When it came to selecting places within which to do my Work-Experience (or, since it’s more for inspiration than emulation, let’s call it Fork-Experience) I decided to approach the kitchens of those restaurants that had already inspired me.

Being as obsessively into food as I am, my research was well and truly completed well before the selection process began.  I’d spent forever, poring over The Epicure and various food magazines & sites weekly, reading about the latest food trends & destinations, planning my next indulgences.

Without too much of a second thought (I could be buying shooooooes with this moneyyyy), I dropped 3-figures on degustations that had left my brain humming with ideas… and my tummy begging for mercy.

Like other committed “foodies” (why has this become a dirty f-word?) I’d happily spend a large chunk of my dosh on nosh (and the other chunk on shoooooes), content in the knowledge that food writers and experts had done their research, and that for that moment, nothing else mattered, except for the produce on the plate, and the culinary journey that the chef was taking us on.

I didn’t think about how it got there, I certainly didn’t think too hard about who put it there (in my romantic imaginings, every dish was the result of the head-chef’s own hand) and when I went home after dessert, my impression was the sum of its parts… not a single leaf, or a pretty petal.

I did find it hard to explain to naysayers (those who question my commitment to gastronomic exploration), that choosing to fork (pun!) out half a week’s pay for dinner “is all about the journey, mannnn” (or, TJM, for short); because, having not worked in the industry before, I had no empirical evidence to actually back up this foodtopian ideal.

All I had were my own blind hopes, dreams, and Issue #1 of FOOL magazine.

Indeed, these same hopes & dreams (ok, and the article in FOOL) are what led me to the unassuming Ripponlea door of Attica.

The hope that I would learn some cool stuff from spending time in the kitchen, and the dream that said time would somehow help me to acquire (via osmosis) some of Ben Shewry’s understanding of native cuisine, conservation & artistry – something I’d been privy to at the MFWF Theatre of Ideas earlier this year.

img_0309.jpg.scaled1000

some perspective…

I expected to be awe-struck, inspired, challenged.

And, indeed, I was.

Struck with awe: first by the sheer size and scope of gadgetry, and then by the skill level of these chefs- many younger than me.

attica_kitchen.jpg.scaled1000

A slice of the kitchen

These guys, (and I mean guys- there is a severe lack of XX-chromosome in this kitchen) inspired me, constantly- both with their aforementioned skillz on display, and by their conversations about food- something you’d expect from people who literally hang up their dancing shoes to hang out with horseradish.

attica_kohl_rabi.jpg.scaled500

some kohl rabi (or ‘Vienna’) in the Attica plot

The challenges, too, were constant – every new task proving a stretch of my “Masterchef” skill-set (yep… When asked to boil an egg, I panicked, dropping [& cracking] it into cold water… what a n00b.)

EGG_FACE_5.jpg.scaled500/facepalm

We’re expected to complete everything swiftly, being as economical with our time as humanly possible (no mean feat for a perennial procrastinator).

But there are some tasks, such as relieving 800 flowers of their petals, one by one; picking enough individual leaves off lemon thyme sprigs for easy sprinkling across 60-odd plates; or deconstructing 25 globe artichokes, that just take forever. And I mean forever. Every.day.

attica_sea_veg.jpg.scaled1000Hey Alice, why don’t you pick 300gm-worth of this stuff? YOLO-type stuff…

At first, the patience required to actually complete these tasks is enough to drive one batty…Well, by one, I mean me. Everyone else seems entirely at peace with their ‘prep-lists’, crossing through each list item like the end point of a tai-chi exercise.

I stand at my ‘prep-bench’ for hours, tweezers in hand, mastering the art of winning twigs and influencing petals, whilst practising the art of not talking so much (yep, it took one night’s service to score that well-deserved reprimand… To which Nick replied… “it wouldn’t be you if you hadn’t!”)

By the end of my first few prep shifts, my feet are burning from being propped up on them for so many hours, my leg muscles have tensed up as though I’ve done a heck of a lot of squats, and my brain is unable to function past anything but “bed” and “how the heck do they manage this every day!?” and “why the heck would they want to!?”

attica_sleeping.jpg.scaled500

Midnight.

Upon asking the others why they’re in the kitchen- why they’re willing to give up such massive chunks of their day for their craft, they almost unanimously reveal their desires to one day become head-chefs themselves. From stagiaire to sous, each is on their own trajectory, ideally to the top of their own food-chain.

In fact, it’s not until I’ve experienced the rush of several nights’ service, glided along with the other chefs, watched my laboriously ensnared lemon-thyme leaves sprinkled generously over the snow crab, the final tiny pieces of an elaborate culinary puzzle, that my own puzzle pieces fall into place.

attica_crab.jpg.scaled1000

The Crab.

This. This is why they do it.

Those lemon-thyme leaves have gone through their own process, guided by the very chefs that effortlessly ‘plate-up’ by my side. From being planted by them in the kitchen garden, cultivated by hand (I once even chanced upon Shewry himself, pulling tiny weeds out of the garden beds), picked at the ideal stage (through rain, hail or shine), trimmed, washed, dried, portioned, tweezed, plated, served, marvelled at, devoured, enjoyed…

And I was there. A part of that. That… journey.

So there I had it; the proof of TJM. Only what I had finally recognised, was that this wasn’t simply a “journey” for the diners themselves; and it certainly didn’t just begin when a ‘table’ retrieved their booking.

Dining out is about experiencing someone else’s point of view – but that point comes through the sum of many little details- each the responsibility of someone meditating through their prep-list, well aware that it’s up to them to propel every element on that plate to greatness.

My stint at Attica gave me a deeper insight into fine-dining than I could ever have gained from remaining on the “front” side. I left the kitchen with more than an appreciation of the chef’s vision… I came away with deep-seeded, empathetic appreciation of the chefs. Each and every one of them. Their vision for the future, and their dedication to their craft.

And of course, a new-found affection for every little part of each sum.