From amateur to master chef: A culinary adventure

Alex Nazaruk. Picture by Tony Johnson

Alex Nazaruk. Picture by Tony Johnson

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ALEX Nazaruk says that of all his culinary adventures probably the most daunting was serving a seven-course “tasting” menu in Iceland.

“It was my first time in a professional kitchen,” he says. “The head chef came over and said he had a problem because he couldn’t find a babysitter. I offered to help but he said ‘no, you’re going to be in the kitchen cooking’.”

The Foodish Boy

The Foodish Boy

With just two lunchtime shifts under his belt Alex was entrusted with cooking for a fully booked restaurant on a Saturday night. But this wasn’t just any old place, Dill Restaurant, run by head chef Gunnar Karl Gislason, is arguably Iceland’s top place to eat out.

It sounds like an extreme version of MasterChef and Alex admits that when service started part of him wanted to run out of the door. “My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking,” he says.

He wasn’t just rustling up pie and mash either. Alex and just one other chef were responsible for the restaurant’s renowned five and seven- course tasting menus. “We’re talking about flowers placed on the plate using tweezers and emulsions, foams and liquid nitrogen. It was terrifying and the next four hours flew by, but at the same time it was exhilarating.”

It was a baptism of fire for the 26- year-old from Leeds and the first port of call in a culinary adventure that has seen him spend the past 12 months travelling the world in search of new foodie experiences.

It’s an adventure that has seen him undertake 52 different food jobs on five continents, doing everything from working in a fish and chip shop in Leeds to learning the art of wok frying in China – and pretty much everything in between.

He returned home to Yorkshire this week and is staying with his parents in Leeds where he is rounding off his culinary “project” by pulling a pint in his local bar later today.

Alex was born and raised in north Leeds and studied music at Oxford University. After graduating he moved to London where he worked in sales and marketing for a gourmet tea company.

So why did he decide to quit his job and embark on a year-long culinary odyssey that even highly skilled chefs would find daunting, never mind an untrained, albeit enthusiastic, amateur?

“I’ve always been really into food and drink but I hadn’t really travelled much apart from in Europe and I wanted to take on a big challenge and try to accomplish something that combined these passions,” he says.

Alex’s travels have taken him to some exotic locations, although his culinary journey actually started a little closer to home – at the Thornbridge Brewery in the Peak District.

“I learned how to make beer and then I worked in a butchers and bakers and the Atlantis fish and chip shop on Harrogate Road in Leeds.”

He spent several months planning and researching his trip before taking the plunge. “I had no idea if it was going to work or not,” he says. “I didn’t just want to eat in the best restaurants around the world, although that would have been nice. I wanted to try to learn about as many different cuisines as I possibly could and travel at the same time.”

During his trip he ended up working in several of the top 50 restaurants in the world including Pujol in Mexico and Le Chateaubriand in Paris. So how did a food blogger end up getting the chance to work in such high-end establishments?

“Once you’ve got your foot in the door it’s not that difficult because chefs often get asked to go from place to place and it’s quite common for them to travel between the top restaurants.”

At each new place he worked in he made a new contact who helped him with his next challenge. You might think all this will have cost a fortune but Alex says it didn’t.

“Some places paid me for working and others gave me food and a place to stay. But when you’re working five or six days a week you don’t have much time to spend money, although I made sure I did some sightseeing.”

And after slaving over a hot stove he enjoyed more than a few boozy nights out with the chefs. “There were a few late nights and I probably learned more about being a chef when I was out with them than I did in the kitchens.”

His journey took him to some extraordinary parts of the world. “I got to make tequila in the village of Tequila in Mexico and in January I was brewing sake in rural Japan. I was woken up at half four in the morning and it was minus six outside. Nobody spoke any English and it was just me and four Japanese blokes working a 14-hour shift.”

There were some surreal moments along the way, too. “In Peru, I was invited to work on the Orient Express travelling to Machu Picchu. But when I showed up there was some confusion because they thought I was a celebrity chef and made an announcement to all the passengers who were on board the train.

“I spent most of the time in the kitchen but I got to see some of the scenery as we travelled through the mountains and it’s one of the most beautiful journeys I’ve ever been on.”

China, too, was stunning, although he found working in the Chinese kitchens anything but tranquil. “I spent five days working on the wok section which can be pretty dangerous because you’ve got a lot of high heat and hot oil. But by the time I’d finished I had learned another skill which was hugely satisfying.”

In Los Angeles he worked for a religious cult serving organic vegan food and in New York he served hot dogs to basketball and American football stars. While in Cambodia he spent time working for a charity that helps educate people by teaching them how to cook.

Back in Leeds he’s got one more job to do – pulling a pint of some of the beer he made at the start of his journey, in his local bar in Chapel Allerton. “It seems a fitting way to finish with a pint of beer, which is a typical Yorkshire experience.”

Throughout his journey he kept a blog chronicling his experiences and now that he’s back home he says he’s considering writing a book about his travels. “The whole trip was amazing, I learned all kinds of different techniques and it’s been a constant education, so it’s something I’m thinking about,” he says.

He feels, too, that his trip has taught him about far more than just food tastes around the world. “I’ve not just learned about food I’ve learned about different cultures, because food isn’t just about ingredients it’s about the people who make it and the local culture that inspires it.”

• To find out more about Alex’s global culinary journey go to foodishboy.com

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