Naomi Kelsey, one of the 2016 Young Chefs, reflects on her experience at the Symposium
My passion for food began at a young age: baking cakes with my mum and making fresh pasta with my dad and siblings; hanging fettuccine from horizontal broom handles set up all around the conservatory. I spent my first week in an industrial kitchen at 15 on a school arranged work experience at Lincoln College in Oxford, soon followed by part-time work at 16 in the kitchen at St Catherine’s College. I started on the Sunday shift making 9lbs of pizza dough, roasting over 50kg of potatoes and vast amounts of veg for the students’ Sunday lunch. Over summer holidays this became more of a full-time vocation and I would help in the pastry, larder and vegetarian sections. After finishing A levels and being utterly confused and unconvinced about following my peers and school expectations on going to university, I decided to spend a year doing a Diploma in Cookery at City of Oxford College. Two years and a couple of stints at charity dinners with locally esteemed chefs later, I finished my course and was free to explore the wonders of the professional kitchen, full time.
During my 4 years at St Catherine’s, and being the daughter of the head chef, Tim Kelsey, I was well aware of the Symposium and had heard about the wonders of the food and (occasionally eccentric) chefs that came in to the kitchen over the weekend. I think that the way catering is taught in college is highly focused on the practical aspect and less on the ethics, source and history behind food so feeling like this theoretic domain was lacking in my knowledge and awareness, I thought it would be an ideal opportunity to try and attend some lectures from prestigious food experts and enthusiasts at the Oxford Symposium.
In the weeks and days running up to the Symposium there is a buzz and an impending sense of organisation and logistics being manufactured behind the scenes. As the weekend nears, an increasing amount of specialised ingredients and recipes turn up and are somehow found a home in the ever busy kitchen. Unfamiliar faces start to appear and start to burrow away at their food preparation, requiring a few hands from the St Catherine’s team to help cater for the 200 Symposiasts. This year Oleg (the other recipient of the Young Chef Award) and I were helping with the preparation for Fergus Henderson’s offal offerings under his watchful eye and carried out by his team. I was in charge of creating vegetarian alternatives for each of the 5 courses in case there were any queasy Symposiasts who didn’t fancy the deep fried tripe.
Over the weekend I attended many interesting and engaging lectures on submitted papers, notably Paul Rozin’s talk on disgust. I managed to sneak back into the kitchen for Jacob Kenedy’s Saturday night dinner which was offal from an Italian perspective using some incredible ingredients, in particular infant calf stomach which still held the residue of the mother’s milk. After dinner the evening moves into the JCR bar with more talks and a chance to mingle with the other food enthusiasts. This is prime time for networking and introducing yourself to as many people as you can – you never know who you may meet and what it could lead to. For me I met semi-retired food journalist Cherry Ripe who offered me one months’ free accommodation in Sydney and contacts to arrange a few stages at celebrated restaurants. So in November I spent my time in Sydney and had a great experience working at Sean’s Panaroma on Bondi Beach and Yellow, a fine dining vegetarian restaurant.
My advice to the next Young Chefs is to take every opportunity you can to meet the people who attend and get stuck into the work in the kitchen at St Catz. It will be an experience you will never forget and will hopefully get many more out of it!