Every picture tells a story, so they say. But this one tells at least three.
The first reveals why chefs from 12 different restaurants from around the King’s Cross area were behind the counter of the Oyster Bar at St Pancras Grand restaurant recently and why I was there with my arms around at least two of them.
We were all there because Michelle Cartwright, the restaurant’s sparky general manager (second from left in the photograph below), had cleverly arranged an oyster shucking competition between them all. This involved the chefs standing in front of trays of 18 Colchester oysters and competing to see which of them could open them in the fastest time. It was a prerequisite that the eventual winner had to have all fingers remaining at the end.
I was the judge and it was great fun. Before the competition began I had gleaned from the expert oyster opener at Bentley’s in Swallow Street that professionals consider that they are doing well when they open 14 oysters in a minute.
At two minutes to 7pm I managed to silence the crowded bar area, where everyone had a glass of Laurent Perrier champagne in their hand, explain the simple rules of the competition and encourage everyone to shout Ready, Steady, Go, before the chefs got to work.
Two minutes later, we had a winner. He was Chris Dines, the genial chef of St Pancras Grand, who is two to the right of me in the photo, beaming with pleasure – he had just won a magnum of champagne for his efforts – proudly displaying his tray of opened oysters. There may be some who thought that Dines should have been handicapped for being on home territory but, having watched them all closely, I believe that his greatest advantage was his height. At 6’5” tall he has great natural leverage.
The other fact I learnt from watching these chefs is that opening oysters in a competition is rather like taking an exam. Several of the chefs got stuck because the first oyster they picked up was incredibly difficult to open. Instead of abandoning it and moving on to an easier one they persisted and lost time and a little confidence.
The second story relates to Nathalie Brossard, originally from Brittany, France, whose head appears to be resting on my right shoulder (it wasn’t!) and the smiling Shelim Miah, around whom is my right arm.
Brossard is a manager at Café OneKX, just south of St Pancras, which is part of The Camden Society (www.thecamdensociety.co.uk), an organisation which trains people with learning disabilities to take up jobs in the hospitality industry.
Shelim had been trained for two years in one of the Society’s first cafes, Flapjacks in Kentish Town, and had graduated to OneKX. He is soon to move on to a new position in a café they will run in Lewisham Library. Before this evening Shelim had never opened an oyster, but he was really excited to see a professional kitchen and to feel the buzz of St Pancras Grand. As is obvious from the smile on his face, he had a great time too.
The evening ended with operatic singing from a chef and a waitress standing on the tables that drew the crowds in from the adjacent champagne bar, rounds of applause and toasts in glasses of Muscadet. And it left Cartwright with the delightful dilemma of how soon she could possibly organise another such successful event.