Work Experience 22: Chef
I worked at a restaurant once. For one night. And I’m pretty sure I cried. The owner (who was also the chef) arrived late and drunk, the kitchen was in utter chaos and the customers were cranky about delays. Who could blame them? It was such a horrible experience for everyone. Needless to say, the restaurant closed down shortly after.
I was scared off from working in the hospitality industry forever I’d thought, until I was recently presented with the amazing opportunity to do work experience at multi award-winning, three-hatted Brisbane restaurant Urbane. I literally went from one extreme to the other. From one of Australia’s dodgiest to one of the country’s most acclaimed dining destinations.
Andy Buchanan opened Urbane in 2001, and expanded to create The Euro Brasserie and The Laneway cocktail bar in 2009. A private cellar-style dining space known as Sub-Urbane is located in the depths of the complex.
What did I do?
Day 1 kicked off for me at 10am. I met most of the team, who’d started an hour earlier, and was shown around the premises. Urbane and The Euro restaurants are located side-by-side, with two large kitchens connecting them in the middle. Up a staircase from The Euro is the beautiful Laneway cocktail bar, with its exposed brick walls. I love that it opens up onto the quiet laneway, giving it an indoor/outdoor feel. It’s the perfect location for a relaxing drink or a party, and in fact the first time I’d ever been there was to celebrate the 40th birthday of a beautiful friend a couple of few years ago. What a great night that was! Past the kitchens and down the stairs is the dry store, walk-in refrigerator, staff entrance to Sub-Urbane, prep kitchen, office and storage space. Out the back were the bins and a large compost bin for food scraps, which is emptied regularly.
With ten staff members in the kitchen doing all manner of prep work, I wasn’t sure if I’d be helping or just observing. But the minute I hit the kitchen I was handed a chef’s jacket, apron and knife. Yay! I prepared salads for the burger bar, learned to roll the perfect bread roll (it was trickier than I thought it’d be to get it perfectly round), and peeled and trimmed a bucketful of shallots.
Soon it was time for ‘staffies’. One of the benefits of working in such an amazing restaurant, is that leftover ingredients are cooked up to make the most delicious staff lunches and dinners ever. It’s quite a bit different to most of the school staffrooms I’ve ever been in, where you often need to supply your own mug, teabag and milk in addition to your packed lunch.
Back in the kitchen I watched the chefs finish off the bread rolls with a spray of water and a sprinkle of nigella seeds before popping them in the oven, prepare hamburger patties, whisk up a variety of elements for the evening’s dessert menu, whizz up dressings, sauces and purees, and whip up meals for lunchtime customers. I even got to taste one of the bread rolls straight out of the oven, the smoked butter melting right in. Milo told me that bread rolls won’t be good if you’re in a bad mood when you make them. Clearly, we’d both been in a good one because it was the most amazing bread roll I’d ever tasted. Fluffy on the inside, crunchy on the outside. Delicious!! It was made with red quinoa miso, a little bit of rye flour and topped with nigella seeds. No boring bread here!
I collected a variety of nuts and seeds from the dry store which were then roasted in the oven to be blitzed and served over duck breast as part of the dinner menu. (I’ve included a photo of the duck breast dish below – it looks delicious!).
Finally, I learnt how to roll pasta dough through a pasta machine. After the pasta was passed through the machine a number of times and was as thin as required, it was laid on the bench and covered with lightly dampened cloths to stop it from drying out. A few of us worked together to cut circles into the pasta with a cookie cutter, place a spoonful of filling in the centre of each, fold and pinch the pasta to secure the filling, and join the corners to form a tortellini shape. It’s always so much fun to learn something new, and I think homemade tortellini might be on the menu at my place sometime soon.
Day 2 began at 5pm for me. The staff were all returning from an afternoon break at the same time. It’s a long shift for them, starting the day at 9am and some staying until the last customer leaves in the evening. But no one complained, and in fact they were all smiles. To me that’s an indicator that these chefs have a real passion for what they do and for the restaurant they work in.
I chopped and weighed bread dough into 180 gram pieces which were quickly rolled into balls by two of the chefs. Friday’s bread of the day was porcini mushroom flavoured. I watched Miles use liquid nitrogen to make cardamom snow, an element of one of the desserts, and saw some more prep work being undertaken before it was time for a quick (and amazing) staffies dinner.
After that, it was time for bread roll baking, wagyu beef cutting, scallop slicing and shaping and all other last-minute preparations before customers began to arrive and orders started rolling in. From then on, my role was purely observational. I found it a little tricky to find the right place to stand so that I wasn’t in the way, but found a good spot near the pass on the Urbane side of the kitchen. To see the chefs at work during the busiest few hours of the busiest night of the week was so exciting. Everyone had a job (or multiple jobs) to do. Head chef Andy who was working on the Urbane pass gave everyone instructions on what he needed and when, frequently checking the orders for each table. As well as ensuring everything tasted exactly as it should, it was Andy’s job to put the elements of each plate together and add the garnish before sending the dishes out to guests with the wait staff.
Urbane’s menu is degustation only, with 5 or 7 course omnivore or herbivore menus to choose from. I was quite surprised to be offered a few of the different dishes to sample throughout the night, and I’ve never tasted anything like any of it in my entire life. Although the menu is very simple, the ingredients and methods used to create each dish are anything but. My mouth is watering thinking about all of the beautiful flavours.
I’m going to start saving some pennies so I can experience the full degustation menu with matching wines one night with my husband. And I’ll be savouring every bite.
What did I learn?
It was so interesting to get a good look behind the scenes of Urbane and The Euro restaurants. The size of the kitchens and preparation spaces was something I didn’t quite expect. Everything was spotlessly clean (no surprises here), the fridges and pantries were perfectly organised, and every pot, pan, knife, bowl, and chopping board had it’s place. The chefs were all happy for me to look over their shoulders, ask questions and get involved where I could. If I didn’t know how to perfectly peel a shallot before, I sure do now! There was a lot going on in the kitchen at once, with so many incredible cooking techniques, ingredients and recipes I’d never seen or heard of before. I was fascinated by all of it!
One of the best things about doing work experience at The Euro and Urbane was simply seeing how a team of 10 chefs work together to prepare and produce such spectacular food, and to watch them in full flight during the busiest part of the night. It was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.