Kitchen confidential: the secret chef column

When busy chefs need inspiration a meal out can be just the reboot they need. The secret chef reveals one of the few perks of the job

I’ve never been one to dine out regularly. In all honesty, it isn’t a luxury I’ve ever really been able to afford. What’s more, I get frustrated, even angry, when I spend money on a meal that could have been prepared with greater care or precision in my own kitchen.

But in a profession that demands innovation and progression, it is essential to expose your senses to what others are doing, how they are thinking and what food they are putting on the plate. This is even more important whenever I hit the chef’s equivalent of writer’s block, or when the repetition of a dish or menu becomes too stale to bear. The best cure is always to take a seat at someone else’s table and let them cook for you.

However with limited time, not to mention limited funds – aside from the occasional pizza or plate of dumplings – I eat out just a handful of times a year. Consequently, I make every effort to ensure these meals count. It is in situations like this that the inherent tribalism of the industry comes into its own. I’ve forged great relationships with other chefs both close to home and further afield and this allows access to one of the few genuine perks that come with the job: we may be eating in the same restaurant as you, but we are almost certainly having a far better – and often considerably cheaper – meal.

Respect and understanding

Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to dine in some of the finest restaurants in the world. Reservations have been secured purely because of my job – no fancy credit card concierge service required – and even restaurants that could fill their dining rooms many times over keep a table back for chefs who might be in the area. Glasses, and on occasion bottles, of champagne regularly appear within seconds of sitting down. Extra dishes are par for the course, and the bill (if it does materialise) is usually heavily discounted.

On one particularly memorable occasion a famous dish that no longer appeared on the menu of a three-star restaurant was prepared tableside for just myself and my wife, much to the chagrin and confusion of every other table in the restaurant.

And when those very same chefs come to eat with me, they get exactly the same treatment. It is this quid pro quo that not only keeps the industry alive with creativity and energy and ideas, but also shows respect and an understanding that we are all in the same boat.

It is the secret handshake, a subtle nod of the head coupled with a gentle smile. It is an unspoken code and recognition that, as notoriously underpaid professionals we don’t have a whole heap of spare cash to lavish on the luxuries of fine dining. If someone in that same boat chooses to spend their night off and hard-earned cash with you then it makes sense to give them the respect and thanks that they deserve, which usually amounts to a sore head the morning after and a wallet that isn’t nearly as empty as it should be.

The secret chef

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