I am marking exams at the Ballymaloe Cookery School this morning. The students are doing their end of term practical cooking exams. The tone is hushed and the atmosphere concentrated. The kitchens are busy but quiet. Just the sound of cooking. This is a cooking school, it is exam day and the students are cooking on their own. The sounds coming from the kitchen are slightly different to those from a restaurant kitchen. In the restaurant kitchen, every day is exam day.
I love a quiet kitchen, no unnecessary chatter, no raised voices, no abusive language. The gentle sounds of herbs being chopped, steel on wood, egg whites being whisked, metal on metal, meat and fish gently grilling, fat on heat and so on, it is all music to my ears.
There is a particular type of silence that descends on a well-organised kitchen. It is full of noiseless little messages. The unspoken nod, in the direction of a saucepan that is about to boil over, the eye-catching glance from one cook to the other whose butter is about to burn, the raised eyebrow towards a sink that might overflow. This quietness is only possible in a kitchen where everyone works as a team. Everyone cares about the food that the others are cooking. The aim is the same for all, great food for the guests in the dining room. All members of the team have a vested interest. In a busy and successful kitchen, no man is an island.
Of course there is chat and communication, but it is gentle and the gossip, the jokes and raucous fun are reserved for tea breaks or mealtime. That chat and fun is essential, because the pressure is there all of the time. Better to let off steam and have a laugh over a cup of tea than over the hot stove.
There are different types of kitchen silence or quietness. The quietness of a calm and organised service which of course can't be a voiceless, but comes with a soft hum like that of a fine barge cutting through the still water of a canal. The quietness that the execution of certain dishes demands. Try chatting while you score the puff pastry on a gateau pithiviers with its distinctive curved markings. You will most likely end up with an abstract pattern rather than the desired cartwheel effect.
There is the breathless silence necessary for other dishes, like delicately folding whisked egg whites into a soufflé or dressing a salad of tender leaves. Then there is the silent pounding and pumping of blood on temples as the soufflé or pithiviers leaves the oven. Pressure, glorious noiseless pressure. I love it. If I sound miserable and anti-social, well I am not. I love kitchens and have found some of my happiest moments in them, a true feeling of a sense of purpose, a team thrill, a confidence boosting communal effort where I have watched the timid grow confident, the shy grow gregarious, the directionless grow focused.
The deafening silence coming from the kitchens here this morning is a glorious symphony and good luck to all.
Some of the delicious results,