Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 4: Behind closed doors in the open kitchen
Love and confrontation at dinnertime
A quick thank you to everyone who read my (somewhat more personal) essay on being a cook and a father from two weeks ago. I was really touched by the messages I received about it and the modest boost in subscriptions following its distribution. If you didn’t see it yet, I’d love it if you took a look.
Two pretty exciting things happened a month after I started working at “The Restaurant”.
First, The Restaurant was awarded a Michelin Star.
Secondly, and of arguably less note for the wider London food scene, I was finally allowed upstairs to take part in dinner service.
That first month had been a struggle, there’s no hiding it. But there were times that even the hardships brought about some of the most tender moments I had ever experienced in the work place.
Chief among these was the morning a line cook named Walt and the sous chef Fred mentored me on the importance of stretching after every service.
This was early on, maybe even the first week of my stage, and my body had not successfully made the transition from sitting at a desk all day to being on my feet from 8am until midnight in a poorly ventilated basement kitchen.
I may have let slip that I felt like my legs were about to melt. Yes, melt was the right word. Like the faces of those Nazis at the end of that Indiana Jones film.
Fred quickly put down the knife he had been using to slice open razor clams and gave me a ten minute long, and surprisingly graphic, demonstration of his nightly stretch routine.
And it really was quite the demonstration. Forgetting any rush he may have been in (cooks are always in a rush remember) he talked me through his thigh stretches, calf stretches, and ankle stretches as well.
Then, not to miss out, Walt held his hands proudly atop each hip, before, with all the elegance you’d expect from a short, round man who had spent most of his life hidden from natural light, lunged his groin back and forth rhythmically in front of me.
This lunging before bed, he was very keen on me understanding, would do wonders for my back.
I promised I’d take it all on board before the head chef entered the room and asked what the fuck we were up to in here.
I can’t impress this on you enough, whether it’s how to dice an onion properly or tips on increasing groin flexibility, chefs really enjoy telling clueless stagiaires how to do things given even half the chance.
With The Restaurant now Michelin-starred, the amount of free labour on the kitchen team increased immediately.
We now had another two stagiaires on the crew, a young lad from Greece twice my height, and an even younger lad from Essex who, I’m quite certain, was the first person I’d ever worked with I was old enough to have fathered.
His name was Colin Butler. This isn’t particularly important in itself. In fact, I’ve changed his name while keeping his initials the same. And it is those initials, CB, that led to the nickname our head chef decided to give him.
After the first week of his stage he stopped being Colin and started being referred to as Cock Breath.
I mention this not because it is clever or funny, though, yes, it was funny at the time, but because it is only through such details that a true picture of life in a professional kitchen can be drawn. It isn’t the same as life in a polite office.
I also mention it because Cock Breath was one of the nicest guys I ever met. He had the most incredible sense of humour, and it was clear he enjoyed his ridiculous nickname. He also happens to now be head chef at one of England’s finest restaurants. A restaurant owned by the same head chef who years ago christened him Cock Breath.
So the story turns out well for him.
But back when I was a stagiaire with him, Cock Breath’s arrival meant I was freed up to start helping on the cold section during service.
By the time I arrived upstairs for service, the set up had already finished and the first seating of guests had begun. The upstairs kitchen was what is known as an “open kitchen”. Such kitchens have been popular for years now of course, but they are something of a modern phenomena. It is when the kitchen is, to varying degrees, “open” to the guests. They can see their food getting plated at the pass, and even the grill stations where their meat and fish is being cooked if they crane their necks far enough.
I have to admit I found this pretty thrilling. I’d acted in school plays and occasionally through university. Being dressed up in my chefs whites, in the middle of the action at a Michelin-starred restaurant, cooking in view of trendy young foodies, Christ, I felt like I was Juliet in my prep-school’s all-boys production of Romeo and Juliet all over again.
And what impressed me first of all was the ability for the cooks to quarrel and antagonise each other in almost perfect silence. This clearly must’ve taken some practice.
One of the necessities of life in the open kitchen was, of course, a modicum of quiet. Michelin guests just wouldn’t put up with the sound of pans being thrown around carelessly or someone yelling for Cock Breath to bring up a fresh supply of washed salad.
Everything was more difficult during service. The temperature was higher, the extraction fans seemed to run louder. Demands that I thought were constant during prep were even more numerous now guests had arrived. Strangest of all was to watch these cooks, the guy on grill, the garnish and the pastry chef, all start making mistakes. Just hours before, even though I’d worked with them for weeks, I thought these people were faultless. Perfect cooking machines. It turns out, during service at least, everyone has room to trip up from time to time.
These mistakes and slip ups were universally called out, with fellow cook demanding (in measured tones remember) for their colleague to “get their shit together” or “pick it the fuck up”. This antagonism was a new experience for me here. And, at first, I thought something was very, very wrong.
The sous chef running the pass the day I first joined service was Fred. Fred had always seemed to me one of the nicest guys you could ever wish to work with. He was patient teaching idiot stagiaires like me how to do things, and he wore such tight-fitted chef whites you’d be forgiven for thinking he moonlighted as a Hugo Boss model.
For both such reasons, everyone loved him.
But he was a different beast while running the pass during service.
At one point, Walt, the stretching enthusiast/garnish cook, was a little late bringing his side dishes to the pass. Being positioned as I was opposite the garnish section, I could hear everything Fred said to him.
I can’t remember the specific words, but the feeling I got was of two people who truly hated each other, not the friends I’d seen laugh together even earlier that day. The only way I could explain it was that something monumental had happened between them. A story behind the story. Considering the look on Fred’s face as he berated the poor garnish cook, the way he even gave him a nasty little poke at one particularly heated moment, I could only assume his girlfriend had left him for Walt or Walt had insulted Fred’s grandmother for some reason.
Either way, I felt awkward knowing these two former pals were, for some reason, no longer able to work together nicely. And all during my first day in service as well.
Which made it all the more confusing when they immediately went back to their normal selves, even making plans to go to Chinatown after service, the second final orders had been sent.
That confrontation looked so severe just moments before. So much so that I thought something fundamental had changed between those two people. Certainly if such behaviour had happened in my previous workplace (a Soho marketing agency) some kind of tribunal would’ve been required.
But, here, between the deep fryer, ice cream maker and pot wash who kept calling me “gringo”, the confrontation and give-and-take bullying was really just a façade. A performance of sorts that simply served to keep the pace up and flow of adrenaline constant.
It just seemed to be their way of getting the job done.
Hearing this you’d be forgiven for thinking it was each man for himself. Each line cook vying to one up and out do the other. But that wouldn’t explain the lengths to which everyone also seemed to go out of their way to help the other.
The moment Fred leapt to the back of the kitchen to stop Walt’s cream sauce boiling over, for example. Or the way Walt jumped side by side with the grill chef to help him finish steaks because the waiting staff had requested half the restaurant’s main courses at the same time.
This was the behaviour of people determined not to leave anyone behind. And in so doing, not to let anything stop them from finishing service faultlessly. In as much, it wasn’t about pleasing guests at all. That just didn’t seem to factor in to it. In fact, one of the worst things to happen was for a member of the waiting staff to come to the pass with an “on the fly” request from a guest. The look of revulsion from the brigade of cooks when this happened, as though to say “how dare these guests have the temerity to interrupt our important work”, was always explicit.
It seems silly really, but this focus on simply doing service brilliantly resulted in a clarity of focus and purpose I’d never seen before. Workplace or otherwise.
With the last orders sent out, Fred walked through the kitchen. He shook all our hands, complimented us on the job and, yes, was laughing again with Walt.
In many ways, this was the first day at work for me. The first day my new life really distinguished itself from the one I’d left behind. This was the first day I’d really worked side by side with other chefs.
In this kitchen at least, unlike the offices I’d left behind me, there was no thought of personal glory or recognition. There was no workplace politics or words that could be interpreted several ways. There was only service. There was only the thing you managed to get on the plate. There was only you struggling to catch up, or you figuring out how best to get the person next to you from falling behind. Sometimes that meant giving help, sometimes it was a well-timed insult.
It may not have always been pleasant, but it never became hurtful or inappropriate. It was honest and it felt fair and it left you knowing the truth of things. And as someone who had always struggled with anxiety and the second guessing of what my bosses and colleagues thought of me during office life, this honesty felt good. It felt like relief.
And there was always that handshake at the end of service to remind us that the love remains. That the guy who pushes you during service, still cares that you do your stretches before bed time.
It was a small act of love I suppose, a handshake. But after a long service, with occasionally frayed tempers, even a small act was enough to remind you where you really stood with friends.
In spite of all, these people felt like friends, not just colleagues. And my god, cooking with friends was fun.