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Sunday, October 2, 2022

‘You can have fun and experiment’: inside the test kitchens where restaurants cook up new dishes | Restaurants

Aulis, Cartmel, Cumbria

In Cartmel in rural Cumbria, Simon Rogan works in splendid isolation. The owner of L’Enclume, which won its third Michelin star in February, spends little time on social media, seldom talks to other chefs and rarely eats out. As he puts it: “We’ve a long-standing, unique style I don’t want infiltrated by other things.”

Aulis, his development kitchen, is a silo even within this remote set-up. “For true creativity, you need a quiet, purpose-built area away from the cut and thrust,” says Rogan. Housed in a former post office next door to L’Enclume, it develops dishes for the restaurant and, creatively, operates at a tangent to prevailing food fashions. “Simon wants his food and his ideas, in his style,” says Aulis chef Ben Gallier.

Working alone, the 32-year-old’s five-day week is split between two days of dish development and, on three days, combining that with cooking Aulis’s own £195-a-head tasting menu for six guests. This behind-the-scenes experience helps justify Aulis financially. L’Enclume’s first test kitchen was a cut-price, cobbled-together affair but, opened in 2010 and refurbed since, Aulis (named in memory of chef and former employee, Leo Aulis Lehtimäki) is a slick, polished-concrete beauty.

Aside from chefs’ bibles, such as the five-volume, science-based Modernist Cuisine, the key reference materials at Aulis include a database of Rogan’s recipes and reports on methods for preserving and fermenting produce from the Cartmel Valley farm, which supplies Rogan’s restaurants. Those reports include warnings about occasional mishaps, such as an attempt to create a beetroot version of black garlic that delivered 50 kilos of mouldy waste. But, more than a decade into the project, this 12-acre farm has become a primary source of inspiration.

“We do a lot of reacting to ingredients,” says Gallier, who regularly tours the farm with Rogan, executive chef Tom Barnes and L’Enclume’s head chef, Paul Burgalières. “It sounds fanciful but the best way to come up with dishes is standing in front of ingredients.” Gallier likens it to browsing in the supermarket, spotting pork chops, and meal ideas popping into your head: “You’re not going home and marinating them in shio koji [a Japanese marinade made from fermented rice, water and salt] but the principle is the same.”

Can you really achieve food faultless enough for three Michelin stars by responding so quickly to the seasons? Only within a rigorously planned framework.

Alessandra Russo, 35, ran Aulis for three years, up until 2020 (she is now kitchen coordinator within Rogan’s company), and can remember some dishes being turned around in two days, “where the idea was right and maybe we had recipes already”. That is rare but illustrates how Aulis enables L’Enclume to stay nimble. Its dish development is built on 20 years of accumulated knowledge. To run Aulis, says Rogan, you have to be “a walking L’Enclume encyclopedia”.

Annually, Aulis produces 40 to 50 dishes for L’Enclume. Roughly 40% of those are entirely new and 60% refine, fuse or jump off existing concepts or recipes, some reanimated from previously stalled ideas. Seasonal dishes are designed and tested months in advance of rollout. “L’Enclume has 20 chefs,” says Gallier. “They need training, wines need matching. You can’t change the menu ad hoc.”

Ideas for dishes – a mixture of detailed briefs and imaginative experiments – usually originate with Rogan, Barnes or Burgalières, who increasingly act, says Rogan, as a committee. “They’re happy to listen to ideas,” says Russo, who is married to Burgalières. “But they have specific ones you have to work on. You’re not working independently.”

Prototype dishes are tasted at fortnightly meetings, followed by fastidious gram-by-gram variations as the dish is honed. “You need patience,” says Russo. “What you develop doesn’t always succeed. Ingredients don’t give flavours you expect, or you can’t fix a presentation or it’s too complicated [to make] during service.”

Often, says Rogan, he and his senior staff are at fault for their “shite” ideas. In rejecting the resulting dish, “we’re not having a go at [the development chefs]. No one takes it the wrong way. We move on.”

Helpfully, Russo and Gallier understand Rogan’s palate. He likes impactful, balanced dishes, well seasoned with salt (“even for chefs, he’s top 1%,” says Gallier), with good acidity. Gallier remembers a fermented cabbage dish with smoked beetroot sauce that, instantly, he knew Rogan would love for its “bold smokiness, salinity, acidity”.

Customer feedback in Aulis can lead to late tweaks, such as dialling down an intense garum served with raw scallop. But new dishes on the Aulis tasting menu – typically, 25% of its 16 courses – are, by that stage, pretty much finalised. They have already been approved for imminent introduction to the menu for L’Enclume.

Occasionally, diners would eat at Aulis and score every dish out of 10. Ultimately, only one opinion matters. “I test everything before it goes on the menu,” says Rogan. “The buck stops with me.”

Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, London

Noor Murad in the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen
Noor Murad in the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen. Photograph: Amit Lennon/The Observer

At Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, when chefs create a new recipe for publication they crave the approval of one person above all. But it is not Yotam Ottolenghi. Nor the Test Kitchen head chef Noor Murad. In fact, this arbiter of the recipes you cook from the Guardian Feast supplement or Ottolenghi’s cookbooks does not even work at the Holloway site in north London.

Instead, when OTK chefs finalise a recipe, they email it to 41-year-old Claudine Boulstridge, Ottolenghi’s failsafe for 15 years, who tests it in her kitchen in Wales. Helped by family and neighbours (“they get what they call ‘the finest cooked meals-on-wheels’”), she feeds back on everything. That means confusing instructions or missing ingredients, flavour, presentation and, despite the old jokes about Ottolenghi’s ingredients, how easy or not it is to shop for the recipe.

“Claudine is the ultimate,” says 32-year-old Murad. “I don’t know if she realises how much power she holds over us. We always say, ‘If it has the Claudine seal of approval, we know we’re good.’” OTK, which last year left its original Camden railway arch for the Holloway premises, deliberately uses ageing domestic appliances (there is one new oven, says Murad, “which we all fight over”), but Boulstridge brings a real-world veracity to its work.

Originally a colleague of Ottolenghi’s at Leith’s Cookery School, Boulstridge tests “a few recipes a day” for OTK, and relishes her role. “They get a totally unbiased person cooking like someone buying the book would. I’ve got shelves of cookery books and I’m amazed at how a lot of recipes don’t work. That’s not fair on the public.”

That independent interaction – allowing staff freedom, encouraging personal ownership of ideas, within a collaborative framework – is typical of how Ottolenghi works. “Yotam’s always around. Signing off, giving his input,” says Murad. “But he’s not a boss who dictates every step. He gives you room to be creative.”

This, says Ottolenghi, is key to how his various endeavours – delis, restaurants, cookbooks – remain distinctive within the wider Ottolenghi brand. “At a multiple-site business, only so much creativity can come from the top. It’s a richer environment if people are allowed to create. It’s the DNA of this company.”

Ottolenghi has always been open about this, too. From name checks for staff in newspaper columns to bringing them into book deals as co-authors, he has conscientiously promoted colleagues and their ideas. “That’s valued,” says Murad, whose second book in the OTK series, Stock It Up, is due in October.

In the restaurants, explains Ottolenghi, there is “no flowchart” to explain how new dishes are created. It is “loose, informal”. The head chefs are expected to cook seasonally but without stipulation about when or how radically their menus should change.

OTK will tip off the restaurants about exciting products, such as the Tunisian spinach condiment bkeila, used in Neil Campbell’s celeriac shawarma pitta at Rovi. But there is no pressure to act on these tip-offs. Similarly, the restaurants share a common recipe database and a “long, flexible” list of suppliers, to control costs, but, within reason, are encouraged to evolve their own identity. For example, Ottolenghi Spitalfields has a stronger eastern Mediterranean accent, influenced by its head chefs, previously Turkish (Esra Muslu), now Greek (Xristos Karetsos).

Ottolenghi and executive chef Calvin Von Niebel advise on and taste new dishes before they launch. But it is rare for them to come across a dud. “They know what they’re doing. By the time it comes to having a serious conversation, they’ve spent a lot of time [on] the dish,” says Ottolenghi.

At OTK, Murad leads on Ottolenghi’s New York Times recipes. Guardian recipes are created by the core team of four chefs. They work alone, recipes allocated to their strengths. “But we have team feedback tastings every day,” says Murad. “My job is to make sure each person has support to get the recipe where it needs to be.”

Getting ahead of deadlines is essential, says Ottolenghi, “so you can have fun and experiment”.

Inspiration comes in many forms, be it a new ingredient from a specialist supplier, an idea spotted when eating out or, in OTK’s newspaper work, editorial themes arising from important dates such as Easter. “Assign a theme and you’re working within a framework,” says Murad. “That gets ideas ticking.”

Amid such dispersed creativity, can Ottolenghi maintain a house style? Yes and no. Internal promotions, rolling conversations and, on occasion, new restaurant chefs spending time at OTK, means the core aesthetic is widely understood: abundant, vegetable-focused dishes, colourfully presented.

But the Middle Eastern flavours most associated with Ottolenghi are, increasingly, just one prominent feature of his food. The influence of his staff – a United Nations of food geeks – is giving the company’s work a more international feel. “Instead of wanting us to conform,” says Murad (Bahraini, English mum, studied in New York), “Yotam embraces that and invites that in.”

Bab Haus, Caerphilly

Rebecca Goad, centre right, and Sophia, Leyli and Soraya Homayoonfarof Bab Haus
Rebecca Goad, centre right, and Sophia, Leyli and Soraya Homayoonfar of Bab Haus. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Observer

You will find Bab Haus hidden among the garages and builders merchants of Caerphilly’s Bedwas House Industrial Estate, past Screwfix, opposite the Peter’s Pies factory. It’s a US-Mexican-style street food brand which, in everything from its use of ex-dairy beef to its signature birria tacos, is tuned in to the tastiest trends.

“We get a lot of inspiration from social media,” says 36-year-old chef-owner Leyli Homayoonfar, discussing the creation of dishes for her mainly takeaway barbecue outlet, HQ Smoke Shop, and its sister site, Bab Haus Mex, a taco spot in a shipping container in Barry. “It’s 2022. People see something on their phone and want to eat it. We’re trying to deliver that.”

Each Wednesday, the core team – Homayoonfar, her business partner Rebecca Goad and Homayoonfar’s sisters, Sophia and Soraya – meet to plan the week and discuss any exciting foods they have encountered that “fit our barbecue, smoking, fire narrative”.

These self-confessed “super-nerds” have travelled in the US, have knowledgeable friends and family there, eat out and read widely. On WhatsApp, the team is in “continuous” dialogue about episodes of Netflix’s Taco Chronicles or Instagram posts from inspiring fellow barbecue chefs such as Elliot Cunningham (@eatlagom) or Genevieve Taylor (@genevieveeats). “Creatively, everyone’s on the same level. That’s what drives it,” says Homayoonfar, whose youngest staff member is 19.

If an idea is backed by the whole team, Homayoonfar will carve out time early in the week – as the production kitchen whirrs around her, curing bacon or slow-cooking meats in its wood-fired smoker – to develop recipes, first for four people, then gradually scaling up. Bab Haus meats can take 24 hours to cook and this “trial and error”, initially documented in notepads and photos, can be laborious.

Homayoonfar typically works on six dishes every month. Some are new menu additions, others created with future projects in mind. The challenges are both creative and practical. “Can we execute this during service? Can it be made suitable for meat, veggie and vegan? How much will it cost? What cutlery will it need? It can’t just be tasty.”

The birria taco kits, which made Bab Haus’s name during the pandemic, took a few months to get right. “The dish isn’t normally smoked but we smoke and slowly braise ox cheek, short rib and brisket in heavily spiced broth. You reserve the cooking liquor, shred the meat and it’s served in a grilled cheese taco with liquor on the side, to dip your taco in.”

Goad had eaten birria from LA food trucks and Homayoonfar knew so-called “red tacos” from Instagram (stained a photogenic crimson by the broth). The pandemic prevented them from travelling to the US or Mexico to investigate further. Instead, they sought inspiration from cookbooks, including Gonzalo Guzmán’s Nopalito and Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman’s Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, interweaving that guidance with ingredients from specialist suppliers such as Cool Chile and MexGrocer, and, in Homayoonfar’s case, 17 years of experience in professional kitchens. “You need sour, salty, sweet and fat in harmony. Seasoning can make or break a dish,” she says.

Even then, there was an element of luck involved. Homayoonfar had bought her Caerphilly unit from a ready-meal producer, inheriting packaging materials which, when the Covid pandemic hit, made the move into producing meal kits easier.

Homayoonfar’s business launched in 2019 as a Persian event caterer, Leyli Joon & Co. Covid transformed it overnight. Bab Haus, intended as a street food sideline for the quiet winter months, became her sole focus. Later in 2020, this led to the launch of Bab Haus Mex. “We had no income, we were under pressure,” says Homayoonfar. “We went into creative overdrive.”

Creating that new suite of dishes was daunting but it is a discipline – costing, documentation, deadlines – Homayoonfar is familiar with after working at Waitrose and Jamie Oliver’s Recipease, developing dishes for their cookery courses. Despite that experience, there are still occasional missteps, great ideas (a delicate, time-sensitive, lime-cured sea bass ceviche, for example) that prove too stressful to deliver during service.

Homayoonfar says that a development chef learns to accept dead ends and embrace robust feedback. She wants buy-in from her team to ensure they are enthusiastic about the product. During testing, she constantly seeks their opinion. “Feedback has to be honest and constructive, and you’ve got to listen. You can’t force your ideas on someone. The person executing the dish has to believe in it.”

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