One of my final acts as editor of the Daily Telegraph was to serialise a collection of tapas recipes by husband-and-wife chefs Sam and Samantha Clark, the couple behind my favourite restaurant, Moro, in London. Soon after, I was sacked and placed on gardening leave, left to cool my heels for a few months before I could start work again.
People asked me what I would do with my time. “Short of an internship as a cook,” I told a friend, “I’m just going to catch up on reading, do the school run, travel to Spain and spend more time with my wife. I’m very Zen about it all.”
Knowing my obsession with the couple’s cooking, my friend contacted the Clarks to see if they fancied giving me a trial. And so it was that, in February of last year, I started work in the Moro kitchen.
This brief and tiny role attracted an inordinate amount of publicity – diarists, reviewers, an entire page in a Sunday broadsheet – because it was assumed this was my new career. There was an upsurge in visits by frontbench politicians, unable to disguise their schadenfreude at the sight of a newspaper editor brought low. Yet it turned out to be the kind of experience that would have been impossible at cookery school.
Having never worked in a restaurant – or really even had a clue about how they operated – I had thought my best hope was to become a waiter. But the Clarks gently steered me to the kitchen. “Waiting tables is hard and has to be perfect every time,” said Sam. “The kitchen is a bit different. As long as you’re not a drain on everyone, you should come in there. Being ‘neutral’ will be enough for us.”
With this less-than-ringing endorsement, I presented myself at the front door at 9am sharp, as instructed. I saw heads bowed behind the open-plan kitchen, staff prepping for the day ahead. Music was blaring from Sam’s iPhone, which had been rigged up to a dock and tuned to a jazzy French radio station. I was directed to the store cupboards outside so I could grab a fresh set of chef’s whites and get changed in the shared dressing room.
My first seven-hour shift went by in a frenzy of activity. I chopped chillies, made confit of duck gizzards and grilled a huge vat of onions for the following day’s soup. Space was at a premium and so was time. Everyone was so busy that it was mortifying to have to ask more than once where something was.
The packed restaurant, serving 200 people a night, is essentially run by just three chefs. The starter chef, the person operating the grill, and the third, who operates the oven and stove top. There is a fourth – often one of the Clarks or the head chef, Marianna – but they effectively act as captain of the operation, ensuring everything is perfect before it leaves the kitchen, supervising and troubleshooting through the evening.
Of course, there are staff behind the scenes washing dishes, storing pots and pans, gutting fish and meat, ordering just the right quantity of vegetables and prepping dishes for the evening (the total staff is 40), but it is startling to see how few chefs keep the operation going. Those 200 or so customers are served between 6pm and 10.30pm. If everyone orders a starter and dessert, that is approximately 600 dishes produced by a trio of chefs, some with barely six months’ experience in a kitchen. When you see them red-faced, downing regular pints of water (dehydration in the kitchen is an ever-present risk) and obviously exhausted after 10.30, that is why.
Throughout my time at Moro, I never heard anything that constituted shouting. Urgency, yes, but bellowing, never. Samantha cites the high proportion of women working at Moro as a reasons for the notable absence of Gordon Ramsay-style aggression. I was regaled with stories from other restaurant kitchens of behaviour that, in the street, would constitute assault. One of the Moro team recounted being deliberately burnt by a chef at a Michelin-starred London restaurant “just because he knew he could do it”.
There were, of course, accidents. I witnessed an entire plate of yoghurt cake – enough to serve 20 people – crashing to the floor when it was taken out of the oven too quickly. We were operating in a narrow space, barely two yards wide, surrounded by heat from the charcoal, the wood-burning oven, deep-fat fryer and multiple stove tops, all going full blast. As people came and went, there was the constant “Behind you!” grunted as they passed with hot dishes. I was chastised for placing a dirty knife in the washing-up bowl – a cardinal sin since the dishwashers plunging their hands in do not expect to find sharp knives.
The cooks were young – usually in their late 20s or early 30s – and from all over the world: Australian, Cretan, Spanish, a New Zealander, a handful of Brits. Among the porters, Portugese was the language of choice, as most of them were Brazilian. The majority of the staff are self-taught, having stumbled into cookery after university and then worked their way through a string of lesser jobs.
I spent a week chopping and stirring, peeling and parboiling, fetching and carrying. Then Sam Clark, having watched me closely, decided I was worthy of more elevated tasks: I was to be entrusted as a trial with the making of desserts, most especially the signature yoghurt cake.
I assembled the ingredients under the watchful eye of cook Eliza: 22 eggs on one of those big, square trays, 1lb 12oz of sugar, a handful of flour, the zest of four lemons and two oranges, two litres of homemade yoghurt – enough to create a three-foot long version of the cake that would last the entire day. The cake was to be finished off with lemon juice. “Lots of it,” said Eliza, who was watching me while getting the side dishes ready for her main courses. “How much is that?” I asked. “You’ll know” was the reply.
It is one of the peculiarities of a restaurant that, with the exception of exact baking proportions, nothing is measured precisely: lemon juice, oil and the many vinegars in use are all dispensed with abandon and measured by the eye. The same goes with ingredients for a sauce. To a timid domestic chef, it was jarring to see everything measured by eye or taste.
It took almost an hour to make my first yoghurt cake. My work was slow, and I made a giant mess, using too many utensils. There was flour everywhere, even in my hair. To my delight, the cake was pronounced a success, and it became my daily duty for the next four weeks. The following day, however, there was a staff shortage and no Eliza to remind me of the ingredients, and – to the obvious pitying looks of Marianna – I had neither written them down nor committed them to memory, so she had to talk me through the routine again while rushing around doing her own jobs. It was a mistake I did not make again and thereafter I produced a tattered sheet every morning to remind me what was required.
I gradually got quicker and managed to get it down to about half an hour. “My record is 12 minutes,” said cook Emma cheerfully one morning. The following day, in an unconscious effort to polish the thing off more quickly, I made it in about 25 minutes. Only after it had been cooking for half an hour did I realise to my horror that I forgot to put any lemon juice in the cake – the critical acid component.
Crushed, I confessed all to Marianna, who said they could salvage the cake by serving it with lemon curd. Only then did others offer tales of their disasters: the time they made it with salt instead of sugar; the day it was cooked with a ladle inside.
When the story of my time at Moro reached the papers, I was annoyed by the patronising tone of some of the coverage, as if this were a job beneath journalists. In fact, a large proportion of the staff have degrees of one kind or another and are far more rounded than many of the graduates emerging straight from university to seek work on national newspapers.
Close friends realised my time at Moro was simply the chance to enter a fantasy world, a sort of truncated gap year. On arrival, I had feared two things: what if it was manky behind the scenes? And what if the staff were dreadful to be around? It would have been a shame to have my illusions of my favourite restaurant shattered.
I needn’t have worried.