My internship at Ottolenghi in London? Yes! I really did it. You guys know I love the Ottolenghi cuisine and I cook a lot of his dishes at home. I also love to go to London and eat at his restaurants with friends. I think it was about one year ago I started thinking about applying for an internship in one of his restaurants in London. Because I don’t have any experience in a commercial kitchen I thought I would never get accepted so I didn’t do anything with it at that time. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop thinking about how it would be like to work in a professional kitchen.
In April of this year, I decided to pull the trigger and send an email to NOPI and ask them for an internship. I wrote them an email about how I love to cook and included my Instagram to show them what I’m capable of. It took one week to get an answer from the head chef who told me that I could come to NOPI for an internship. I was so happy, but at the same time really nervous as to how it would be like. Me, Zahra, who has only been cooking for my husband and children is now going to be working in a professional kitchen. OMG!!!
I talked to my husband what time would be the best for him to be home alone with the kids and decided on the third week of October. I booked my train and hotel and started working on my knife skills and cooked as many dishes as I could to prepare myself for that week.
So finally the day came to leave my family and to go to London, to NOPI, to work in a professional kitchen for the first time in my life. I had a hotel close to Liverpool street which meant I had to commute to work for about 20 minutes to Oxford Circus and then walk to NOPI (stands for North Of Piccadilly). NOPI looks unassuming from the street. It’s tucked away on Warwick Street, which is a side street in Soho and all you see is four simple letters on the wall outside above the entry. If you’re not looking for it you could easily miss it (which happened to me the first time I visited it). Warwick Street is a small street running parallel to Regent Street, just a short walk away from the busy Piccadilly Circus and the shopping Walhalla of Carnaby Street.
I worked at NOPI for 6 days straight and I learned many things while working there. For example, I learned how to make zhoug, cut squash and aubergine the right way and make scrambled eggs for 15-20 people. There were 8 bigger lessons though that are worth passing on to everyone who is considering spending some time in a commercial kitchen. Even if you are not considering working in a restaurant you may get inspired to do so after reading my lessons and my diary. I can highly recommend it, just take the plunge and try it out once in your life.
Keep your working area clean
When I cook at home I rarely clean my kitchen counter until I’m finished cooking. In a professional kitchen space is scarce. You have like a half a square meter to work on and the space next to you will be occupied by someone else. If there’s one thing every chef will tell you is an essential part of cooking it’s the necessity of working clean. On my first day I learned to clean up as you go along. It’s very important to always keep your station clean and organized, and be sure to put everything in its proper place before moving onto another task. Also, keep all your product organized around your workstation, and try to keep your chef’s whites and apron as clean as possible.
Good tools are half the work
I did not bring my own knives to NOPI because I assumed they would have enough knives to work with. Even though they did have enough knives one of the first things I noticed when I started there was that everybody brings their own knives. Why? You are used to a certain type of knife and you make sure your knife is always clean and sharp and ready to go. You know this because if you are a devoted chef you make sure your baby is well taken care off.
Other tools that I used there that make life a lot easier are the Thermomix which is a high-quality blender, a spice grinder (I use a pestle and mortar at home) and good quality piping bags. I don’t think I will be able to convince my hubby to buy me a Thermomix, but I’m seriously considering buying some of the other handy tools I used there. They make life so much easier.
Be prepared to feel inadequate. This may sound weird, but you will be working with people who do this for a living every day. People who do everything that you are doing in the kitchen 4 times as quick as you are. Try to make the best of your internship by working as hard as you can. If you don’t have any particular task assigned to you in the moment, find ways to keep busy. Clean, refill, peel, grate or ask someone higher up the chain for a task. But whatever you do don’t just stand around because you don’t know what you ought to be doing, that’s just not done. And when you have finished a job, ask what you can do next.
It’s all about communication
One of the first things I learned in the kitchen is that communication with the other chefs while you are working in the kitchen is crucial. Say ‘back’ when you pass between someone and a counter, say ‘knife’ when you need to go from one place to another with a knife, say ‘hot, hot, hot’ when you need to pass with something really hot. When someone asks you a question answer with a clear “yes” or “no”, anything else is too ambiguous.
Don’t be shy to ask questions, because it’s better to feel dumb about asking questions than to screw up something because you didn’t want/dare to ask. Remember that like many things in life if one person in the kitchen doesn’t work as well as they should, the whole operation suffers.
No explanation needed here. It’s hot in the kitchen, keep a bottle of water nearby at all times or walk to the sink every hour to have a glass of water. Also, don’t forget to eat. I had so much adrenaline in my body the first day of working that I did not drink or eat the whole day and did not realize this until my shift was over.
If it’s anything like my internship you will be assisting one of the chefs, but that doesn’t mean you only do what this chef is doing. Don’t be afraid to lend a hand and help out another chef, even if that means you have to work a little bit harder. If your shift ends at 15:00 and your work is not done yet, finish it and clean your work area before you leave.
Another lesson I learned in flexibility is that Every Chef In The Kitchen Has Their Own Way Of Doing Things. Just because things are one way today, doesn’t mean they’re going to be the same way tomorrow. One day your chef is telling you to bash the pits out of a pomegranate, the other day another chef tells you that bashing is out of the question and you need to peel the pomegranate by hand. That taught me to always ask how to do stuff by starting and then asking if that’s the way they want it done. A simple “is this the right cut?” will save you a lot of headaches. Don’t wait for asking until you are done, you might be too late by then.
Ask, Learn and Write
Keep your ears and eyes open and watch what the other chefs around you are doing. Ask questions if you don’t understand what you need to do, even if you have to ask ten times. ALWAYS ask questions but know WHEN and HOW and WHO to direct those questions too. Have another chef or whoever is close check your work before you do the whole bag of aubergines wrong. If you ask someone to check your work in an early stage they can tell you what to do better or differently.
Be aware that your learning curve will be steep as you need to learn so many things when you just start out. There is no shame in taking notes so be sure to bring a notebook. Take notes of recipes, cooking tips, really anything that you want to remember but know you wouldn’t if you didn’t make a note of it somewhere. Keeping a little notebook can help you make order of chaos and help you become more efficient and knowledgeable in the kitchen in the long run.
Try to have fun
Of course you are here to work, but try to have fun while you work. If you have the chance have a chat with the chefs and ask them questions to get to know them a little bit. That’s how I learned about the nickname ‘Spicy Dennis’ and about Chef Andrea’s ambition to open up a food stand near the beach. Remember you most likely share a passion for food, so you will probably have lots to talk about. I truly think in order to work at a restaurant a passion for food is a must. As I was told by a few chefs at NOPI, working in a restaurant is not just a job, it is a lifestyle.
The last lesson I want to share is when you finished your internship always remember that last impressions are just as important as the first ones. Be sure to thank the head chef for the opportunity and to thank all the other chefs for their time and lessons. If you follow these lessons I’m sure you will have a fun and successful internship. Always remember that if there’s a recipe for success, it starts with picking the right ingredients.
When I was at Nopi I decided to keep a daily diary so I could share the experience with my Ottolenghi Facebook group and of course to remember every moment for myself. So if you want to read more about my days at NOPI please check below links for my diary:
Zahra aka Culyzaar