Britain’s most unusual restaurant kitchen

Published 22 February 2019

The traditional terms for restaurant staff – chief, brigade – have never changed, and the sense of hierarchy is strong. But is it possible to do things differently? Samuel Buckley, of the acclaimed restaurant Where The Light Gets In, shares his philosophy. 

A few weeks ago on a Saturday night, after a busy service we were sat, as always at this time of the week, in the staff room, drinking wine, listening to records and winding down after another full-paced shift. These times allow us reflection and retribution, a necessary and almost ritualistic shedding of the week gone by.

By the end of our family dining table was a huge store of apples, stacked up high in crates and covered over with dust sheets – the bounty of our last pickings from the farm and no less than 120 kilos in weight.

I decided to take a quick look. Finding that some of them were on the turn, I began to grade them into empty crates, the good, the bad, the ugly, etc. The team, one by one followed suit to make the job lighter.

By the time we had got to the end of the third crate it had been decided what we must do.

The fruit mill and cider press, lent to us by our mutton farmer, was set up in the main kitchen and the music was turned up. Caro our sommelier scrupulously found the right bottles of wine for the job and we set to making cider.

The scene was, at best, unusual. Young ladies gyrated to Italo disco, tossing apples into the fruit mill. The spattering of crushed fruit mingled with the grating of iron teeth under deep disco baselines as bearded men twisted on the press to release a rich golden juice into muslin-lined buckets. The fruit mill continued to spatter amidst dancing, drinking and giggling, juice pouring forth in a dionysian frenzy. I was surrounded, in the throes of some kind of Berlin meets West Country electro, apple romp. But the work was conscious, methodical and precise, even though we were excitable, intently impassioned and pissed.

Within 90 minutes we had pressed around 70 kilos of apples into 40 litres of clear juice, ready for a gentle maturation into cider. Thirty more minutes and the machines were stripped and cleaned, benches scrubbed, floors mopped, eighties disco baselines still booming. As I looked on at the celebration, I wondered if this is what I had really intended to create two years ago when we set up Where the Light Gets In.

Day to day we try to keep things a little more sober, but the principle is still there. Everybody grab a rein, the one you feel most comfortable with, and help to steer. We try to encourage an autonomy where each individual is responsible for the whole. Cleaning, laundry and other menial duties are shared out evenly across the board. This ensures there is time for creativity and progress.

In our organisation, communication is also integral. We sit down each morning with breakfast as a whole team to share information about improvements needed for the next service, bookings and dietaries. A member of the team will introduce a dish, a wine, coffee or special ingredient, with stories of the producers giving voice to everyone and making sure that each aspect of our experience is understood by all. Family meal times and pre-service briefings give us more opportunity for constructive communication.

Of course, we have leaders within the organisation. However, we work on an experience system where those with more of it for the task at hand, lead.

This means everyone, at some point, plays the role of both student and teacher. We find this good for both personal and group development.

The top-down power struggle of restaurant employment breeds an unhealthy competitive nature in a lonely arena. It pits team-mates against each other and businesses against each other. This concentric and vicious circle leads to oppressive attitudes, and incorrect reasoning of the mind.

All too often members of our industry feel they need to ’stick it out’ or ‘last two years,’ to reach the next level.

The bullying, drug abuse and mental exhaustion that plague our industry are all spike-like symptoms of this desperate system, where we are willing to put too much aside in order to reach the top. This scramble, in most cases, turns into a pitiful rattle to just keep everyone’s head above water. The attitude drips down from the organisations to its staff like sewage from a drainpipe.

Competition is good, it makes us progress. But we as owners have to set the pace, the rules and the prizes. Teams must be able to work together in confidence of their own part played, to push the limits of what the business can achieve. The project must belong to all.

At the recent Food on the Edge symposium I heard Helen Puolakka of Aster say that a kitchen brigade is not an army, it’s an orchestra. A great sentiment for us all to keep in mind. Obviously Escoffier’s militarised brigade system is the fulcrum of organisation in a modern-day kitchen but the army-like attitude can be swapped for one that allows more harmony for everyone to feel their part is integral, no matter their experience.

In a horizontal system, space created for the individual allows independent thought, creativity and voice. This makes the group effort more multi-dimensional. Traditional and contemporary, relaxed and disciplined, opulent and austere can all exist, amicably in one experience.

Recently I have spent a lot of time on our farm with my hands in the soil; this has led me to think of our work system as rhizomic. There exists a loose framework of ethics and creativity in which we all exist symbiotically. Each person brings his or her passion and knowledge into the framework . This creates a complex system where each element relies on the next. The system is shared with our guests who hopefully take on board some of our creative and ethical values.

This system is not without its difficulties. Structure can be hard to maintain without the traditional discipline practices and job titles. Autonomy-led group tasks can lead to the task in fact not being carried out. But communication and reliance on everyone’s individual skills allows for a better understanding of structure, why systems are in place and how best to stick to them. And of course the 3am cider-making disco parties help. 

This article was first published in Issue 17 of CODE Quarterly magazine.

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