Thursday, October 29, 2009

How Long For That Risotto, Chef?

On the whole, we had a fairly good relationship with the 'Dereks' on front-of-house. The main problem was Keira the bar manager, an Irish woman in her forties, with braided hair, heavy make-up, and a club foot. She talked about healing stones and hugging trees, but she had a snearing, sarcastic look that could kill a goat at 50 yards.

She’d bitch about everyone in the kitchen. Whenever she cornered me, she’d bitch about how Jules wasn’t good enough for the job. She would lisp away, and study my reaction. She said she was friends with the local AA inspector, and had it on good authority that we were going to lose our only Rosette.

Keira always knew what was going on in the kitchen. But we had our own spy network among the waitresses. The trouble started when we heard she was leaving to take over as bar manager of the Rosie. Just as she was about to start, she was sacked for “briefing against people”, and tried to take everyone else down with her.

She threatened to get our premises licence taken away, saying we smoked dope in the bar, and she could smell it when she opened up. We were taken into the office and grilled, but it soon blew over. What galled me most was seeing Jules’ shocked, pious expression. Greeny got fed up with smoking out of the window, and left a couple of nights later and moved into a shared room above the Rosie. It was sad to see him go, and the atmosphere changed after that. It became far more serious.

Jules had set me time limits for jobs, and took a minute off each time I did them. Apparently it was a vital part of my training. He’d bully and harass, trampling on his “grunts”, and spouting the same tiresome cheffing catchphrases.

“How long for that risotto, chef?”

“30 seconds.”

“You’ve got 20.”

How many times had I heard those words? Not nearly as many times as I’d hear them again. Working in the cramped furnace meant it was difficult to avoid collisions, and there was a constant call of “backs” as you worked. With the heat and bad tempers, it was suffocating.

“Sorry, chef,” I’d say after each collision.

“You will be,” the stock response.

There is little originality among chefs. They have their own language that takes all of a week to learn, and most of it seems to be about anal sex. If you were hit hard, you were “raped”, “butt-fucked” or “slammed up the arse”. Forty covers all coming in at 8pm might be greeted with a gleeful, “I think we’re going to get butt-fucked tonight!”

The most common expression was “in the shit” – a preponderance seized on energetically by my fellow chefs. When you were flagging, and orders were going cold on the pass, the vicious bastards were only too happy to help - so they could bring it up in the pub later.

Kitchens are run on competition after all. Each chef is painfully aware of his place on the totem pole – and any chance of advancement is grabbed with both hands. It often happened to me, and they let me know all about it. “You were in the shit there tonight,” Jules would say in earshot of my budding helpers.

Sometimes it just can’t be helped, and customers will descend from nowhere. You’ll be making risotto from scratch five times during service, cooking asparagus soup from fresh using ladles from the dipping pot for stock, and throwing the red-hot, grease-grimed bullseye in to get the water boiling.

That’s when the adrenaline kicks in – that’s what professional cooking is all about, and that's what I became addicted to.

You don’t get the buzz every service, far from it. But when you’re banging out plates, and every dish is perfect, there’s no sweeter taste. Of course, the buzz doesn’t last long – it may give you a warm, proud feeling in the pub afterwards, it may even carry you to your bed, leaving you with dreams of gastronomic greatness, but kitchen karma will make sure your next day is hell. And you’re only remembered for your last meal. As even the world’s best chefs will tell you – you get good days and bad days in catering.

The only thing that makes it all worthwhile is the passion. Without that you’re nothing. And I was seriously beginning to doubt whether I had enough passion for the job. I used to become animated whenever the subject of cooking came up. But being surrounded by food and recipes all day had stifled that. I stopped asking questions, and wondering about techniques so much, and just got my head down and ploughed through the never-ending crates of veg.

The whole thing had become repetitive, and I was faced with the unpleasant reality that there was nothing romantic about cooking, as I had always hoped. The sad truth was any job becomes boring after a while. There was little creativity involved, and practically none as a commis. It was all about consistency. The art came when the dish was created. After that, you just kept repeating that same brief moment, banging out that same tired repertoire of dishes. Like Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, you keep writing the same line over and over and over again.

I kept comparing myself to the other chefs, questioning whether I had the passion they had, and knowing they’d been doing the job a lot longer. I didn’t have their manic energy. A good chef throws himself at any task - mopping the floor, and attacking the flat-top with half a lemon so it shines like a silver Bentley.

But I avoided cleaning whenever I could, and would dream up jobs in the dry store whenever they were deep-cleaning the kitchen. It was someone's job every few weeks to cover themselves in bin liners and climb up through the extractor unit to clean it. The thought of being asked terrified me - I was scared of enclosed spaces - but then I was probably too fat to get through the ducting in any case. Maybe that psychic I'd gone to see when I had my mid-life crisis, and was unable to make my own decisions, was right; maybe I didn’t like getting my hands dirty.

When I first looked into cheffing, the chefs I talked to all said I was mad for even considering the notion. They seemed to be giving me a last chance. "But then, you have to be mad to be a good chef," they said.

Whichever way you looked at it, it was an insane choice of career. But at least I was alive. My emotions had become far more intense and colourful since I'd taken up the knives and bolted that dreary, pretentious media world. There was no way I could go back. Not now I’d breathed life again, and gorged myself on the secret puddings. It’d be like turning the colour off on the telly.


Matt C said...

I love your blog, and I must admit that I read it as a cautionary tale and a guide to my own career crisis...

This post, right up until the last paragraph, had me thinking "right, you're mad, you've got a cushy office job and you're home at 5:30, stop thinking about cooking", but then the last paragraph pulled the rug from under me. Now you've just confused me more!

Carlo said...

Ditto! As a former reporter also wrestling with a similar perspective with cooking, I've been living my dream vicariously through your blog.

But after your last post I'm not sure where you're going with this!

Lennie Nash said...

Dear Matt C,

Thank you for your comments. Funny how compelling the cooking dream is, isn't it...despite all the things against it.

I worked with a chef once, who when I told him about my daily life as a journalist, just stood there goldfishing.

"You're surrounded by TV screens all day, can watch as much sport as you want, and you can get down the pub in the evenings and still go in later the next day...why the FUCK do you want to be a chef, you cunt?" he reflected.

And those were his exact words, and I made sure I remembered them, but it still didn't do me any good.

Maybe it's a bit like a crystal meth addiction, but without all the Ferraris and Grand Slam tennis prizes.

Keep in touch and thanks again,


Lennie Nash said...

Dear Carlo,

All I can say is I'm confused as you are. I still don't know whether I enjoyed those years cooking.

I still don't know whether I should have left the kitchen or returned to it, and to muddy the waters even more, I've just been offered a job to go back into it all again.

I have to tell them on Monday. As the Germans say: Life is one of the hardest. And as Floyd said: Don't ever go into the restaurant business, it kills everything.

What am I to do? I'm not looking forward to this weekend's angst...

All the best,


rebeccajago said...

I love this blog so much; it's so well-written, so interesting, and not in the least bit self-indulgent. Whatever you decide to do, I hope you'll keep on writing.

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