Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 12: Fluffer in the Cold Section
A tale of finding joy in a difficult kitchen
My son has been going to dance classes for a few months now. You may or may not be surprised to hear that he is, I think, the only boy in attendance. And he loves it. He is only four, his movements far from intricate or expressive, but he loves it. And seeing how much he loves it, I love it, too.
Last week his dance school organised a performance at the local theatre here in Pori, Finland. His group is the very youngest, and all the different age classes prepared a short demonstration. It started with really rather profound ballet and contemporary dance. It ended with my boy dressed as a ladybird. And I think it was among the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I suppose most days he registers as among the most beautiful, most joyous, things I have ever seen. Dressed as a bug or not.
There was something mildly heartbreaking about going from cooking scallops for Obama’s right hand man to begging for a job flipping burgers.
It certainly wasn’t the situation I’d come to expect following culinary school. The world was supposed to be bereft of trained cooks who knew how to keep their fingernails clean and understood it wasn’t a good idea to toast bread in the microwave. I wasn’t supposed to have been able to leave the house without someone offering me a position in a kitchen somewhere.
It had been over a month since my time at Gastrologik had ended and I’d sent my CV to every restaurant in Stockholm short of the McDonaldses and corner hot dog stands that I’d learned were less successful at satisfying hunger than a desire for next-day diarrhoea. The only replies I did get consisted of thanks, promises to keep my CV on file, and assurances they’d let me know as soon as something opened up again.
Considering how exceptionally high kitchen staff turnover is, along with the fact I still haven’t heard back from any of those bastard restaurants seven years on, I’m betting they never did keep my CV on record after all.
No, I’m not bitter anymore.
Having run out of restaurants to email, I started following up. And then, towards the end of September (very nearly two months into my job search) my first positive response appeared. It was hardly my first choice. Some kind of steak house. But the website looked smart and more importantly they had an opening in what the head chef was calling the “Kallis” section. A trial shift was mine if I was interested.
I could hardly afford not to be.
Inner-city Stockholm streets are wide and open places. When I turned up for my evening trial shift, there wasn’t a single shadow interrupting the late summer sun as it beamed down on the restaurant.
A group of young men, their eyes in a collective squint, sat in the sun on wooden benches outside the front. Most of them smoking, all of them drinking coffee and occasionally erupting in laughter.
As I gingerly approached, I ran through what I should say first.
How are we boys?
Cool your boots, boyos, Willy’s here?
I was 30. Properly-trained. I even had Michelin experience. But on that day I was a little boy praying the big boys wouldn’t tell me to fuck off once again.
And then I was sat down, as good as one of them, and with cup of coffee in hand. Maybe it was the Head Chef, Johan, who handed it to me. He had dark hair and always had a slightly protruding top lip for all the snus he had lodged up there. Or maybe it was the excessively bearded Australian line cook, Grant. It could have been one of the two very tall and very blonde other line cooks. Whoever it was, they each of them demonstrated immediate interest in me, and doing so they made me feel immediately welcome as well.
It was too bad I never felt quite as close to those guys again after that first coffee in the Stockholm sun in late September.
I was offered the job. And, after months of searching and feeling progressively not good enough for anyone, I obviously took the job.
And here is where my problems began. When you’ve convinced yourself you are not good enough for others, you’re vulnerable to feeling as though shitty situations are good enough for you.
I should probably say something about my intentions at this point. I have always wanted this newsletter to be a positive thing. After all, my time as a chef was, for the most part, a positive one. But it is also true that the most positive of my experiences likely feel only so because of the occasional bad experiences I also went through to find them.
So I hope you’ll forgive me this entry as it describes one of those bad experiences.
Let me assure you now. This isn’t about satisfying a vendetta. It isn’t about listing the chef or restaurant (I will change names for this section) I feel slighted me all those years ago.
My intention is only to keep this ambling memoir newsletter of mine as honest as I think it deserves to be.
I know, even now, such an effort is worth making. Having been thinking back to this period over the past few days, I’ve reminded myself of how valuable this difficult time, early as it was in my career, was to me.
My first week or so at, let’s call it, Black Row Restaurant started pretty well. The guy I was replacing in the kallis section, Konrad, was tall and blonde and the lack of meat on him made his bones, his shoulders and elbows, jut out from his oversized, gossamer thin chef’s whites like a bundle of knitting needles wrapped in bed linen. He was young as well. Early twenties. But I was there to learn and I was grateful that, even though I was the best part of a decade older him, he treated me as the student I clearly was.
Konrad wasn’t leaving I should add. He was moving up in the world to the grill station. That meant it was his job to teach me what I needed to know and to shadow me during my first few services.
“Kallis” is a derivative of the Swedish word “kall”, which means cold. And at its simplest the kallis section is precisely that: the cold section. The section dedicated to desserts and cold dishes that require no extra cooking. Salads and things like that.
In my experience, kallis actually functions more generally as the section responsible for everything the other chefs in the hierarchy don’t want to do. Kallis is the bottom of the ladder, after all, the trainee position, and it was treated accordingly.
At this, my first permanent restaurant, kallis was responsible for:
cold meats (charcuterie boards)
the chickens cooking in the rotisserie oven
the deep fryer (everything from fries and onion rings, to doughnuts and crispy fried kale for salads)
For an inexperienced cook this was pretty exciting. First gig and I was already responsible for some meat cooking. Deep frying things was fun as well. And on those first practice shifts alongside Konrad, I was in awe of how he danced around the section keeping all the disparate elements in play and on schedule.
One movement to dunk baskets of french fries was followed seamlessly by a motion to pick up salad bowls that itself was followed by a graceful lunge toward the low bench fridges where he kept the salad leaves. He had so much to do, and though constant new orders came bleeping from the interminable ticket machine, his movements seemed as though they were a part of a well-practiced and elaborate routine the entire team had choreographed years before.
Truly, if these guys were executing the equivalent of an intricate ballet, I was still off-stage trying to figure out the fucking macarena.
He made it look so easy and I had no idea how I was supposed to do it alone.
Before my first solo, no training wheels service without any support from Konrad, the Head Chef, Johan, took me to one side. He had a cup of jet-black coffee waiting for me at one of the dining-room tables and what else could I think but how nice this was. Good for me, I thought. Having a cheeky coffee with the head chef. I’m the real deal at last.
“So,” he said, staring at me with something that looked like concern. “I am surprised by how unexperienced you are. You know, being so old.”
Perhaps I should suggest I go fuck myself then, I wondered.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” he went on. “I’m OK with this. And I actually think this is a good opportunity.”
Well that’s nice, I thought. I’m sure this will be a good opportunity.
“Yes.” He sipped his coffee and stroked his thin pencil moustache. “This is a really good opportunity for Konrad, I think.”
“OK,” I said, not really knowing what was happening. Why wasn’t this my opportunity? I like opportunities. I want an opportunity, too.
“We really think a lot of Konrad. Great kid. Great kid.”
I smiled and Johan looked over longingly toward the kitchen. Was he looking for Konrad? I felt like he was looking for Konrad.
“It will be really good for him to… manage you. He needs experience learning how to, how you say, not discipline people, another word…”
He looked for his other word a few moments longer. I really hoped it wasn’t discipline.
“But you know what I mean, right? We want him to be a leader here. You being here is a good chance for him to get practice handling people. People like you.”
This really wasn’t the exciting prospect Johan’s nodding indicated I should think of it as. Yes I was inexperienced. I had no problems being led by people younger than me. I’d been getting ordered about by people in their early twenties since my first day working as a cook in London.
But this new “opportunity” felt weird. It left me feeling a little dirty. I felt like the steak house equivalent of the proverbial fluffer. Employed largely for the resident golden boy to iron out his management kinks on, no matter how lacking his management style may turn out to be.
"Sounds great,” I obviously told the head chef. “Sounds just great.”
It was not great.
Konrad’s management style consisted largely of asking me why I couldn’t keep up with him and the others during service.
Black Row was a popular restaurant. Very popular. On some Friday and Saturday nights, the ticket machine would start printing at 5pm and not stop for 6 hours. I had a ticket holder to pin my tickets on. I didn’t have to remember them as I’d had to do at Portland back in London. But the tickets were so many, I rarely had long before space on the ticket board was entirely taken up. I had to take to keeping them in my pocket, flipping through them when I, invariably, lost my place.
At these points I would look over to the other cooks, their heads shaking, wishing I could crawl into one of the fridges and cry.
Service was bad enough. I wasn’t anywhere near the pace. And there’s only so many times that a head chef tells you to get your shit together before you start to consider giving up and walking home. But even worse than service were the long days beforehand during which we did all the prep work.
Here’s the thing about life as a cook. The work is repetitive, often dull, and occasionally painful. The fuel that gets you through the day is the people. The conversation. Repeating jokes to each other to distract you from the pain of it all.
I mentioned Grant the Australian earlier. He was the only other non-Swede on the team. And I longed for shifts with him. On these days, the entire restaurant team willingly spoke English. All day long, you didn’t hear a word of Swedish.
Unfortunately, when I was working without Grant, the team reverted back to Swedish.
A few weeks into my time at Black Row, Grant left. And I rarely got the chance to speak to anyone at work again. And that included the Christmas party two months later.
This all sounds like a lot of moaning. A lot of looking for pity for a bad work experience that happened many years ago. But I promise there’s no hard feelings. Until I started thinking about this chapter for inclusion here, I hadn’t thought of Konrad or Black Row in years.
But then I looked back over pictures I had taken during that time at Black Row and I was left surprised by and ultimately a little proud of what I saw. Despite how miserable I was, how much I dreaded going to work, the pictures I took from work during those months showed someone still in love with the dream of being a chef.
I may have been shit during service. Slow, unable to keep up. But during prep I was trying to make everything I served better than it had ever been in that restaurant before.
Take the chocolate truffles for example. Instead of rolling a simple ball of ganache in melted chocolate, as had been done previously by Konrad, I taught myself to temper chocolate. I managed to create beautiful little chocolates that I’m proud of even now. I filled them with a gel of sweet wine, fruit and sugar and we charged 4 euros a pop for them.
I added small details to desserts I was plating. Candied rose petals, new plating ideas. For all I was struggling with, looking at those pictures I’m reminded I didn’t let it defeat me. I was no good at what the restaurant needed me to do. But until I was, I just tried to do what I loved
I resigned the day after Konrad sent me a text demanding I bring an order of speciality cheeses to the restaurant on my day off. He had forgotten to do it himself and they were desperate. We all needed to sacrifice for the team from time to time, he had said in his message.
When I went in with the cheeses that day, I couldn’t find Konrad anywhere. The head chef said he was busy in the basement. And not to be disturbed.
Somethings in life require no work at all to be the most joyous things imaginable. A decade ago, I had never imagined a world in which I lived in Finland and could be found watching my son dance on stage dressed as a ladybird. This having come to pass, it has become the source of more joy to me than I could ever have imagined any single thing was capable of giving a person.
Other things, I suppose, require a little work to find the joy in them.
Black Row wouldn’t be the last restaurant where I didn’t really fit in. But it was one of a small few. I’m still grateful for that. And I’m grateful that, even at my most miserable, I managed to make the experience something I could take value from, something I could, with some effort, take a little joy from as well.