Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Kebab Pop-Up Skewered On Opening Night

The initial trial of the pop-up restaurant turned out to be an eventful evening. But then, I suppose, what did I expect living so close to Serendipity Beach?

It was New Year’s Eve, but the place was dead. Many of the bars and restaurants had shut for the four-day holiday period so the Cambodian chefs, cooks and waitresses could go home to their families. Some of them were travelling hundreds of miles to ramshackle farms and slums in northern Cambodia.

Two days on bone-cracking roads, and two days with their loved ones. It was tragic to think that some of the young mothers only saw their children two or three times a year, and then only for a couple of days. The rest of the time the youngsters are brought up by the grandmother while the mother sends money home. I could only wonder at the strength they had to get back on the bus, back to their tiny, shared rooms, knowing they wouldn’t see their children for another few months. There’s definitely something not right with the world.

Not that the global food crisis and Cambodia’s Great Land Grab were of much concern to Rodney. He kept pointing at all the closed bars and rubbing his hands. By 7pm, he’d snared most of the drinkers on the hill.

All the food experts were in there, muttering about kebabs, and the best ones they’d had. And whether it was best with naan bread or pitta, and whether they liked pickled green chillies in theirs, and the culinary merits of minced lamb compared with slices, and the divisive issue of whether the chilli sauce should contain grated carrot, and whether it was a gentleman’s right by God to insist on “crisp, fresh slices” from the elephant’s foot rather than “stewed slices from the pot”.

The boxer was there with his new Cambodian girlfriend. He’d met her in the street two nights ago. He started boasting about how he once lived above a shop that sold the best kebabs in the world. When I told them I only had chicken they shook their heads, and sucked through their teeth like mechanics under a bonnet, and I had to keep explaining about the price of lamb.

We had all chipped in $20 to buy Akara, Rodney’s bar manager, a single mattress and a double one for her parents for New Year. They all slept on the floor in a wooden shack down the road. It was heart-breaking to see. I walked past on my way to the beach each day. Her father would always be sat outside playing cards. Akara once muttered: “If my father work, family have mattress.”

We always tipped her well, and Rodney paid her $5 a day – double the normal wage in Cambodia – but we suspected most of it went to pay off her father’s gambling debts. “Her father not take care,” Rodney would often say.

With the midday sun burning down, and 35C temperatures in the shade, it was miserable to see a family of six living in that 20ft by 10ft wooden shack without a fan or air con, trying to get to sleep on nailed boards, bugs below them, mosquitoes on top. Akara showered using a bucket filled from a water butt, but came in every day looking immaculate. None of us knew how she did it.

Josh and Rodney crept upstairs to get the mattresses and we all gathered round. It was a touching moment. Akara’s face broke into a huge smile and she wiped away tears from her eyes. Her father arrived later on a moped to take the mattresses home. I was worried he was going to head straight round to the pawn shop with them. I told Rodney I’d give my share of the kebab money to Akara. After that they all wanted kebabs, and I had eight orders all at once.

It was easy juggling the food, the biggest problem was competing with the beer glasses (above). There was only one sink, so we battled for space. And talk about an open kitchen. It’s one thing being on show in a restaurant, but at least you’re tucked away behind aquarium glass like a zoo exhibit, or separated by a counter too high to jump over - you don’t have to put up with people walking through the kitchen to get to the toilets.

It was impossible. The food experts were all far too curious, and kept stopping for a chat. At one point a man called Steve walked through. He was barred from most of the bars on the hill, and had been in the country for three years without a visa. There were dark rumours about why he couldn’t go back to the UK.

“What bread are using for the kebabs, kiddo?” he said, venturing into my side of the kitchen. He was definitely past the water cooler. He was definitely off the toilet right of way.

Wraps, I said. I told him I was using wraps.

“Wraps! Jesus! Why don’t you use pitta bread, that’s a proper kebab that.”

I politely pointed out that it was just a trial and we were checking out suppliers, and it was easier to get fire-breathing midgets in Sihanoukville than pitta bread, and tried to get rid of him. He was still hanging round as I wrapped the kebabs.

I was annoyed with Rodney for letting him in the bar in the first place, let alone allowing him to loiter in the kitchen. But then it was my kitchen now. Rodney had told me himself. “That bit’s mine, this bit’s yours. Luvvly jubbly,” he’d said.

I hate people hanging around in the kitchen, but this was a frightening looking man, and my usual hints were lost on him. In the end, I was forced to put my arms up and walk towards him in an uncertain shooing manoeuvre. Luckily it worked and he loitered off.

My T-shirt was soon stuck to my back. It was truly unpleasant. I’d never enjoyed running around in wet clothes. I thought about cooking bare-chested, but I didn’t want to put the customers off. Rodney had mentioned putting a fan in the kitchen. He had one standing idle in the bar. He came through at one point and joked: “I’ve been thinking about it. But I thought, no, I want the customers to smell the food! Then they’ll order more!”

I wanted to teach Akara how to make the kebabs, but she was far too busy. Every time I showed her how to cook the chicken there was a shout from the bar. I didn’t know how long I’d be in Cambodia for, and I wanted to make sure she could take over when I left. Even if she sold four kebabs a night, it would double her daily wage.

We sold all the kebabs in three hours. A young Aussie had three in a row, and the Finnish boys had two each. I cleaned down and went to sit with the others. They kept talking about the food and the Finns raised their thumbs. And then a row broke out between Steve and the boxer’s girlfriend.

It turned very ugly, and people began to leave. I tried to calm it at one point, but Steve immediately eyeballed me.

“Believe me Tiger, you don’t want to get involved,” he growled.

He was right. I didn’t. I went off and sat at the bar. “You don’t need this when you’re trying to sell food,” the young Aussie whispered to me as he paid his bin.

In the end, Rodney closed the bar and kicked everyone out. He spent the rest of the night muttering to himself about how they were all barred, and how his friends had let him down. He brightened up after a couple of hours.

“Do you know something?” he said. “I love it!”

I went back to my room and lay awake for hours. The night had been a disaster. Even the thought of Akara’s joyful tears was soured by the ugly scenes at the end. There would be no mention of the food on the expats’ rocket-fuelled grapevine, just the trouble. Then I tried to make light of it. If it wasn’t Cambodia’s first pop-up restaurant, and it probably was, it was definitely the first one to bar all its customers on the opening night. What was it about kebabs?

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