Dudes. I. Am. Dead.
No, cease your gnashing of teeth and wailing of the voices, and hold fast with the rending of clothes and the singing of eulogies. I am not, strictly speaking, actually dead. But it’s getting to the point where I’m wishing I was. Summer in England is upon us. And although British summer equates to approximately three point six days of slightly less grey cloud than the rest of the year, it does not deter us pasty brits from flocking to the beaches to try to desperately give ourselves skin cancer. So if it’s the season of holidays and summer loving in the UK, why am I not a happy little bunny??? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I shall tell you.
I’m a chef. There, I’ve said it, it’s out in the open. And as a general rule of thumb, for those of you who haven’t clicked, the more relaxed and parting you lot are, the busier I am. Currently, including travelling time, to the tune of about eighty or more hours a week, all of them spent in a hot damp environment surrounded by co-workers and pieces of catering equipment that are trying to kill me. And the greatest part of this??? I work in a restaurant … AT THE FRICKING BEACH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I can see the beach, I can taste the beach, I can hear it and I can smell it, but I cannot sit on it, lie and sunbathe on it, or touch its gritty goodness. I cannot kayak peacefully near it, surf up to it, or scream past it on a jet ski. Instead, I CAN spend thirteen hours a day in a tiny sweat box trying to balance culinary artistry with not becoming a knife-wielding homicidal loony. Anyone who read my short story ‘Overtime’ need look no further for the inspiration!! 😉 So this long-awaited (hopefully!!) blog is about my profession…. the life of a professional chef.
Before you tune out (those of you not already existing in some permanent form of reality-denial), this is not another one of those ‘cheffy’ blogs where I’m going to discuss my rules for a perfect kitchen, or discuss the merits of high-end gastronomy versus homely cooking, nor will I be sharing my recipe for Heart-Attack Tart with you. OK, I might if you ask. But I want to talk about (vent about?) some of the lesser acknowledged but daily occurrences in professional catering – the dangerous and the crazy, the ridiculous and the scandalous. Here, then, are my observations on the things you never knew, or wanted to know, go on behind those swinging kitchen doors………….
- We face death and destruction every day. True. I defy you to think of a profession that involves the combination of so many lethal hazards in such a confined space. We work with knives as sharp as razors every day, some of them deliberately designed to go through bone like butter. There’s electrical equipment in close proximity to water, scalding steam and red-hot metal, things that slice and grate, machinery with fast-moving parts and more attachments than a thousand dollar dildo. Filling out a Risk Assessment in a kitchen is like writing an essay in high school detention entitled ‘Everything I Did With My Life From Birth To Now’. Seriously, when I retire from being a chef, I’m going to juggle chain saws in a broom cupboard at Chernobyl, just for the easy life.
- This means that a workplace faux pas for a chef leads to more than a lost email, a badly installed bathroom or a lousy haircut. It means pain, and it means blood. Dear God, THE BLOOD. I’ve seen some sick stuff in my time but some of the injuries I’ve seen have made paramedics go pale. I’ve seen fingers cut down to the bone, hands caught in deli meat slicers, boiling oil poured over pretty much every body part going (including THAT ONE), broken bones from trips and falls … some days it’s like being in the trenches at the Somme. Personally, I once found myself nine minutes away from bleeding out due to tearing my right wrist open in an accident involving a 400lb industrial dough mixing machine. And that was at breakfast.
- Despite all that, chefs are extraordinarily resilient. When nuclear fallout claims the Earth, the only thing left living will be cockroaches, and chefs. We develop an almost casual contempt for pain and suffering due to prolonged exposure to it – in fact we’ve been known to stand around comparing scars like battle-hardened veterans, which essentially we are. When I tore my wrist open, my doctor advised a week off work followed by two more weeks of light duties. I was back at work the following day, carrying thirty kilo sacks of potatoes around. When the crowds come a-knockin’, the kitchen better be rockin’. I saw a colleague spill a couple of pints of 180 degree Centigrade oil down the inside of his arm causing third degree burns. He calmly placed a layer of crushed ice between two towels, wrapped it around his arm and tied it in place with butcher’s string. He then finished a further two hours of evening service before driving himself to hospital. NEVER mess with a chef. Word.
- Everything in point three is automatically increased tenfold when applied to female chefs. Have you seen Terminator 3?? Female chef. These women exist in a ninety percent male environment amongst fierce competition and gutter humour, where only the strongest survive, and seldom get the recognition they deserve. They are often faster and more accurate than their male counterparts, less prone to diva-ish outbursts and practical joking, and for the most part outstanding cooks. It’s a poor analogy, but try to imagine a middle-aged fat man with back hair issues trying to cut it as an exotic dancer working in a strip club populated by the world’s top ten porn stars. That’s what female chefs do every day. I take my (chef’s) hat off to them. (Also, if I had written anything else at this point the next one I work with would have diced my genitalia and served it on the daily specials as ‘Mysogynistic Old Boar Tartare’).
- Being a qualified chef is no guarantee that someone is even a competent chef, let alone a good one. I’ve had the privilege over the last fifteen years of working with some amazing talents, from Michelin-starred chefs to local lads who’ve never been off of the Island where I live. And I’ve also worked some guys who, as chefs, have done for the catering industry what Adolf Hitler did for world peace. It makes me so angry that they see this beautiful profession as some kind of easy option – “Oh no, I flunked high school and can’t tie my own shoelaces – oh well, I’ll be a chef then!!”. If you ever read this post and you are one of those people, know this…. the real chefs are coming for you late one night in big pointy hoods, and no-one will ever see you again.
- All the stuff you’re all most phobic of when it comes to behind the scenes kitchen stories – the spitting in your food, peeing in the soup, that sort of thing??? Doesn’t happen. No, really. At least not in most of the kitchens I’ve worked in. Oh sure, I’ve seen the odd thing, but by and large most of us are too professional to let that sort of thing happen, and care too much about the food that is, after all, our reputations and livelihood to let it be tampered with, especially for a harmless guest who might just compliment our work. Nah, chances are that if the food’s been spiked it’s probably destined for a fellow worker who insulted someone at the wrong time 🙂 Besides, we’re normally far too tired to summon up the necessary energy to masturbate into mayonnaise.
- Everybody should be made, by law, to carry a small card in their pocket that clearly shows with pretty pictorial evidence exactly what constitutes ‘medium-rare’, ‘medium-well’ etc etc when referring to the cooking of a steak. Because you are all dumb fools who think you know, but clearly don’t. And by the way, under the description for ‘well-done’ there should just be instructions on where to find the nearest McDonald’s, you goddamn heathen.
And finally, before I descend into endless diatribe, one from the heart. PLEASE… leave us feedback. Even the negative stuff. Don’t be afraid of offending if something is not right – I’ve had Gazpacho soup sent back with the complaint it was cold .. nothing you say can shock me with its stupidity. And if something is right, doubly so please tell us!! Not ‘compliments to the chef!’ either – compliments for what??? Was it the lobster that tickled your taste buds?? Were the potatoes to die for? Or was it just the best goddarn side salad you ever tasted?? We’re stuck in a windowless box cut off from the diners, remember??? Without your feedback, we have no idea how to improve and evolve to suit your tastes, so don’t be afraid to get involved when you eat out.
I’ve had some great ideas over the last few weeks for blogs, but sadly not the time to type them, so thanks for staying with me and popping by once in a while to see if I’ve got round to posting. Hopefully, this goes some way to explaining why the sudden drop-off in publishing frequency occurred, but the season only lasts another few weeks and then I get a small portion of my life back. Until then, contrary to my former statement, because I love what I do I WILL welcome any comments from people who want to chat about food and such, but only on this post. If my next article is about a radioactive puppy with leukaemia, I don’t want you all popping up asking for a good recipe for cookie dough. There have been some great comments from you guys recently and I eagerly await your feedback this time too. And as a parting shot, although I’m not the Big Boss in my current workplace, here for the record are the only two rules I have in my kitchen…..
Remember the 6 P’s – Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
Everyone Fights: No-one Quits.
(Legal Disclaimer: No Head Chefs were harmed during the making of this blog. One Sous Chef sustained a small cut on his finger, and cried like a girl about it. Several Commis chefs were bullied and mocked relentlessly, but they deserved it. One Polish kitchen porter was drunk for the entire duration.)