Slow, persistent drizzle washed listless waterfalls of rain across the windows of London, and passers-by outside the discreet front door of Michelin-starred restaurant “Ciao, Chow!” walked with heads down against the biting wind and freezing cold of February. At half past two in the morning the traffic was light, and the doors of the current darling of the gastronomists were closed, the staff having long departed for their homes after another frantic night’s service. All the staff apart from Sous Chef Andre Fabrice, that was, who stood by the bar inside watching with tired red-rimmed eyes as people with better things to do than him rushed past. People with social lives, wives, husbands, mistresses – he shook that thought off, his work had been his mistress for years now, and she was one mistress too many already; harsh and demanding of his time, his arts, his passion.
With that his thoughts turned to his own boss, and he briefly swore loudly, cursing the fool who had led to his current state of disarray and fatigue. Two days previously, his boss Michel LaPont had telephoned work complaining of a stomach illness and vomiting, which in the hospitality industry meant a legal mandatory 36-48 hours off work to start with. With Michel ringing again this very morning to confirm he was still no better, Andre knew that the ten days straight he had already worked would be extended to twelve at the least, perhaps even lucky old number thirteen. This in itself, combined with the 15-hour days he had to work just to stay close to ‘in control’ of “Ciao, Chow!”‘s highly demanding and precise menu, meant that he currently felt like a three-day old foccaccia bread that had been reheated in a microwave. He smiled to himself briefly as he caught himself using food analogies again – his wife, Erin, laughed at him all the time for it. But his smile disappeared at the thought that his night was far from over yet, and this quiet rest and relection may well be mana from heaven but it was bringing him no closer to finishing the mise en place still to be done for tomorrow’s launch.
Chief amongst the myriad reasons for this depressing fact was that Chef LaPont had rather short-sightedly fallen ill on the eve of his own premiere, so to speak. Already a ‘bright young hope’ of the Michelin world and tipped to take his second star inside the next six months, LaPont was branching out into the fast-service tapas-style bar trend sweeping the trendy capitals of the world, and the launch party for his new venture was here at the restaurant. Tomorrow. Being a man short on the weekly rota, this overnight overtime was the only opportunity Andre had to finish his last prep job, before the pastry chef’s arrival at five thirty to fire up the enormous old dough ovens in the kitchen catacombs below and begin knocking back and proving six different doughs ready for the lunchtime service. Stretching stiffly, he pulled himself up from the bar stool and poured himself a large Americano before heading downstairs into the kitchen.
During daylight hours this vast hall of a room was a shining, brightly lit theatre to the culinary arts, with nine chefs and three porters rushing up and down the shining aisles of stainless steel in the pirouette dance of high speed culinary production. Here to his left he passed the grill section, the vast slatted plates of the char-grill yawning quietly, their hot fiery breath stilled for the night. He ran his finger across the prep surfaces, smiling slightly as he imagined the horror of Marcyn, the Polish grill chef who guarded his territory wielding a cleaver and a fiery tongue in equal measure. As he passed slowly down the length of his workplace, his domain, his home, he noted how different the room looked now – one solitary strip light over his workstation and the rest of the room lit by a faint purple glow from the insect repellant light’s UV tubes. Transformed from its bright persona, the huge old Victorian room developed shade and shadow, and took on an almost mournful appearance, as though reflecting on all the chefs it had seen come and go.
Pulling himself from his reverie once more, Andre took a long pull on the rich dark coffee. Boss or no, this launch tomorrow would reflect less on the new chain being launched, and much more so on the quality of the fare on offer at “Ciao, Chow!”. And Andre was damned if he would let them perform at anything less than 110%. Since he had been a child growing up on the Isle of Wight, nurtured in food by his French mother and fed on wonderful local island produce, he had been taught that perfection came from taking the finest of products, and doing simple things with them, showing respect to the quality of the produce. He had eaten the Island’s fabulous fresh sweet lobster and crab, and huge silvery bass fresh from the sea an hour old, rich local tomatoes recommended so publicly by that jumped up pompous twat Jamie Oliver, roasted Newchurch garlic and seared bright asparagus from the farm at the top of the road. It did not matter that tomorrow it would be Andre’s work that the guests sampled, but his boss Michel who took the credit for it all – all that mattered was that he did the food justice. And re-fixing this mantra of professionalism and respect in the front of his mind, Andre slipped his knives from their case, gave them a reverential swipe with a diamond-edged sharpening steel, and set to work.
It was grey and overcast, and the front door of a fashionable Michelin-starred restaurant swung heavily shut behind the figure of Andre as he wearily turned to wipe the drizzle from his face and lock the door behind himself. It was close to five a.m. and behind him in the walk in fridges he had left ten terrines, two different pates, a cassoulet, sausages, pottages and pickles, mousses and mousselines. There was a fresh gash on the thumb of his left hand where his fatigue had led to a small slip whilst de-boning some ribs, and since his knives were like razor blades it was painfully deep, causing him one more small ignoble injustice to end his mammoth day. Adjusting his hood tighter around his face to keep out the damp London early morning mist, Andre crossed the road and pulled open the starred glass door of the telephone box opposite. Fumbling coins into the slot, he dialled the number of the restaurant he had just left. In the seconds while he waited for the answer phone message left by Giles, the officious little homosexual who ran the front-of-house operations, he reflected on how amazing it was that these ridiculous English employers could not tell one Frenchman’s accent from another.
“Alloo? Zis is Michel again, Giles.”, he spoke into the receiver, lowering his voice a little more like his boss, ” I am still grande mal my friend, no way I can make work today, je suis desole. Tell my clients I am sorry, I will make it up to them, and tell that merde a tete Andre not to overcook the souffles!!! I’ll call again tomorrow. A Bientot!!”. Replacing the handset, Andre shouldered his way roughly out of the booth and set off down the street towards the underground station. He was exhausted, unable to maintain more than a slow amble, but that was not his fault. Nor was it his fault that his cut hand stung him, stung him like the constant criticism of his work by that cocky little bastard Michel. And the argument over the launch party menu, and LaPont’s ridiculous out-dated menu that would have left them a mockery but instead left LaPont with a £135 Global boning knife protruding from his left eye, had not been entirely his fault either. Certainly not enough his fault to sacrifice his career and this event’s potential for furthering it, morality be damned. He had worked too hard for too long to let his story be ended by the words of some pretentious wannabe fame-whore who cared more for his celebrity phonebook than he did the food on his plates. As he descended slowly into the underground in the sickly grey light of coming dawn, Andre smiled to himself in the knowledge that once the guests polished off the food he had prepared for them tonight, no-one would ever have to listen to Chef Michel LaPont ever again……………..