The Irish Man

It was another day in the kitchen, but only my second day on the larder section because they needed someone to give them a hand, I don’t even remember why. Suddenly, out of the blue, this guy (that I have never spoken to before, just seen him walking round the staff area) walks in on the middle of service while I was platting a steak tartar, and asks – are you Sophia?

Quickly I looked up and I saw him, with his long perfectly shaped beard, a long straight hair that every girl would wish to have it naturally like that and wearing the management blue suit. I answered – yes. He immediately changed his frowned face and said he had heard I was very creative and good with flavour combinations and he wondered if I could help him out on creating a couple of cocktail garnishes for some drinks he had created to present in France.

Between the chef calling on tickets and me plating dishes, I asked him to tell me more about the cocktails, and he did. Within what I think was about two minutes in real time (I’ll tell you more about chef time later), I suggested an edible rose petal garnish and he just said it was a great idea. Next thing I see is two bartenders running around and asking me how to get it done and where to get the ingredients because he needed 80 portions of it for the flight he was taking two days after.

Ever since then I started thinking about my interest on cocktails and how I never got to work at a bar, a dream I’ve always had. After a while I started getting closer and closer to him and the bartenders, helping developing techniques to make their lives easier with my cooking and baking knowledge.
And so I asked to have a working experience at the bar. I had to do it on my day off, but I couldn’t be more excited. It felt so right, as if I’ve been waiting on that moment to happen all my life. I loved it, and asked to get transferred, but obviously it wouldn’t be that easy. It was a hard time in the kitchen with people leaving, head chef getting sacked, and nobody wanting to be on pastry other than me and another girl.

Finally, after two months waiting and a lot of pressure put on the management, I got it. And that was when my life changed. I got to know the world of talking to costumers, of looking clean and tidy, of having set breaks to eat, of diving into a sea of brand new information. It was a period were everyday I was learning something new, tasting, creating, being happy (I even asked for extra hours).

The thing is, this Irish man called Shane Kilgariff opened not only his bar doors for me, he opened his mind and heart. I am thankful every day for making the move from the kitchen to the bar, and it’s because of this opportunity that I had, or even better, that he gave to me, that the direction of my whole career has completely changed.

Cheers to you, Shane!

A Coffee with Marc

The way we met was quite unexpected. Actually I was basically a stalker. My former boss had told me about Marc Alvarez when I said I was moving here, so I follow him on Instagram. Once I saw a picture of him flying to London, I gave him a bar hint to go. And that was it, all the contact we had, until last week.

I was sipping a Negroni at a bar when I realized that if I wanted some things to happen I would have to make them happen. So I texted him again on Instagram and asked if he would be interested in having an informal chat with me. Surprisingly he said yes, and we agreed on having a morning coffee.

 

I picked him up at Enigma and we walked to a coffee place he usually goes called Cuba de Janeiro. Thank god he is a talker, so I didn’t struggle whatsoever to get to know him. So we ordered our drinks, and he started talking about how Enigma is and what is it exactly. For those who don’t know, Enigma is one of the six restaurants owned by Albert Adriá, one of the most well-known Chefs in Barcelona. If you still haven’t got a clue of what I’m talking about, give it a quick Google, he is a big boy around here, and almost around everywhere.

Back to Enigma, what the hell is that? So basically is a restaurant that, what I understood, is to blow your mind away. Secret code to get in, several rooms you go through until the end where the bar is (and each room has a name, a concept and an outstanding architecture), and of course an amazing crew behind it all.

So Marc is part of this crew, actually, a big part of it. He is just not only responsible for all the company’s bars but also is part of the staff at Enigma, at least for now. He creates everything, makes research travels and reports it all back to Albert.

The thing is we didn’t just talk about this restaurant. We talked about Heart, the Ibiza project from the company that just now, on its third year, is opening its big wings and flying. We also discussed about Trip Advisor and how people taking pictures of their food could end up destroying everybody else’s first impressions on the dishes.

Putting that aside, the main part was talking about creativity (at least my favourite part). How does he create such innovative drinks? Where does the inspiration come from? Well, those questions weren’t exactly answered. Why? Because they didn’t need to. He comes from a humble family where things had to be done, where if you don’t ask you don’t get. He started working in hospitality very early and even though that wasn’t his main graduation (he graduated on Biology), he dedicated to it, and like always, with a little bit of luck and a lot of dedication, he caught Albert’s attention.

He had a massive challenge ahead of him, but that didn’t stopped him on going far and getting him to be the recognized bartender that he is today.

There is just one thing though, and this goes straight to you Marc. You still owe me a drink, remember?

Maybe, maybe not.

On January we decided we were going to move to Barcelona. Not only that, but we would try and work with the best. We sent CVs to everyone we could, and then this dream company answered back showing interest in us. Until then we were feeling high up in the sky.

We had a couple of skype interviews we were in. Everything was set. There was only one problem, it wasn’t the positions we wanted, neither the restaurant we wanted from the company group. At first we both said yes for the fact that once you are in, you are in.

Arriving in Barcelona we had one day to get the documents done and the day after we started working. Everything went very well and quick. I was going to be a part-time runner and Matt would be a help cook. We signed for it.

First day and problems already started. I was barely introduced to everyone and they put me to clean all the dining room. Until then it was fine, I know what a runner has to do. But little by little I started asking myself if I would really be up to doing that, for that pay, to maybe get transferred to the bar(the place I had originally applied). The thing is, everything had to be done with extreme dedication, and don’t get me wrong, everywhere I worked I dedicated myself. But maybe this time it wouldn’t be worth it. And it wasn’t.

By the fourth day we were both destroyed. We were both asking ourselves why we took a slaving, disrespectful and exhausting job.
It all came down to the fifth day. That day I realized that even with a part-time pay, I had done a fifteen hour shift (reaching 56 hours that week), at two o’clock in the morning we were still cleaning down and waiting on a staff meeting to resume the day. And the climax of the night was an extended meeting until four o’clock with the most clarifying speech I could have ever heard.

It was a speech made by the Head Chef. It started with – If you don’t see yourselves on this journey with us, you should leave. We are at a moment where we want the second Michelin Star. It would be insane not to want it. We are working hard every day to get to that point. If you are here just to pay your bills, you might as well go search for another job. If you are here and you don’t aim to be a head- waiter, or a Chef de Partie within the years, you should go. We have no time to waste on people that doesn’t want what we want. And that is the second Michelin Star right now.

It was all I needed to hear. On that day I arrived home at five in the morning. On that very day I wrote my resignation letter saying I couldn’t go through with all that bullshit (obviously I didn’t write it like that). Basically, I would work my ass off as a runner, to maybe get to be a waitress, to maybe be able to request a transfer to the bar, maybe. For me that was a lot of maybes just to maybe get to work side by side with the bartender I wanted to, maybe three years from then.

That’s just not my style. I decided to leave everything and maybe I’ll get there running from the other side.

My first Chef

Once again I was doing a stage at a very well-known kitchen in my home town. It was my first time being part of a service, I spent 6 months there. The chef was the most lovable, yet temperamental person I had worked for. I started on pastry learning the basic stuff like crème patissier, lemon tarts, glazes, etc.

After one month on pastry I asked to be transferred to the main kitchen, so I could really feel if the kitchen was the place to be. They started putting me on starters, then slowly got me involved with the mains and afterwards they were even calling me to help out on the big functions around the city.

A lot of stress happened, of course, but that wasn’t the high point.
After six months there (on an unpaid stage), the pressure on me was getting higher and higher, and I just didn’t want to be part of that anymore. It was time to move on.

I was scared the chef would hate me when I told him it was my time to leave.

The opposite happened.

One day I pulled him to the side and told him I had to go, that his kitchen had a lot of problems that I couldn’t put up with anymore. That maybe I wasn’t mature enough to deal with them or maybe it was just a bad management issue. I could hear myself saying that and seeing him yelling back at me for being so arrogant.

The chef was speechless and said that no one had ever told him that. That he knew things weren’t perfect but that nobody in 6 years of business had had the guts to tell him what made them leave.

He thanked me.

He said he was very happy with everything I had done for the restaurant and that he knew, from the first day that he met me, that I wasn’t like everybody else and that he never expected me to stay.

He said – you don’t belong here, you belong to the world, and no one can take that away from you. I hope to see you soon, sit down, have a beer and hear all of your adventures.

Now every year I go back home, I do exactly what we agreed on, and the respect that I show for him, he shows back.

Italian Lemons

I was staging in Florence at a fine dining restaurant. They didn’t let me touch the pans, I was working for twelve hours a day just washing salad and cleaning after the chefs. I also had the very important task of squeezing fresh lemon juice to dress the salad. For three weeks I was doing it as normal – grabbing the hand squeezer.

One day when it wasn’t so busy, the chef looked at me and asked how I was doing the lemon juice. He said it was wrong and he showed me how. He grabbed three pots and said there were three different ways of extracting the juice, it all depends on how you want the end result to be.

I was astonished by it, I couldn’t believe there was such thing. Other apprentices gathered around, they were all as curious as I was.

The chef sliced three halves and said that you can squeeze it normally, you can squeeze it sideways and you can squeeze it upside down. The first juice came out fresh, but slightly bitter. He explained it was because when you rub the sides of the pulp and the inside of the skin it mixes the citric juice with the bitterness of the skin. If you want that, great.

If you don’t want that, if you just want the citric taste you should just push the sides of the half lemon into the squeezer, so you extract purely the juice. It tasted just as he had said so.

The last and most important way of doing it was surprisingly amazing. He said, if you want the sourest taste of all, you do it upside down, because when the juice drops out of the lemon, it carries with it all the essencial oils that come out of the outside of the skin.

It may sound so silly, but with that simple share of knowledge, a tear drop came out of my eye. It was one of those eureka moments where I realized why I wanted to be a chef.

The smallest details can change everything, even a tiny drop of Italian lemon juice.

Artichoke Hearts

And then I got my second job offer as commis chef. I was feeling alive,  I had woken up at five in the morning just to make sure I would get there on time. Second trial in London and it was at Soho’s heart. What more could I want? I arrived in front of the restaurant and no one to be seen. But then a mirage appeared just in front of me and there he was, the Head Chef walking down the empty street with some take-away coffees for the staff that were already working downstairs. He looked at me and I asked the sentence I’ve been saying a lot lately – do you work here? And then the biggest smile came out of him and he said – yes, are you Sophia?

He took me downstairs, I got changed, couldn’t stop shaking. It was the most beautiful kitchen I’ve ever seen. Dark, full of chefs looking really neat, talking an English that I could barely understand, running and making jokes and teasing each other because hey, it was a Saturday and despite of being the busiest day of the week, they would all be off the next day.

The Sous Chef was responsible for me. He put me to work right next to him to dice some cucumbers and tomatoes. Easy stuff – I thought. Until then I didn’t even know I was at a restaurant with a Michelin star. Perfection was important but the Sous Chef looked more interested in getting to know who I was and where I came from than how I was dicing.

He put some music on, almost like a dubstep to get everyone going. He gave me a lot of the prep to taste, asking if I knew all the ingredients. So far I was having so much fun on the trial that I didn’t even care if I would get the job.

Breakfast time came. Someone had done pancakes for everyone and there was orange juice and coffee. That was a way of showing that this would probably be the only meal of the day. Back to the kitchen and the running around started to became faster and the stress started to get in higher levels. The Sous Chef put me to the side and told me that he couldn’t have me at the pass so I would have to just watch the service and ask questions when possible. And then I did.

I was feeling like a little kid, wondering around, asking people if they needed any help, asking them how long where they there, if they liked it. Because lunch wasn’t that busy I stayed a long time talking to the Pastry Chef while she was yelling SERVICE with all her lungs (being the only girl in the kitchen) and talking me through all the desserts. Lunch was over. Time to prep again.

Clear all up and back to normal pace again. The Sous Chef gave me more things to try. But then he didn’t have much prep I could do, I didn’t have enough experience to do anything without supervision, so he found a container full of this roasted things that looked like tiny sweet potatoes and he said – have you ever seen artichokes like this? He told me how they prepped just the heart and slowly roasted them to then make a purée out of the roasted artichoke hearts. My job was to cut them in half and take the most out of the ‘meat’ that was inside of them.

Time for a smoke.  All of the smokers went outside, around the corner of the restaurant (because is not good to be seen smoking near the restaurant). They asked if I smoked, I went with them. The Sous Chef sat next to me to break the awkward silence and asked how was I feeling about the day so far. He said – I know the job is shit and the payment as well, but all the boys really liked you and we could use someone exciting, friendly and willing… like you. It’s your call.

I said – I think I’ll get back to the artichokes now.

They all smiled back.

I was one of them.

(I didn’t take the job though)

Just Born.

Today, well, not exactly today, it was a couple of days ago, I realized I was actually living, working and enjoying Barcelona. Sounds weird for me, even more because I’ve been here for two months now.

Basically it was a shit day. I had woken up hating myself, hating my life and what I’ve been doing with it. But then, because I still had a couple of hours left before going back to work, me and Matt (my boyfriend) went for a walk around the Gothic Quarter. Suddenly we realized we were way passed it, already at a neihbordhood called El Born. This is a new upcoming área with lots of bars and restaurants that haven’t been distroyed by the tourists with outraging prices and very, very, very bad food.

Anyway, we stopped at a Vineria y Taperia place called Grapo. To start, before anything, I started crying – poor waitress. After I managed to recompose myself and order a glass of amazing Albariño wine, I decided I needed to start this bloody blog and do something about the need I have to share things. By things I mean from knowledge to cigarettes and coffee.

So we finally order some Cazón (fish) – with something that tasted like a cummin, or caraway batter, and a grilled octopus with potatoes. The food being so tasty at that moment was what I needed to give me the light and think: hey, people should know about this place!

More important than that, working in kitchens for four years made me appreciate even more the food because today I analyse how it could have been cooked, the spices that have been used, how well it paired with the wine we luckly chose.

All that made me realise it wasn’t just a coincidence that I wanted to write about food and travelling. It is almost a MUST, after all I’ve seen and tasted on the past few years in Europe.

Don’t you think?