Story by Charles Mather
Let me start with explaining what Fifteen is. In 2002 a chef by the name of Jamie Oliver started Fifteen London, a charity that gives young disadvantaged people the opportunity to become top class Chefs. The restaurant was named after the first fifteen apprentices to graduate from the programme. Every year a new group of apprentices would start and be given the chance to learn food through the use of fantastic produce, incredible sourcing trips, hands on training in the kitchen and support from an amazing group of people who run the Foundation. This year Fifteen celebrates its tenth year and there is no sign of the charity stopping anytime soon.
On my first day at Fifteen my nerves were high and the tension in my neck was strong. Only having worked in a kitchen for just under a year, how was I supposed to match up to those who had either trained or worked a lot longer than me in this restaurant and teach the apprentices as well? This wasn't like my last kitchen, twice the size, twice the covers and five times the amount of chefs. Lucky for me every one was very supportive. Someone would be with me on the first day then I was on my own. Lucky, a graduate from the 6th group was to be my help on the Anti-pasti section – his name is Carlton. He had a big smile and an even bigger gold tooth shinning from his smile. I still say if I could work along side Carlton for the rest of my career I would be a lucky guy. Not only did he show me the ropes, we helped motivate each other to be better cooks. Learning quickly was vital in this new position and fortunately Carlton and I found a good working routine. On quiet days offering my services to the pasta chefs came in handy and they were more than willing to assist as it meant less work for them! Doing the best to show the apprentices how to run the anti-pasti section and always reassuring them that my experience was almost as little as theirs. They respected that and in return I felt that they helped me learn as well.
I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way, doing 16 hour shifts then getting picked up at midnight by Big Kev to work another 12 hours free at a fishmongers. Who is Big Kev? A whole book could be written on this man and if you were to come into the kitchen about noon on a Wednesday or Thursday you would find a goliath of a man, as tall as he is wide wreaking of fish. Big Kev is a legend and most days after finishing a normal 12-13 hour shift at the fish mongers he comes all the way over to Fifteen to show the apprentices how to prep fish. This is all off his own back, all from his heart, all voluntary and the apprentices love him.
So after 16 hours at work Kev would pick me up and we would head off to a non stop full on 12 hours of fish prep. With 37 years of blockmanship under his belt Kev is probably the best block man in London. The prep room was small and bloody freezing. Kev would toss some fish at me tell me what to do and as I mutilated these poor morsels who died for me to destroy them Kev would fix them in a flash. Thank goodness he was patient because Kev had to show me time and time again how to fillet a sea bass. The orders at the fish mongers would be sent early morning before the city was awake and as soon as the delivery men were back second orders would be rushing through. By this time it would be 9-10 in the morning and my legs were aching. The only thing keeping me going was Kev and the cold. Finally the orders would be done and Kev would pull out the big boys – the salmon and turbot. He can scale, fillet, and pin bone a salmon in 57 seconds. It's a sight to see, like watching a samurai in action, every fillet perfect and not one scale or pin bone to be seen. Kev showed me his technique but I still have not mastered it. I did shifts with Kev as much as possible but unfortunately I haven't for about 5 months now. It is a new year now and I do plan to spend more time with Kev learning how to prep fish.
Six months was spent on Anti-Pasti and Carlton had moved on to a new restaurant with bigger opportunities for him and he is doing exceptionally well. In February of 2010 I moved onto the pasta section in the Trattoria and have been there since. I have been able to touch several sections at Fifteen as cover and have been to Sillfield Farm in Cumbria, Mordon sea salt factory in Essex and all through Le Marche region in Italy thanks to Fifteen, helped run a supper club and done many events. I have learnt to cure meats as well and cooked at a Fifteen Supper Club to raise money for the Foundation. It's been an amazing experience already working at Fifteen and I look forward to good times ahead.
Read Charles's blog here.