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...