In a new series, we ask authors about what they do when they’re not writing. In our first instalment, Fatima Bhutto works through the night for the love of cooking.
If you happen to be friends with one of the world’s most fearsome food critics, don’t cook for him. Adrian Gill stands over my tinfoil tray of plump, charred croissants and nods politely. ‘You’re baking again?’ he notes, with a touch of concern. ‘You know, only old women and depressives bake.’ He lifts one and takes a bite. He nods again. ‘Well, it has good flavour,’ he says – I don’t remind him he helped me pick out which flour and butter to use, leaving the water and yeast totally up to me – ‘but if you really want to learn how to make croissants you should do it seriously.’
I watch the croissant travel back to its tinfoil home. The ideal croissant, Adrian says, is chewy on the inside and flaky on the outside. I don’t quite want to know where I’ve failed. ‘Yes, I do, I want to learn,’ I say. Never mind that I don’t particularly eat the stuff or that I have other things to do. At that moment, it becomes terribly important to me to bake properly.
‘Well, then you should do it at the Wolseley.’
I grew up in a house with extraordinary cooks. My grandmother, my brother, everyone. But my mother, Ghinwa, cooks so beautifully there is music in how she conceives and handles food. In exile from her home country of Lebanon, first in Syria and then, when my family returned home to Karachi, in Pakistan, she has carried the weight of her memories in recipes. They are never written down, not that I notice anyway.
There is an alchemy to how she cooks – part of it travels down the telephone line, speaking with her mother in the seaside port of Tripoli; another part come from the memory of what she ate as a child growing up in Beirut. How the sweets tasted and what the streets smelled like after the evening prayers of Ramadan. She went vegan some years ago, and how to eat ethically, sustainably and without cruelty now informs her interest in food.
All this is to say, I never felt the need to cook growing up. It would have been embarrassing, unwarranted. But several years ago, in the limbo period between writing and editing, feeling lonely in Karachi, I discovered the kitchen. A dear friend gave me the Good Housekeeping Cookery Book and I pored through it over the course of one spring, tackling the book one recipe a day, like Julie and Julia, but without the voice-overs or blogging (till now).
I don’t know why people cook; anthropologists will say we cook to connect with cultures, because we are creative beings. They will say that for a captive, locked away from something or kept apart from their people, cooking is a way of connecting with freedom. I am still learning about why I cook. For all those reasons, yes. But it began when I stopped wanting to be alone. Writing is a lonely occupation. It requires solitude. I am very good at being alone, but I realized I needn’t be that good at it.
Making viennoiserie – pastries made from yeast-leavened dough such as croissants, brioche, beignets and so on – is not for escapists, tourists who take to cooking just to keep busy for an hour or two. It’s labour. It requires patience, calm and curiosity, and it requires someone who has seventy-two hours to spare for rolling, buttering, flouring and wrapping and refrigerating. As a writer, my life is built around a schedule like that. There is something soothing, something gratifying about baking and whiling away time thinking about a story and obsessing about a fictional character. But I had done bread and I had done choux. The time had finally come for croissants but first I would have to witness a real life tourier.
The Wolseley is a London institution. Built in the style of the old grand European cafe, it is one of the few places in London with its own tourier. A tourier, from the French ‘to turn’, is the specialized name for a chef who works with viennoiserie. Most other places where you might buy a morning croissant have flown the pastry in from France. Talk about lazy.
I have two weeks before I return to Karachi. Friends email Jeremy King, the iconic restaurateur who owns the Wolseley along with the Delaunay, Colbert and Brasserie Zédel, and ask if it would be possible for me to spend a few hours with the Wolseley’s head tourier. I promise to be as unobtrusive as possible. Jeremy, gracious as ever, CC’s his head tourier, Douglas Gregory, who says yes, I am welcome to come in to the kitchen and observe.
‘Would you like to do a night shift?’ Jeremy asks. ‘It would be fascinating and would give you a real feel for the process.’
Yes, I write back immediately. Never having done any actual manual labour of any kind I assume a tourier’s night shift is from 10 p.m. to midnight (mixing, rolling, wrapping, refrigerating) and then back early in the morning to bake the goods.
We fix a date.
‘Any tips?’ I ask Doug, trying to sound casual. I have, after all, baked croissants before.
‘Wear comfortable shoes,’ he emails back.
I try to time my day so that I am still relatively fresh for my 12 a.m. call time. The restaurant’s last orders are at midnight so the kitchen won’t really clear out till then, hence our late start. I wonder if I should nap beforehand but decide that that’s overdoing it. Two hours’ work in the evening should be fine. I put on my sneakers and take the bus down Park Lane. I reach the Wolseley earlier than I am supposed to. It is a weeknight. The crowd at the restaurant is winding down and I announce that I am here to report to Doug in the kitchen. The hostess smiles awkwardly: Really? Yes, really!
She takes me down the stairs and I walk through the steamy kitchen. The cooks, one of whose hand is bleeding badly – he is leaving to bandage it – look at me oddly.
What? Are these not the right shoes?
‘Ello?’ One of the chefs calls to me. ‘What are you doing here?’
I’m Doug’s apprentice, I say.
‘Dougie?’ he asks.
Yes, I nod, that’s the one.
‘Well you’re in the wrong place then. Doug’s at the Delaunay.’
I reach the front doors panting, with five minutes to spare. I’m here to see Doug, I say to the doorman.
‘Ooh,’ he says, wincing.
‘I hope you’ve slept well,’ he says. He’s been at the Delaunay for a year and a half and is from Liverpool. He takes me all the way down to the bowels of the building.
‘You’re not leaving here before 10 a.m.,’ he says, laughing. ‘Some days, they don’t finish till eleven, even.’
Tian meets me outside the kitchen. A large Chinese man, he gives me my kitchen uniform and walks me through the kitchen quickly before the tourier staff meeting begins. They are a team of five here. Doug, who has been with the Delaunay for fifteen years, is the head tourier. Tian is his number two. And they are assisted by two young French touriers in training. An Albanian rounds out the team. They are, interestingly, all men. ‘We wish we had girls working here,’ Tian says blushing.
The poulash, or pre-fermented dough, is already turning in huge industrial mixers. A young African man is sweeping the kitchen floors. It is just after midnight. Tian shows me how to tie an apron so that it doesn’t open and tells me by the end of the night there will be about twenty-seven kilos of croissant dough ready for the fridge in what they call the first proofing. It is a seventy-two-hour process. First the poulash is made, then the croissant dough is lined with butter, folded and chilled. Two days are spent laminating the dough – folding it over and over again, creating the flaky buttery layers.
‘How do you adjust to these vampire hours?’ I ask Tian, who also hasn’t slept this afternoon. ‘4 to 5 a.m. is our busiest time,’ he says, smiling. ‘But you know, when you’re awake all night together you have to be like a family. He pauses. ‘Because you can’t be around your actual family.’ This is their tourier family, they all say to me over the course of the night.
At 12.30 we sit in the staff room for the meeting, drinking weak vending-machine coffee while Doug lays out the agenda. By 5 a.m. the baking has to be done so the breakfast shipment of croissants, bagels, pretzels and viennoiserie can be sent off to the Wolseley, Colbert and Brasserie Zédel. The team here makes 3,500 to 4,000 pieces of viennoiserie a week. That’s forty-four kilos of dough a day, one third of which is butter. They make, Doug says it’s fair to say, the best almond croissant in Europe.
The news plays on the TV screen behind us and Doug runs through the docket. Who will make the apricot jam? Are there Wolseley orders for chocolate brioche? At some point Doug, who seems undisturbed by having a novice invade his kitchen (he has adjusted the recipes and printed them out for me so I can recreate what we make here at home), asks if I have any questions before we start.
When should I begin caffeinating? I say, already holding a cup of coffee, wondering if I ought to pace myself. Now, Doug says. Start now. We’re only going to get one break, and everything here works on a tight schedule. Once the morning deliveries have gone out we’ll start preparing the next batch of dough.
‘Does gluten-free flour work for viennoiserie?’
Everyone grimaces. No, Doug says, it just doesn’t have the elasticity.
I stop asking questions.
The Night Shift
The stone-base Ramalhos deck ovens have been on all day and we file into the warm kitchen as the team splits off to work. Tian goes to prepare chocolate hazelnut muffins and scones, and the young French assistants begin scaling the flour. My name is on the kitchen rota hanging on one of the Retarder Prover fridges where the croissants will be chilling later. I will be shadowing Doug and making croissants, bagels and pretzels. I am taken over to the counter and told to start scaling for croissants, weighing the flour for different batches of dough. ‘How do you run such a spotless kitchen?’ I ask Doug – there’s not a smudge of butter or a speck of flour anywhere. It’s a rule, he says. Anyone who spills anything stays the latest. You drop it, you hang around till afternoon. Moments later, I’ve spilled flour on the floor, my apron and as I panic, manage to get it in my hair too. Doug kindly moves me to pretzels.
That unusual flavour that pretzels have? That’s kind of like vegemite and salt? That’s food-grade lye. Acid, in other words. Doug doesn’t let me near the stuff – you have be to trained for that – but teaches me how to twist a pretzel. It’s all in the wrist. He watches over me while I roll out the dough and then, holding the thinner ends in my fingers, flip it up into the air and twirl it into a distended Möbius shape. I sprinkle the toppings and place the pretzels onto their trays.
The actual baking in the Delauney kitchen happens symphonically. There is a constant flow of people and trays moving from counter to oven and then out to the large trolley where the food will be placed and counted before it is delivered. No one complains, and no one shouts. While we work, moving to the bagels – surprisingly easy to make – Doug explains how not a crumb is wasted. It’s too much work to make extras in case a croissant is burned, so the batch they bake every day is counted down to the last flaky pastry. At most they have one extra croissant, maybe two. Doug says typically croissants have something between twelve and twenty layers. The Delauney’s has forty-eight. The almond paste for the almond croissants are his recipe, which he shares with me, not too sweet and just right. The croissants that aren’t perfectly shaped or whose buttery crusts are a little torn are covered with cheese to become cheese croissants – a restaurant secret. Doug’s team works hours in a windowless kitchen so subterranean there is no breeze, no mobile reception. None of them eats any of what they make.
All night long, the young African man sweeps and mops. He doesn’t say anything to anyone, but he is there, near us, working into the night.
By 5 a.m., my legs hurt. We have been standing for five hours straight. But all the men are smiling and laughing with each other. Tian shows me how to massage vanilla out of its pod, squeezing it like toothpaste, and tells me about how the spice travelled from Mexico to Madagascar. He teaches me how to make canelés and then secrets one prized burnished pastry away so I can taste what we have made. Tian does this through the night. Every few hours a hand sneaks a plate over to me. He slips me an almond croissant so I can taste Europe’s best, then a bagel, a muffin, a mini pretzel. ‘Won’t you have any?’ I ask him. He just shakes his head and carries on working.
We send off the morning’s deliveries and while the boxes are being packed, the touriers take a five-minute break. We take the lift up to street level and stand in the cold while Doug smokes a cigarette. None of the men have eaten a meal since being here. ‘When do you sleep?’ I ask Tian. He tells me that he worked for some time in his family’s food business but quit those easier hours to come here, where he works much harder and, for all intents and purposes, alone.
‘I do it because I love it,’ he says. Sometimes, the team leave the Delaunay by eleven, but it’s still too early for him to go home. Tian says he often goes to a nearby coffee shop, orders a croissant and a coffee and sits watching Londoners in the late morning – couples meeting for a morning coffee, professionals at business meetings, late commuters rushing to work. He says it’s nice just to be with people.
It’s past six when the pastry chefs saunter into the kitchen. I notice they don’t drink weak vending-machine coffee in plastic cups like the tourier team. They have a French press and proper cups and saucers. I also notice that they don’t greet or smile at everyone – or anyone, in fact. They just come in and start pulling trays of half finished delicious cakes and tarts from the fridges, begin icing and assembling them on one end of the kitchen while another set of pastry chefs start the work of preparing and scaling their own recipes. Somehow with them, noise drifts into the kitchen and from silence there is the clanging of plates, orders being shouted about, and the thud of clogs on the kitchen floor. Doug sends me upstairs to prep the Delaunay counter with Tian. It’s his specialty, he tells me as we climb the stairs (which are marked with posters of diners the serving staff are supposed to know: regulars, food critics, corporate clients. I look at them, like yearbook photos lined up in neat rows. I don’t recognize most of the people.)
After we have loaded and prepared the croissant baskets we push the trolley of baked goods to the front of the restaurant and Tian begins to create the display. It’s not something he takes lightly. He spends ten minutes arranging the pastries on the glass stands at the front of the restaurant, moving them a fraction of an inch, stepping back and bending down to glance at them, before returning and readjusting them slightly.
Sometimes the others tease him, he says. They think he spends too long on the presentation. ‘But it’s important, you know?’ he says shyly. ‘One day, I tell them, my future wife is going to walk in here and the first thing she’ll see of me is this display.’ Tian smiles.
Yes, I agree, there is an art to it and he mustn’t settle for anything less than beautiful.
We stand behind the pastry counter, stocking it. Tian leaves me to do a section and shows me how to reimagine angles, how to stack the pretzels, align the croissants and arrange the canelés. Tian talks about how there’s a poetry not only in how you imagine but also how you present your work. All done, we return to the kitchen where the team is working on the next batch of dough.
I love to cook. It’s joyous. I love the creating and the sharing. I think of how it connects mood and sentiment, occasion and celebration. But cooking has always been a luxury to me, all indulgence and praise. I never worked seriously on it, never so thanklessly. No one who comes into the Delaunay, or any other restaurant for breakfast, however well-meaning, thinks to thank the tourier. No compliments are sent to the chef, who has given up his night and also his day, when he returns home to sleep through the afternoon.
But they love it, everyone says that to me down in the kitchen. They don’t care about the lack of sleep, the burning in the knees that comes from close to twelve hours upright, the absence of a social life. They are touriers because they love what they do.
At 7.30 a.m., after putting in a bit of time on the upcoming batch, I thank Dougie and his team. I can’t keep my eyes open. They have humoured me, letting me spill and asking me questions about writing books while I have watched them work with awe. I am humbled by their unceasing fascination for what they do and I vow that I will never leave a restaurant again without thanking the men hidden away in the kitchen, though of course I do.
Doug is moving soon. He’s about to take up the head tourier position at the Bouchon Bakery in California. He is happy about it, though sad to be leaving the Delaunay after so long. His team will miss him. They walk me out of the kitchen, and say goodbye after gifting me a folder of recipes, a bag full of the pretzels and croissants and bagels that we made, and a bagel basher they have all signed.
Photograph courtesy of Fatima Bhutto