Pining for the days of a busy kitchen life, Zack Deakins, chef patron of 1921 in Bury St Edmunds, can’t wait to get back to celebrating each season’s bounty
This column has turned into something quite unexpected. When I agreed to start it, I must admit it did seem fairly daunting. Having barely written more than three sentences in 20 years, I wondered if I was able to and if I was, would it be interesting or relevant to people.
I came to the conclusion that having spent the majority of my life working in restaurants combined with my passion for creative cooking that I was fairly confident I would be able to cobble something together.
Little did I know that three (and now four) of them would be written in a time when there was no restaurant, no life as I knew it.
As I have said before, I started working in kitchens when I was 13, 25 years ago. I have always loved it. As a young chef I always felt entirely responsible for my section and what it produced – whether I was in the building or not. This feeling is now magnified to cover the whole restaurant. This is probably why holidays have never really been a thing. The longest I have ever not done a service is the three weeks Annie and I spent in Thailand when we first got together some 10 years ago. We haven’t even had a honeymoon, and God only knows how Annie has been so understanding!
So these current circumstances have created a completely unknown world to me.
When I first took this column on I expected to be writing about the exciting dishes that were coming on to the menu, or perhaps talking about any one of the mind boggling requests we get. So far that has not been where I find my headspace.
Life working in a restaurant is intense. I would normally start at 7.30am. First job of the day is always to take the veal stock off that has been simmering since the morning before. Then I quickly get on the next one to tick over until the morning after. This 20-minute morning ritual is normally the only bit of ‘me time’ I will get in a day. The chefs will be in the building at 8 and then the phone will no doubt start ringing around then. Deliveries will be coming in to be checked and the kitchen porter and front of house staff start at 9. From then on it is constant. I still run a section in my kitchen, and as any chef will tell you, at any given point they probably have 4, 5, 6 or even more jobs on the go at once. It is the only way to get everything ready on time. Combine this with planning menus, sorting out costings, getting your pre-orders in for the weekend and all the unexpected day-to-day issues, there is little to no time to think about anything else.
It is a fully immersive world.
I have often seen this phrase used to describe computer games, where you have to explore various scenarios, work out puzzles and make choices that affect the outcome of your character. These games don’t do it for me, I found my immersive experience in kitchens.
This world brings out the best in many of us. We thrive in it, perhaps we were made for it. One thing is for sure, we dearly love it.
Food is the sole largest part of that world. The thing is, now I am detached from that, food has a very different purpose to me.
In the old world food was very much my creative outlet. Combining ingredients, working on processes, playing with presentation, or reading to expand my knowledge. This was how I connected with it. The flip side of this was the food I was eating (and I know many chefs will agree with me on this) had little to no connection to what I was producing. Pasta, pizza, bread, rice were my staples. Quick, easy carb heavy sustenance. Vegetables and fruit. . . few and far between.
In this current world (I know I keep using the word ‘world’ but the now and the then really do feel that far apart) food is a much simpler pleasure. Some of this comes from feeding our two little terrors. Some, however, comes from me having time to think about what I am putting into
These two factors have made me really appreciate the perfect simplicity of great seasonal ingredients – the season is now ending, but asparagus has been a great example of this. Normally I spend time on thinking of combinations, of presentations. This year I have been all about simply cooking it, covering it in loads of butter and pepper then just enjoying it.
The next couple of months are really all about fruit. I mean good English strawberries covered in cream, the classic of all classics and for a good reason. It’s just magical. Peaches and raspberries wonderful on their own, perhaps even better together. Apricots are also worth getting excited about and a lovely alternative to apples with your pork chop.
Then there is, of course there is (and I say this every year), my favourite. . . the cherry. A bowl of deep red and purple cherries is a far more enticing snack then any bag of crisps. There will no doubt be many juice-stained faces and ruined T-shirts in our household.
When I think about cherries, I do feel my creative cogs firing in to life. Most years I would be preparing to smother my menus with them – pickle them, poach them, macerate them. Pair them with venison, almonds and chocolate, to name a few classics. Serve them with starters, mains or desserts. You can’t go wrong.
I can almost feel this one little stoned fruit pulling me back into my kitchen world.
We don’t know yet exactly when we can go back, and of course we are still unsure how it will look. We are, however, getting closer.
I guess until then I am left writing these love letters to, and pining for, the world I knew.
Zack Deakins is chef patron of 1921 Angel Hill in Bury St Edmunds.
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