Have you ever stopped to think what it takes to become a Michelin-star rated Chef, and exactly what that kind of commitment entails? Surely, once you’ve hit the top, the really hard work stops, and you get to coast for the rest of your career? In fact, the really hard graft kicks into top gear the minute you are awarded a star; the pressure to maintain standards – let alone aim for a second Michelin star – is truly off the charts. Caerleon-born Chef James Sommerin hit the headlines in 2007, when he won a Michelin Star for Wales at The Crown at Whitebrook, near Monmouth. ‘The Crown’ inherited the accolade when James moved on in 2013 to set up a restaurant in his own name. Following the opening, in 2014, of Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth, he won a Michelin Star in 2016, that he has twice retained. I was delighted to accept an invitation to join the team in November 2018, to record a timeline of a typical day…
Main Players: Chef Patron – James Sommerin Sous-Chef – Georgia Sommerin (James’ 19 year old daughter) Junior Sous-Chef – Joe Claridge Commis Chef – Steve Gill Office Manager – Beth Jones (James’ Sister in Law) Front of House – Nick Lawrence and Catherine Longree (James’ Sister in Law & Louise Sommerin’s twin sister) Louise Sommerin (Director, James’ Wife) Angharad Sommerin (James’ 15 year old daughter) Elin Sommerin (James’ 8 year old daughter) Melton – the Sommerin family’s 9 week old Miniature Daschund
Thursday, November 15 th , 2018
00.00am – The last restaurant guests left just before midnight, including a member of the Llanelli Scarlets squad. He had proposed to his girlfirend earlier in the day, and they celebrated with a ‘Chef’s Table’ experience in the restaurant kitchen. Following a thorough ‘clean-down’, and food orders placed for the days ahead, Georgia sets up next morning’s breakfast for the restaurant with-rooms’ ‘hotel’ guests.
01.00am – Home time for James, Georgia, Joe and Steve. Wednesday was Joe’s first day as Junior Sous-Chef, whilst this is Steve’s second week as Commis Chef. Georgia – James’ 19 year old daughter – who started work experience at The Crown at Whitebrook when she was 13 years old, has recently been promoted to the role of Sous-Chef, and is now second in command to her famous father.
02.00am – Around this time on a Saturday night, the whole team make a weekly pilgrimage to McDonalds, in Barry or Cardiff Bay. Georgia unwinds at her new home in Barry watching Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on Netflix, whilst James was up with a glass of red wine watching an American documentary on Japanese kitchen knives.
03.00am – Bedtime for James.
06.00am – Georgia wakes up, eats porridge for breakfast, before making her way to the restaurant for the breakfast shift at 8am.
08.00am – Georgia starts baking the bread for the day, Beth arrives for her day shift as Office Manager.
09.00am – James arrives to prep the meat, as do Joe and Steve as well. Louise pops her head round the door to say hello.
10.00am – Anne-Marie, the restaurant housekeeper is hoovering in the restarant, as James welcomes the rep from Fine Trails Wine Suppliers to explore a brand new house Champagne. Steve is prepping the veg, peeling a small mountain of shallots. Joe is deep-frying the tapioca and laverbread crisp; a Sommerin signature ‘snippet’ that is served on pebbles from Penarth beach, outside.
11.00am – Nick arrives, to start preparing the restaurant lay-out for lunch. Beth and James fold-napkins at the pass. Dave, from Ashton’s Fishmongers arrives with the fish and seafood delivery. Steve is chopping heritage carrots. The lamb stock has been on the boil since 9am. Georgia is spreading caremelized onion on her rolled-out dough for the lunch rolls. 12.00pm – Lunch service usually begins at this time, but today’s first guests are not in until 1pm, so there’s a welcome extra hour to prepare. They are expecting a table for two, a table for four, and a table for one – whilst another couple walk-in and request the Tasting Menu. Is the lone diner a critic, or perhaps an awards judge? Time will tell…
13.00pm – Having, unusually, been in meetings for much of the morning, James enters the kitchen, reaches for his apron, and away he goes. In his presence, there is a shift in the kitchen’s energy, and a palpable ‘charge’ is felt. James commissioned his stainless steel open-kitchen to his exact specification, to ensure a ‘flow’ between all members of the kitchen team. The atmosphere is calm, very ordered and peaceful; all four team-members almost appear to glide, and dance past each other, with a constant, mindful, refrain, ‘watch your back’.
14.00pm – Nick calls in to the kitchen with a question; one of the guests would like to know how spicy the curried Monkfish main is. She says does not have an intolerance, per se, it’s just that she’s a self-described ‘wimp’ when it comes to chillis. James assures him that the dish should be perfectly fine, as the only heat in the dish derives from the ginger.
15.00 pm – Steve empties the sous-vide water basin under the sink; he hands James the vaccum-packed loins and shoulders of lambs, for boning – a favourite past-time of the award- winning Chef-Patron.
16.00pm – The lone diner has just left, he was a businessman from Japan. The group of 4 are still at their table, devouring the Sommerin signature plum souffle, with parma violet ice cream. The evening ‘prep’ in the kitchen is in full swing.
17.00 pm – The final lunch guests have left, having enjoyed a memorable meal, and there are two hours to go before the evening guests arrive. Each member of the team is responsible for preparing the evening staff dinner to a specific budget; tonight it is Georgia’s turn, as she is also on ‘breakfast prep’. For the staff, it’s pizza time!
18.00pm – Catherine arrives to take over from Beth – she is a seasoned ‘FOH’. Like James (who sneaks a peek at the customers through the open kitchen window), she can usually sense when guest are genuinely enjoying themselves; ‘You can tell by their body-language, the conversation flows and they are totally relaxed, and they are more curious about asking questions.’
19.00pm – Show-time! It’s almost a full-house tonight; 16 are in for the 6 course menu, 2 for the 9 course Chef’s Table (in the restaurant kitchen) tasting menu , 2 for the vegetarian tasting menu, and 2 for the 14 course tasting menu. All in all that’s 154 plates, and on top of that they offer ‘snippets’, which brings the total up to 200 perfectly presented plates. Not bad at all for a Thursday night!
20.00pm – The two guests at the kitchen’s Chef Table are quiet tonight, and remark how incredibly organized everything in the kitchen is; the newly engaged couple that were in last night were full of questions for the team – a welcome element, that adds to the lively banter and kitchen atmosphere.
21.00pm – Steve and Joe experience ‘service’ for the first time in their careers, as they present dishes to the tasting menu guests – a personal touch at Restaurant James Sommerin.
22.00pm– The 4 th course of the Vegetarian Tasting menu is ready to go at the pass; Heritage Carrot, Basil, Seeds and Burrata Cheese.
23.00pm – the last guests are yet to place their order for dessert, but Steve starts the kitchen ‘clean-down’, and is soon joined by Georgia and Joe. James and Joe later attend to the dishwasher, whilst Catherine starts to polish the cutlery.
00.00 – Two ‘tables’ still remain, with the guests basking in the afterglow of a fine meal. The thorough kitchen clean-down continues. For Nick this is quality preparation time for the day ahead. The bane of his life, he says, is ‘that there are never enough hours in the day’.
02.00am – The final guests have now left; at this time, James occassionally sits at the restaurant’s centre table, creating the music playlist with a glass of wine. Georgia, Steve and Joe have a meeting at the pass to discuss the weekend orders. Slight panic sets in as the fruit and veg delivery was short today, and indeed was missing vital ingredients for a busy weekend ahead. Georgia starts phoning wholesalers, hoping to ensure a morning delivery of raspberries, girrolles, fresh figs – to name but a few.
02.00am – A call is received; the wholesaler’s delivery date has changed from Thurday to Friday. It would have been nice to have been informed! That’s an extra day’s prep, prior to a busy weekend. Not ideal. As the team prepare to leave, I pose a final question to the team. Following a 15-16-hour day, what on earth will possess them to return to this kitchen in a matter of hours? ‘It’s like a drug’, says James, ‘I can’t think of anything worse than sitting in an office all day’. Joe’s response? ‘I totally agree’.