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Part 15: How Not to be a Ghost
The first time I was fired
Welcome to Part 15 of The Secret Memoirs of a Line Cook.
If you’re new here, you might be feeling a little lost. I mean, joining at part 15? Sounds like that time I turned up to a black tie dinner in ripped jeans half way through the appetizers (yes, I’d missed an important message). But don’t worry. You can read my first post here in which I explain why I started a newsletter telling the story of how I changed careers from Central London office drone to line cook in some of Sweden’s best Michelin restaurants.
Now for the latest instalment…
He sat slouched in his chair, hands locked on top of his perfectly bald head and his legs so obnoxiously gaping it looked like he had an invisible exercise ball lodged between them. He moved one of his hands down and ran a fingernail between his front teeth to dig out what, I assume, was a vestige of the lunch he’d just eaten. A lunch I hadn’t had time to eat on account of being so comprehensively behind on my prep list.
“Yeah, so I think we have a problem, Wil,” he said, leaning forward and flaying his elbows out wide to land on each distant knee. “You agree?”
I rubbed my forehead and a fine powder flaked off in my hand. A salty mix of dried sweat and remains from the 20 litres of mashed potato we’d served for lunch a few hours ago. The same mashed potato I’d needed help from the commis chef to get ready in time.
“Yes, Hijack, I agree.”
I did know we had a problem, and I knew exactly where this conversation was headed.
Just a few weeks before, I’d been sat in another office with an equally bald man named Frick. He was the restaurant co-owner I’d been warned liked to burn his cooks with hot forks if they didn’t keep up to the pace of service. It was a lie, I’m happy to say, and Frick turned out to be one of the most pleasant people I’d ever worked with.
For the first months of 2017 I’d been cooking at a place called Nickel and Dime in central Stockholm. I was in charge of the cold section. I wasn’t even a commis anymore but a section cook, a chef de partie. And I finally felt like I was getting somewhere. I felt trusted. I felt like my colleagues liked me. From time to time I’d even stopped feeling like the fraud I’d always thought myself to be having started life as a chef aged 30.
Nickel and Dime wasn’t doing quite so well. For some reason Stockholm diners hadn’t taken to “challenging” dishes such as sea buckthorn sorbet with fish roe and the restaurant had catastrophically failed to find a regular clientele. Bookings had plummeted since the opening, and just a few months after opening, the owners needed to cut costs.
“You’re a good chef,” Frick told me. The pristine walls of the little kitchen office we sat in were a sterile white, the floors an equally sterile blue. It made me feel like I was waiting for news at the doctor’s office.
“And we like you. But we just have too many cooks here.”
The way he said “we” at every opportunity gave me the creeps. I felt like a group of service staff were about to jump out and throw me in a bathtub full of ice and take my kidneys or something.
“We don’t care where you work,” he said, still no one jumping out from beneath the computer desk. “As long as you work for us. We have positions at our other restaurant, and the chef there, Hijack, is keen to have you.”
“‘Hijack’” I said. “The guy is called ‘Hijack’?”
“That’s just a nickname, I suppose. Everyone calls him Hijack. You don’t need to know his real name.”
The next day I was sent the number for this Hijack with instructions to go to his restaurant a few days later.
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The restaurant Hijack was head chef was called Ljus, Swedish for “light”. It was on a small island west of the city centre surrounded by ponds where ducks and swans and picnickers would congregate every time the slightest sunshine bathed the land. The building itself was large, made of red brick, and in the early 1900s, you might not be surprised to hear, once housed a lightbulb factory.
I arrived early on my first day. The front door was locked so I walked down the side of the long former factory. At the end of it I noticed a door was open and, as I approached, a man stepped outside. It was Hijack.
After this perfectly bald head, the first thing I noticed about Hijack was his arms. Specifically, though both were clearly gym-sculpted, each bicep making the fabric of his shirt arms work overtime, his right arm was noticeably larger than his left. This, I’d quickly figure out, was the sign of a true cooking professional. Hijack’s was the right arm of a thousand hours of cream whipping, potato mashing, and, quite possibly, line cook manhandling.
The head, the arms, the inability for his mouth to form any kind of smile, it all helped justify that ridiculous nickname of his. It was aggressive, violent, uncompromising, just the way I felt he was in those first moments after I’d met him. Hijack simply had the look of a man with balls the size of small grapefruits. He was a real man, a real chef. The real deal compared to me, the little boy wearing fancy dress with grapes between his legs.
And then Hijack, true to his name, did something that terrified me.
Having walked into the kitchen, the stove areas in front of us, he asked me which section I wanted: garnish or grill? It felt like a kick to my stomach. I’d only worked cold sections before. Didn’t he know? Hadn’t anyone given him the message that I was an imposter who didn’t really know how to cook yet?
I looked at both sections as though I hadn’t already decided garnish would offer less opportunity for me to humiliate myself.
“Oh,” I said, with all the conviction of a rolling pancake, “maybe garnish then. You know, only until I get a better feel for the place.”
I never did get a better feel for the place. Bad as I thought jumping into the grill section would be, I was close to a disaster working the garnish section as well. And it took all of 30 minutes of my first service for the other line cooks to realise, contrary to what I’m sure they’d been promised, that I really wasn’t working at their level.
Even the judgemental teenage commis chef, a French kid only there for a few weeks, was in on it. I could feel his gaze piercing the back of my skull as I flapped around like a choking duck while he calmly plated his desserts and cold starters.
Prep time was no better. Ljus demanded the meticulous standards of a fine-dining joint with the guest numbers of a large bistro. For a cook still learning how not to work at a glacial speed, this was a very bad combination.
There were carrots that needed polishing after blanching to remove any sign of the peeler that had once touched them. Same with the white asparagus.
If a vegetable had ever known the cold touch of a peeler, it absolutely needed to be polished.
The best demonstration of my terrible prep game came on the first delivery of sorrel leaves for the season. Hijack asked me to clean it, “scale” it, and pack it bunches.
Now, having worked in Sweden for a few months, I’d started to get pretty good at translating the Swenglish my native colleagues spoke. By “scale” I was entirely confident he meant “peel”. You scale a fish, after all, and scaling fish is a bit like peeling a fish, right?
I was not right.
An hour later, which included 10 minutes debating with myself how one peels a leaf and a further 50 delicately running a potato peeler up and down the stems of my sorrel leaves, Hijack returned looking like I’d just taken a shit on his freshly polished pass.
“What the fuck have you done to the sorrel?” he said.
“They’re scaled, chef? I… scaled them… chef,” I said.
At which point he shook his head, and put his hand down on the set of weighing scales he’d left beside me 61 minutes earlier.
I haven’t dwelled on it in the course of writing this newsletter, but I’ve had a problem with anxiety and low-confidence for as long as I can remember. When I would came home from Ljus to tell my wife how convinced I was of being fired at any moment, she was well-practiced at telling me that it was all in my head. She’d remind me I’d said the same thing for every new job I’d ever had since we met. And she’d remind me, too, I’d never once ended up fired then either.
It was she gave me the strength to go on. The strength to keep “pushing” as cooks so often like to say when they’re “in the weeds”.
And so I kept my head down. I gave up on any attempt to enjoy myself. No more wasting time on trying to make people laugh either. I even started writing time-sheets listing each and every job and how long they took in the pursuit of better organisation. It was the first time I’d done that since culinary school. It was a betrayal of who I was, who I still am, as a person. Someone who always tries to find the joy in the day. It just felt like the only way I might ever turn things around.
And that was all I cared about.
Within a few days my efforts were “rewarded” the worst way imaginable. Hijack came to me after service one day and said, “what can me and the boys do to make things easier for you? What jobs can we take off your hands?”
It was like a kick in the grapes
That wasn’t the last time Hijack broke my heart.
When I sat in the office with him after a month of working at Ljus, potato and sweat flaking from my forehead, he listed off the reasons why he knew we had a problem.
“It’s been four weeks since you started,” he told me. “I needed you up to speed by now. You’re slowing down the others and it’s just not fair on them. I just don’t see how we can keep you on after the summer break.”
I nodded. I’d finally managed it. Fired for the first time in my life.
And then he said something that really cut deep.
“But, you know, my problem with you is how you just don’t seem to care, Wil. The way you move around the kitchen. You’re like a ghost. Like you’re not even here sometimes.”
I wanted to scream at him. How could he be so blind to how much I cared and how miserable I was at failing so badly? The lists I’d made, the hours bothering the love of my life at home with how desperate I was to make this work, to improve.
And just at the point that I was at my angriest, most ready to explain to him that he was wrong and had a stupid nickname and that his oversized right arm made him look like a badly manufactured Action Man, it all fell away. It became hilarious. After all my worry and fear, the thing I feared had happened anyway.
It had never been more perfectly clear to me how pointless my anxiety and sadness and fear had really been.
I smiled at Hijack. I told him we should absolutely go our separate ways when the summer break came along.
And we went back to work. And I was still smiling.
It was another two weeks before the restaurant closed for a summer break. And by the time we got there everything had changed.
It was only after Hijack accused me of not caring that I gave myself permission not to care so much. I focussed on having fun. I joked with the other cooks for the first time in weeks. I kept my head up. I literally sang and danced during prep time just to get through the day and return the smile to my stupid face.
I mean, what was there to lose?
I sat in the office with Hijack one last time before the summer break. He told me I’d become a different person. And he asked me to stay.
But by this time I’d landed a summer job at a restaurant called Oaxen Krog and Slip. I told Hijack that maybe we could talk at the end of summer, but that I thought it best I move on anyway.
I’d been miserable at Ljus, but I didn’t blame Hijack. He’d just expected more from me than I could give at that point. But I should have started to expect more from myself as well. It had been 2 years since I’d worked in an office. I’d been through several jobs and a year of culinary school, and it was time I stopped treating myself like an imposter. If I ever see Hijack again, I’ll probably end up thanking him for helping me realise that.
All the same, it was bloody sweet to turn Hijack down in that moment.
When the summer came to an end and I had been offered part time work at Oaxen for the autumn, I received a message from Hijack. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in any shifts at Ljus.
I told him I’d let him know when I found out more about my Oaxen rota.
The next day he texted back saying not to worry, he had a full team now.
The bastard had the last word after all.
Thanks for reading. This was a long one. If you made it this far, I think you must be my mother.
Next week is recipe week and we’ll be preserving dill flowers and braising pork with apricots. I’ll see you then!