Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Masterchef & The Call Of The Onions

I’ve been watching this year’s Masterchef final with a tad more enthusiasm than normal. Not so much googly-eyed Alex and his wonderful use of offal and, yawn, molecular gastronomy. He’s got his life in front of him. It’s the doctor and Dhruv, who are getting on a bit and have thrown in their jobs to pursue a life in food.

Whatever the outcome of tonight’s final (and don’t worry I won’t spoil it, but isn’t it pretty obvious who’s going to win?) Dhruv and his wife have vowed to open their own restaurant, but refreshingly after he’s learnt a bit more of the trade. And the gap-toothed doctor – who’s been put off by the long hours required in restaurant work – now wants to open a cake shop in Norfolk.

The cynics among you will no doubt say they can always go back to their old jobs. But throwing in a well-paid job during a recession is a pretty brave thing to do, and it makes me feel pretty miserable about my own sojourn into cooking, and why I chose to serve raw tuna of all things during my attempt to get through the regional heats on Masterchef.

It’s been something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Not my dismal Masterchef application. The decision to hang up my apron and go back into journalism. Alright, I had eaten through my savings. And I had fallen in love with a woman, who was used to holidays in the Caribbean rather than Cornwall. But it was one of the hardest – and easiest – things I’ve ever done, going back.

My fellow hacks, of course, were delighted and ribbed me about “how the dream was over”. They said it broke their hearts to see me eating canteen food every day. But one news shift gave me nearly the same amount of money as a week spent cooking. I carried on a few days here and there knocking out dinner party dishes for rich clients (they used to bring in their own dishes so it looked like they’d cooked it themselves) kidding myself that I’d soon be back, maybe with my own restaurant or pub, but in the end I gave up the cheffing and before I knew it was working in news full-time on a good pension and decent health care.

The cooking went and my girlfriend left too. But it wasn’t all about her. I think the moment I finally lost faith in cheffing for a living was when I put my back out lifting a stock pot and had to spend my whole day’s pay on a 30-minute physio session. The physio spent 10 minutes of it on the phone talking about an injured horse.

And so here I am now, three years later, with a house and a mortgage. Well, it’s more of a building site really but it’s getting there. I bought it for the kitchen mainly, and put in a stove so big it could hold its own in a 40-cover restaurant. But I miss the cooking.

Like I said, it’s been filling my thought s a lot recently – the call of the onions. I only have to watch a Floyd re-run and it all seems so possible again – making a living from the thing you love, being a bon viveur without a care in the world, unshackling yourself from the mortgage and opening a little bistro somewhere, banging out good old fashioned classics from the attic. Coq au vin, cassoulet, venison stew with dumplings and dauphinois, razor shells like they cook them at that fish market in Barcelona, pan-fried lemon sole with butter sauce, proper steak and kidney pudding, I could go on.

Falling into bed with shattered limbs, and sleeping the sleep of the just. A trade where talent is rewarded, and promotion comes with hard work rather than the ability to brown nose the boss. And it’s the creativity I miss as well. I got disillusioned at the time, realising that the higher you got in the restaurant industry, the more it was about consistency and the ability to knock out the same identical dishes, whatever Hell unleashes. Yet there was still an art to it. Far more than the new world of formulaic, Twitter-fed, desk-bound journalism anyway. Or what passes in its name these days.

When I returned to the newsroom a few of the hacks muttered, “well, at least you’ve been learning something useful for the past two years.” The others just thought I’d been to prison. And I had learnt something. I was never going to be Marco Pierre White, even the flabby, out-of-practice, stock cube-hawking, crisp-peddler you see on your screens now, but I could throw a decent dinner party and serve up a damned good steak. In fact, I’d learnt a huge amount in those two years, and I sorely regretted not trying harder.

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about. Ludicrous, I know. But maybe I should have one last go? Put a lodger in the spare room, and hope to pay off the rest of the mortgage with a cooking job? Or just rent out the whole house and get a live-in cooking job near the sea?

I never did find that fisherman’s shack I wanted to cook at. Shucking scallops on the quayside, and haggling over crabs. My knife skills are still passable – I’ve been keeping them up to scratch, chopping onions and prepping tomato concasse in the evenings. But would I be brave enough to throw it all in again? There are only so many times you can go back. This time it might be permanent, this time it might have to work or I might find myself in my 60s with no house and just the state to lean on.

I want success, not TV shows or books or recipe columns, just contentment. But however hard I try I just don’t seem to find the courage. I asked to go part-time, but they said no. I asked to do freelance shifts, but they said the new boss would see it as disloyal giving up a “good job” to become a shifter. The only way was to give it all up, finally, and throw myself into cooking.

Maybe move to Spain and learn Spanish and cook tapas and go out after work with the crew and be happy? Not bitch about the boss and being overlooked for promotion. This winter has taught me one thing – I hate the cold and repressive gloom. You forget when you find yourself in a job like mine with no windows, that there are a number of ways to live your life, even in cheffing. I’ve been thinking about that guy I worked with at the Fat Duck who worked on billionaires’ yachts in France. He had a happy life, even if he was woken up at 3am to make sandwiches for pissed Russians.

But then the fear and doubt set in and I see it painfully for what it is – a man, ahem, approaching middle-age giving up a well-paid job, with a good pension and decent health care, and a nine-day fortnight, for a badly-paid job, with long hours and no guarantee of happiness.

Ah, the call of the onions. If only I could find the courage to get back out there again, and do it properly this time. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel alive. Offices do that to you, especially ones without windows. So, what do you think? I'd like to know, really I would...


Anonymous said...

I don't think you can ever put your passion for food behind you.I reached the final of Masterchef (probably luck) but long hours in a kitchen (mother of heaps here) was never really on the cards. However, I have found a way to share my love of food with others. I bang on about cookery on the primary school curriculum a lot but find my real hands on cooking pleasure in a classroom -usually without a proper cooker.I often have help with the washing up but I lug the stuff in and out myself (flipping hard work, a wee bit like working in a real kitchen?). I don't think food lovers can ever squirrel it away.

Having six kids made me a good Masterchef candidate.

theundergroundrestaurant said...

Aw...I dunno what to suggest. Start a supperclub? Best of both worlds then

Kavey said...

Funnily I thought of supperclub too! Best of both worlds - the higher earnings of professional journalism and the emotional buzz of serving punters with your own food!

dominic said...

Sounds like you've got the oven and venue for private dining. Maybe start small and build on it. The dream never dies - and you could always try Masterchef!

Long said...

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Dave said...

I'm about to take the plunge back into the kitchen I've spent a year away after being put off by the last place I worked way too much stress and long hours incidentally I took over after Nathan Laity left and he had managed two years to my 6 months so he was always a grafter, one who will be missed by us all.

Helen said...

"I bought it for the kitchen mainly, and put in a stove so big it could hold its own in a 40-cover restaurant."

Sounds perfect for a supperclub...

Melinda said...

Just do it, dude.

Anonymous said...

Hello from the land down under,

I would like to share an idea that has
been floating around in my head for
some time. How about an artisanal
catering service that specializes in
only 1 or 2 products, fine creations
created without any boundaries?

We're pie and quiche mad here in
Australia yet 99% of the market is
stuck in the middle of the rut
producing the same or similar quality
fare ranging usually in the 3 to 6
quid range.

Surely there is a market out there for
discerning foodies who would appreciate
a crab quiche or Guinness beef pie
made only with the finest ingredients
known to man eg, Only Echire and
French sourced flour in the shortcrust,
the freshest crab, sushi grade salmon
in the quiche, Grade 7+ Angus or Wagyu
in the Guinness pie etc

Price should be secondary in this
model, changing seasonally according
to the availability of ingredients,
if the primary ingredients fall short
of being anything other than
exceptional then the line should be
temporarily discontinued.

Some may suggest it's an idealist
culinary concoction, yet I cannot help
but note the sincerity in it's
creation, the finest ingredients
possible treated with utter respect
to create known simple dishes where
mother nature is the real star. No
tricks, gimmicks, just the best that
one can source.

I had the privilege of visiting a well
to do friend of mine in Sydney
recently, I was introduced to his
rich in-laws and it occurred to me
that his father in law is such a man
who epitomises the sort of client who
would be loyal to such a venture.

Hard working, not easily impressed
with gimmickry, a man with a dollar
in his pocket who's more than willing
to hand it over if what is presented
to him is simply the finest pie or
quiche he's ever tasted, it's no longer
just a pie at that point, it's an
experience born out of sheer simplicity
not some foamy, jelly like fad. It
stands the test of time.

Anonymous said...

why dont you get yourself on an agency, and just work the kitchens on your days off?
ok, its hard to make a decent CV of temp work, but if you want to cook, and learn, then go for it.
or get on the casuals team in yoru local football club. my sous chef does casual work at old trafford, pays about a ton 50 per day.

Melinda said...

Lennie, Almost 2 months since your last post. I'd love to know what you are doing? I hope there is a story cooking! I am missing you a bit.

theundergroundrestaurant said...

What's happened to you? Are you dead?

Christophe said...

Hey Lennie, you have been quiet on the blogging front recently. Everything cool? said...

You are at the cross roads. I feel that. I am finishing culinary school and, although I still love food and cooking, I'm realizing being in a professional kitchen is not the answer for me.

Food journalism? We'll see.

Good luck. To us both.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I haven't got much advice for you but...spent the whole of this evening reading through your entire blog. And I think that even if you now find yourself back where you started, it sounds like you accomplished more of your dreams in these 2 years, than most people manage at all. I love cooking, but id be far to scared to even dream of trying what you did. Good on you, and now maybe you can find a new direction for your cooking dream.

Douglas Blyde said...

Come back!

Anna said...

Lennie, haven't heard from you since April, hope all is OK.

Anonymous said...

I have just spent a few very enjoyable hours reading this entire blog from beginning to end.
Not only was the subject matter fascinating but the writing was funny and sympathetic (when the subjects deserved such treatment). I always knew that kitchens were stressful places, full of machismo and petty turf wars, but I never dreamed they were as bad as this blog has revealed them to be.
This blog should be required reading for all those who think they want to be a chef.

To be honest if it was padded out a bit and stuffed into a book I would buy it.

Well done and thanks for the read.

And why do those posts in kanji spread like a disease? Once one pops up several seem to follow.


Anonymous said...

I gave up my well-paid development chef role because I thought I needed to prove myself as a chef in the 'real world' of kitchens. Now almost a year down the track I am so heartily sick of chefs and cheffing that I am looking at getting out of any industry to with food and into anywhere where I can get to see my boyfriend other than at 1am asleep, and where I can make plans with friends. Oh, and I'd like to have an adult conversation at work. Nothing grates more than 15 hours of the day spent talking about Michelin starred restaurants and chefs, or on bagging out the KP.