Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 13: The escape room
The small world of Stockholm restaurants
After growing up in London, life in a tiny city like Pori where I live in Finland can be claustrophobic from time to time. Much of this comes from how, whenever you step out the front door, you’re bound to bump into either someone you know or else someone who, somehow, knows you.
The first time this happened to me was when I was going for a routine health checkup for my son. This was not long after I first moved here.
The nurse not only knew my son’s name (obviously she had access to his health records) but she already knew he had been named for one of my favourite writers: Samuel Beckett.
Turns out the nurse was old friends with my wife’s sister.
I was reminded of how small the world can be this way when looking back at my previous entry in The Recovering Line Cook.
In that entry, I started telling the story of my time at Black Row restaurant, aka one of the most miserable periods of my cooking career, and how I eventually decided I’d had enough of the place.
What I didn’t mention was how I found my next job.
I’d started emailing other restaurants when I realised my “dream job” as a chef had somehow turned into a nightmare. I still knew I wanted to be a chef. But, at Black Row, I seemed incapable of making any kind connection with my colleagues. As you can see from the last entry, I’m not saying I was beaten or summarily locked in the fridge or sent out to random stores an hour away to source salmon legs or lobster steam.
But it was true that I didn’t feel part of the team. Ever. I was convinced everyone thought I was too slow. I felt like I annoyed everyone. I felt like the others tolerated me as opposed to enjoyed my being there. That feeling gets really demoralising after a while. And having started my career working at restaurants where I really got along with people, and where I genuinely befriended people, I wanted that again.
And then one night at Black Row I was given the job of both running my section and serving as private waiter for an old friend of the head chef’s at a “chef’s table” that had been set up for him next to me in the cold section. He was a giant, blonde, butcher’s block of a man and he stuffed fresh snus, 2 at a time, up his lip at least every ten minutes.
Throughout the night he called me darling in an entirely unconvincing British accent and slapped my arse whenever I brought him extra fries.
Now, I’m not complaining about the arse slapping in principle. I’d come to quite like getting my arse slapped by big Swedish chefs over the past few months. It seemed to be how things were done in pro kitchens in those parts. But I didn’t even know the name of our chef’s table guest, and the arse slapping didn’t sit quite right.
I started to think maybe I’d had enough.
And then I started emailing other restaurants.
I was sitting in the corner of an escape room during the restaurant Christmas party when I finally got my first reply.
I was grateful for the distraction. I’d tried my best to get involved with the game, but my colleagues from the restaurant had chosen, once again, to only speak Swedish.
The message thanked me for applying to a restaurant I’d emailed weeks before called Ljus. They had no jobs going there, unfortunately, but the company was in the process of opening a new place called Nickel and Dime in the centre of town. If I was still interested, they’d be happy for me to come in and interview.
Of course I was interested. And as I watched my colleagues have fun trying to find the escape room exit without me, I took immense pleasure securing an exit of my own.
The person who sent me the message was a guy called Jokke. But this wasn’t who I’d emailed.
I’d emailed some guy called Frick at Ljus. And, being the creepy obsessive that I am, I Googled this Jokke fella when I got home following that miserable Christmas party escape room.
I found nothing at first on the Ljus website. He wasn’t listed on their “team” page at least. But then I thought to look at their Instagram feed. One of their recent posts was celebrating the upcoming launch of this Nickel and Dime Jokke in his message had mentioned. The image showed a group chefs, dressed in their whites, looking profoundly serious the way chefs like to do.
And right there, staring back at me, tagged on the image as Jokke, was the giant, arse-slapping blonde from my chef’s table a few weeks before.
I went to meet Jokke at Nickel and Dime a few days later. The restaurant was still something of a construction site then. The bar still a concrete hole in the floor where wooden planks jutted out at random angles. A very busy, very blonde, woman with a clipboard told me Jokke was downstairs. She directed me to a small service lift, pressed the call button for me, and I was soon on my way underground.
I emerged into what remains the most beautiful kitchen I have ever seen. So new it wasn’t even finished being built yet.
It was almost entirely white for one thing. The walls, appliances, the fridges. The whiteness only broken up by the perfectly polished silver of a stainless steel workstation that filled the entire centre of the kitchen. This itself was a thing of beauty.
I would later come to learn that not only was the work surface refrigerated(!), but it was adjustable, too(!!). With the touch of a button the bench could lower (for the benefit of a shortarse like me) or go up for the benefit of someone like, well, Jokke.
After a few moments I found Jokke. He smiled as he approached me, offered me his huge, doughy hand to shake, and finally he laughed.
“Fed up with Black Row, then?”
“Oh,” I replied. “You know...”
It turned out that Jokke was a total sweetheart, actually. A huge lump of a man, but a child at heart. A child that just happened to have a very bad snus addiction. He offered me the job there and then. I suppose it being a new restaurant meant a trial shift wasn’t possible. I then got to thinking about how and when to tell my current head chef Johan at Black Row.
It turned out I didn’t need to.
When I arrived at work the next day, Johan asked to talk to me. He never asked to talk to me. I knew in that moment this had to be too much of a coincidence.
“Wil,” he said while butchering a bloody pig’s head, “I’ve been talking to… Jokke.”
Shit, I thought. I’m rumbled. Rumbled.
“I’m sorry to hear it, Wil. You’re a good cook. I told Jokke to take you, if you wanted the job once you met him. I told him you were worth having.”
I wanted to cry. It was the validation I’d been desperate for all these weeks. All these weeks he’d been telling me to “get my shit together” and to “stop dragging my tiny balls”. I was ready to ask for forgiveness, to ask him to take me back and that I loved him. I always thought the guy considered me a shitmuncher. A lowest of the low idiot who couldn’t do anything properly. If he was recommending me to his good friend for a job, could this really have been the truth of things?
I was left wondering how much of my failure at Black Row really was down to my abilities. Maybe the image I had built up of myself as this incompetent loser that no one wanted to talk to was actually just that. An image. A lie. A lie that, in visualising so fully, I ended up making real.
It was too late to answer that question at Black Row. But I had a new opportunity ahead of me and I was determined not to repeat any mistakes again.
“But one thing”, he then said to me as that emotional (for me at least) conversation came to an end, “be careful of your new boss. A guy called Frick.” He leant in closer to me. “He burns people, you know. On purpose.” He then made a sharp motion with his hand as though poking me with an invisible branding iron.
He must be joking, I thought to myself.
“I’m not joking,” he said, as he looked back to his pig head, bloodied knife in hand.
Tune in next time to find out whether Frick really was a serial line cook burner, and learn about the tragic decline and fall of Nickel and Dime…