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Full throttle festivities: behind the scenes of a restaurant at Christmas

Full throttle festivities: behind the scenes of a restaurant at Christmas

by Laoise Casey 07 December 2015

Laoise Casey reveals what it's like for the staff of The Dairy, in Clapham, during the festive rush.

Laoise Casey is a chef at The Dairy and The Delicatessen in Clapham and also writes regular columns for the Evening Standard and Independent.

‘Twas the month before Christmas, when all through the kitchen there was intense preparation with the music blaring. The customers were sleeping all snug in their beds while visions of six-course meals danced in their heads. Large group bookings, increased spending, free-flowing wine, beers, Champagne, insert-tipple-of-your-fancy-here, never-ending lunches and sheer indulgence. Welcome to the pure unadulterated madness that is Christmas in the restaurant industry.

Restaurant kitchens are always hives of concentrated frantic energy, but during December the speed cycle kicks in. It’s currently at full spin where I work, The Dairy in Clapham. How does this madness of Christmas affect our chefs working behind the scenes? One of the most noticeable differences is the merging of lunch and dinner services. After the final few lunch customers finish their petit fours (doughnuts with orange curd since you asked), they hold the door open for the first dinner guests. We have a busy service throughout the year, but at Christmas the number of staff parties increases massively. We see a rise in lunch bookings, too, as people look to treat themselves. The festive period means indulgence and everyone likes to eat out; if you walk into any restaurant during December you can see this straight away. For our industry this increased custom is a vital part of our intake, although it comes with additional pressures and can test a team’s true strength.

A longer lunch service can have a particularly strong impact on the pastry section with the pastry chef waiting, spoon in hand, for the last customer to choose dessert (who quite often will choose all of them!). It’s important that the kitchen team pitches in during a longer service and the ethos of our head chef Richard Falk is that everyone stays to help with pastry. In The Dairy this applies to all sections, with all chefs being cross-trained so they can help each other out in preparation for service. Richard tries to make sure everyone in the kitchen works the same hours during December and has the same amount of time off as during the year. A lot of us work sixteen hour days, so the working week is a long one.

Champagne
Diners indulge a lot more in the run-up to Christmas
Dean Parker
The kitchen staff have to prepare themselves for an all-day service

Eating together

While customers want to treat themselves during December and are willing to spend more on food and drink, it is vital the kitchen and front of house staff are looked after, too. More than ever this is seen in the quality of our staff meals. How can we be expected to look after our customers if we don’t look after ourselves? Staff food is essential at The Dairy, with the chefs taking turns to make breakfast and dinner for everyone. The main rule with staff meals is that it is taken on as part of each chef’s mise-en-place while using up food in the kitchen and our dry stores. On the whole it’s a nutritious option using the same seasonal produce that’s in our menus.

We pride ourselves on our staff meals. There have been a few that stood out, like the time truffles made a brief appearance on scrambled eggs (a one morning appearance only), almonds on toast (the, er, classic staff food staple), kebabs with flatbreads, eggs Benedict, gnocchi, chicken parmigiana, falafels and more. Richard encourages everyone to take time out, sit down and enjoy the staff meal before setting up for dinner service.

At our delicatessen beside The Dairy, Christmas means an increased workload in terms of preparing gift hampers, which include our rooftop honey, charcuterie, jams, spiced buttered rum, piccalilli and home-cook cheats such as our Guinness soda bread dry mix. Our Christmas puddings will soon hit the shelves following a mammoth baking session in the production kitchen.

 
 
Chicken liver
Staff meals are serious business at The Dairy
Drinking wine
The team makes sure they put some time aside for themselves

Party time

 
 
Our Christmas party is held at the start of December (possibly to allow us to have plenty of time for recovery). If you’ve been on a night out with chefs before you’ll understand why!

Laoise Casey

Working in restaurants during December can be difficult, as you watch everyone enjoying themselves and indulging while you are working hard. From the outside this might seem like a painful experience, and while it is tough, we make sure we have time for ourselves and the general atmosphere in the kitchen is a fun one. Simple things like playing music during prep work aid this. Our Christmas party is held at the start of December (possibly to allow us to have plenty of time for recovery). If you’ve been on a night out with chefs before you’ll understand why! As Richard says, ‘naturally, there may be some casualties’; perhaps that's best described in a separate piece.

We keep going at full speed up to and including 20 December. If you happen to visit The Dairy you’ll see busy front of house staff and chefs rushing around as customers indulge. From 21 December our doors close as our owner Robin Gill champions the importance of time off for his staff over Christmas and closes all his restaurants. In this respect we are very lucky to have this time with our families, especially when compared to others in the hospitality industry. We work incredibly hard in the run up to Christmas and then take time to relax and enjoy ourselves. Then it’s back open again on 29 December to gear up for New Year’s Eve and another full year of madness. We wouldn’t have it any other way and can’t wait for what 2016 brings.

 
 

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