The halved-kernels were caramelised as a garnish for the pigeon dish of poached breast pancetta, and pastilla of confit leg meat with cocoa and quatre-epices. There was a photo of the dish on the prep room wall, and it showed the hellish green kernels next to the pastilla – so much effort for such a small part of the meal.
“Why the hell do we have to cut them in half?” I snapped, trying to stifle the urge to run to my car and drive off in a hail of gravel and forgotten tortures.
“Probably for the colour. Huh?” said Paul.
He’d perked up a bit. He was off to the Hinds Head the next day, and let us know all about it.
A new stagier called Eric had joined that day, and looked incredulously at the ever-growing bag of pistachios in front of him. I could tell he was finding it as hard keeping it together as I was. Occasionally, he would let off near-silent moans and sighs.
Eric worked mainly as a private chef, cooking for Russian billionaires on yachts in Antibes. He was full of stories of wealth and vicarious glamour. He talked endlessly about how rich his clients were, and it just made me feel more pitiful about my own existence.
I should be the one lounging on those yachts, drinking cocktails and munching lobster. And here I was, working for nothing; cutting mountains of pistachios in half.
I know it was all supposed to be for something, so I could put ‘Fat Duck-trained chef’ on my CV (no-one would ever find out it had been mostly grunt work), but no restaurant of mine was ever going to use halved pistachios. Not unless someone else was doing the chopping.
I tried veering Eric away from yachts and Zadora timepieces, and on to less irritating subjects. But he’d be back on it whenever he could. Later that afternoon, he told us a story about the worst thing he’d ever seen in a kitchen. He was working in a burger bar at the time, getting himself through college.
“This dude came in for a job,” Eric began. “He was about 17, and had never worked in a kitchen before, and they put him on the fryer. He was wearing this elaborate watch – I couldn’t see what it was, maybe a MontBlanc or Rolex, but it looked more like one of those expensive German makes or something...
“And I said to him, ‘Buddy, you wanna lose that watch, buddy you DON’T wanna wear that in the kitchen!’
“And he says something like, ‘it was given to me by my grandfather’ or something, and carries on wearing it. And then half-way through service, the watch slips off into the hot fat...and without thinking he puts his arm in to get it out...
“It was like a reflex action, man. You could see the flesh disappearing on his arm like cooked meat. He said something like ‘hey guys’ and went down like a tonne of fucking mash! Man, that was gruesome! Worst thing I ever saw...”
:: This blog eventually became a bestselling book, called Down And Out In Padstow And London by Alex Watts, about my disastrous attempt to train as a chef, including stints at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Rick Stein's kitchens in Padstow. You might like it if you're a foodie or have ever entertained the ridiculous idea of entering the padded asylum of professional cooking. It's here on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle book if you want a read...