My worst-ever day’s cooking was New Year’s Day 1993, in the kitchens of The Four Seasons Inn at the Park. I was working as a commis chef (the poor bloody infantry of the French brigade system), at what was then one of London’s grandest restaurants. It was, to use a phrase popular with my father-in-law, a living hell.
The run-up to Christmas in any restaurant kitchen is intense. I was working split shifts, which meant cycling into work at 6.30am, passing out for the afternoon in the windowless staff room, amid the cigarette smoke and broken hotel furniture, and then cycling back home at midnight. That December I worked a stint where I didn’t see daylight for 10 days.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved it. This was thrilling, macho stuff. We were working under Bruno Loubet, one of the country’s great chefs. We were young. We were kitchen commandos... We were making people’s tea.
On New Year’s Eve we cooked an eight-course tasting menu, and that night the kitchen staff were allowed to stay in one of the hotel rooms before cooking lunch the next day. We were overtired and overexcited, and we set upon the mini-bar with terrible abandon. The next morning I woke shaking, liverish and a translucent shade of green. Bruno, sensing trouble, gave me a nice easy job, making pommes amandine: mashed potatoes cut into neat rectangles, coated with flaked almonds and fried.
Then the restaurant filled up with 50 unbooked walk-ins. A billion pommes amandine were suddenly needed, but I made the mash too soggy, and the dainty rectangles started to fall apart as I tried to turn them with my shaking hands. Bruno, always preternaturally calm in the kitchen, had to take over my section while I stood in the corner juddering with nausea and shame.
I learned two useful lessons that day. One: that I was probably not cut out to be a restaurant chef. And two: you can’t fry soggy mash. What is true of pommes amandine is true of any mash-based patty or fritter, including fishcakes. Proceed gingerly when adding milk to your mash.
Another tip: before you shape and refrigerate the cakes, fry off a small piece of the mixture. Taste it, season it to perfection and, if it is too sloppy, add a little bit of flour (you can use a gluten-free one if you prefer).
You probably don’t have a Michelin-starred chef standing in your kitchen waiting to sort out your mistakes, but follow these rules and, with any luck, you won’t need one.
Wash the potatoes well, but leave the skins on and put in a pan. Cover with water, add a little salt and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through. You can test by piercing one with a knife.
While the potatoes are boiling, cook the leek in a shallow pan in the butter for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the peas and cook for another 5 minutes. Tip into a bowl and mash roughly so some of the peas break up.
Drain the potatoes well. Allow them to cool a little in a colander so that the excess moisture escapes as steam. When you can handle the potatoes, remove the skin with a small knife – it should scrape off easily.
Pour the milk into the same pan that you used for the leek and place the haddock fillets in the milk. Bring to a simmer, then turn the fish over when the milk comes up to the boil. Turn down the heat and cook for a further minute before removing from the heat.
Mash the potatoes roughly, or pass them through a potato ricer. Add the pea mix. Remove any bones from the cooked fish along with the skin, then flake the flesh into the potato-pea mix along with 2 tbsp of the cooking milk. Err on the side of a drier mix to ensure that the cakes do not collapse when you fry them. Add the spring onions and parmesan, then fold all the ingredients together with a spoon. Season well. At this point you can add more milk, but you have to keep in mind the wetter the potato mixture is the harder it will be to shape and coat.
Allow the mix to cool thoroughly and shape into fishcakes with floured hands – they can be as big or as small as you like. Arrange the coating ingredients in 3 separate bowls, starting with flour, then the egg-milk mix and finally the breadcrumbs.
Coat the first cake in the flour, then transfer to the egg mix and finally, coat carefully in breadcrumbs. (If you want them gluten-free, just coat them with polenta). Place the finished fishcakes on a tray and refrigerate until needed. Make sure they are good and cold. This will also stop them collapsing.
To cook heat up the butter and oil in a large shallow frying pan – having a mix of butter and oil will stop the butter burning. Carefully place each cake in the pan and fry over a medium heat for 3 minutes on each side. They can be served straight away or transferred to a low oven until serving.