approachable yet challenging and, most importantly, incredibly flavourful. Why wouldn’t we want more?
I think what gave him that engaging charm was that he tempered every recipe and every piece of advice with restaurant tested methods. A lot of the other chefs did that aswel but with Stephen it genuinely felt like we were just watching him at work within the kitchen. When demoing, he would sort all of his mise en place (prep and organisation), get his plates warming, set up his pans. Then when he had everything ready, start into the cooking. Nothing was panicked. He knew how everything was doing. Everything was under his control and because of that, nothing really went wrong. And if something did? No hassle, each part of the dish was already prepped. It was all handled exactly as it would have been in a professional kitchen.
It was this kind of professionalism that I was looking forward to cracking into when we met him again this week for another days work. We started off the day with a great poached egg dish that apparently has been on his menus for many years in one way or another. Again, as soon as he started working it was obvious this man knew what he was doing; he highlighted to us the importance of fresh ingredients, of buying good quality carrots to preserve the colour in a purée, that there is no such thing as the right or wrong way to cook something as long as you like the taste. It is this combination of the passion that is needed to devote your life to cooking and the practicality of working in the engineroom of the culinary industry that is what makes him so interesting.
As he works he rattles off hints and tips. “Don’t season your flour for a pané.” “Everything gets used, there’s little to no waste in a good kitchen.” “Your food has got to be room temperature before cooking.” “Poach fish in hot milk but take it off the heat.” “French black pudding (Boudin Noir) is the best.” He has a pair of tongs hung from his belt like a six-shooter. He handles scalding hot pots and pans with ease, he has clearly been around the block. It’s nice to know though that he still coughs when he inhales cooking vinegar, it always makes me feel stupid when that happens. We cook up the egg dish followed quickly by a de-constructed onion tart where we got to work on our presentation skills. I was amazed at how good the dishes we made looked. How easy it was to attain that high standard we all expect from good quality restaurants.
We really hit our stride though when we start talking about life as a chef. Thankfully Stephen is refreshingly honest about what it is really like. Terrible hours, shocking pay and poor conditions in many restaurants combine to make it a fairly tough profession to love. This being said, his face lights up at talk of working on the line in a busy restaurant. Cooking plate after plate after plate of great food. Working shoulder to shoulder with other men and women in the same situation as you. The post service high is like nothing else. The first beer afterwards, a thing of divine grace. The adrenaline kick is addictive. I have been thinking recently that if someone said I couldn’t be a chef I don’t really know what I would do. Nothing else affords you that excitement and creativity on a daily basis. It’s very addictive. All in all it doesn’t sound too bad does it?
We finish up the day with what seemed to be a pretty intricate dish involving pan fried fish with four or five different accompaniments. We cracked into it with relish. Pasta making. Old-school béchamel and cheese sauce. A mushroom pickle. Blanched leeks. Confit chicken wings. We had plenty to keep us busy. The dish came together incredibly well in the end. The chicken wings in particular were incredible! Stephen has a great ability for breaking a dish down into easily engageable chunks which all combine into an intricate modern dish that would not look out of place on any Michelin Star menu. We made dishes that I would never have thought I would be capable of a few months ago. That’s the beauty of someone like Stephen Gibson, he makes everyone feel like they could be a chef. Whether everyone wants to be or not is a different story.
~ Mark O’Brien