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Part 16: As good as the last steak you cooked
Lessons from a kitchen summer job
If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, you might be familiar with the scene. Your mise en place is set up, you’ve hoarded your supply of kitchen cloths, the ticket machine has just started to scream at you like a fox in heat, and all you can think about is how not to pass out face first into the 350° grill in front of you.
Or maybe that’s just me.
I was two weeks in to my summer job at a waterside restaurant in Stockholm called Oaxen Krog and Slip. It was a Saturday morning in July. The sky was blue, seagulls darted through the air, and the water twinkled with all the brilliance of a sequin dress. And yet, with a single word, I can turn that pleasant image upside down.
That word is brunch.
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The weather was belligerently hot and stuffy the way Stockholm summer days decide to be every once in a while. I was still the new boy. Barely known. Only moderately trusted. I absolutely hadn’t yet built up the social currency to admit, 10 minutes before service, that the heat was too much for my delicate constitution this time round. That I needed to throw in the towel. What’s more, admitting defeat would not only have made me look a tit in front of the other cooks, but doing so would have proven my wife right as well. That beautiful, bastard, insufferable know-it-all, love of my life had been the one telling me I didn’t look anywhere near well enough for a 16-hour shift that morning. She would’ve taken endless joy in rubbing my stupid face in it were I to return home early.
Love of my life that she was, of course. Is, I mean. Is.
After 10 minutes that felt like something approaching the age of several universes, I’d managed to grill either three or 37 steaks. I didn’t know what I was doing. But by this point I was more concerned with the amount of sweat pumping out of me than the cooking. My upper lip, the fold at my elbows, yes, even my inter-buttock area. It had all been rendered frictionless by a steady stream of bodily fluid.
And worst of all, I couldn’t quite decide whether it was black smoke from something I was burning that had started to fog the periphery of my vision, or the tunnel vision of my inevitable passing out.
Oaxen Krog & Slip wasn’t one restaurant at all but two. Oaxen Slip, where I worked the grill, was a casual bistro joint. We served big steaks with fries and whole-roasted fish drowning in browned butter for people to share from “family-style”. In the summer, on a good night, we’d serve 120 people a night. Oaxen Krog on the other hand was the ultra fine-dining, 2 Michelin star place that seated rarely more than 15 at a time.
The two restaurants, as you can imagine, had entirely separate dining rooms. Slip guests dined in a large, converted boathouse at the front. While the Krog guests enjoyed a more intimate dining room round the back looking out over the tranquil waters of the Stockholm archipelago. What was shared was the kitchen. We in the Slip team cooked our fat steaks on one side, the Krog team prepared their raw heritage beef shavings and fermented scallop trimmings on the other.
And no place did those two halves come closer together than where I worked: the Grill. The only cooking station that we shared with the Michelin Star team.
The kind of grill we had at Oaxen was called a Josper grill. A Josper grill is one part oven, one part barbecue. Including the chimney that fed into the ceiling vents, ours was taller than me and about twice as wide. Inside the oven cavity were 2 huge shelves of pull-out grill racks, each about 1 metre squared and weighing 20kg. These sat above a steel base big enough to fit a sack of charcoal as big as anything Santa might be seen lumping over his shoulder. And that was it. No electricity, no gas. The only heat control was a small, metal lever you could pull in or out to let more or less air in. Leave it out for too long, as I often did in those first weeks, and the temperature gauge would eventually reach back to zero again. It could well have been pushing 400° on those days. I’d never used one before my time at Oaxen. Nor had I ever been trusted to cook meat for paying customers before. I hadn’t yet learnt how to keep from burning myself a hundred times a night during those first two weeks, but I had quickly learnt a thing or two about fish and meat cookery.
Things I still rely on many years later.
There’s something else. I should admit it now. I may have had a half pint or two the night before that Saturday morning brunch shift. I was, however, refusing to believe that innocent beverage could have been the cause of my malaise.
It was, I repeated to myself, honest to god, the heat.
And if I could convince myself of that, then maybe, just maybe, I’d be able to convince my head chef of it as well.
That had to happen sooner rather than later. Even two years after I’d started cooking, the memory of what I used to do during my office job days in such situations were far from a distant memory. I’d go to the disabled toilet. Lay my rucksack on the ground as a make-shift pillow, and have a lovely little nap on the floor. 20 minutes later and I’d be good for at least another hour.
One of the harsh truths about being a restaurant cook is that you are not, repeat not, afforded leeway to have a cheeky nap in the toilets when the need arises. Making matters worse was the fact two other cooks on shift that day knew I’d been out the night before.
For all they knew I could’ve been necking shots.
My next move needed to be taken with caution.
Working at the liminal point where our casual bistro kitchen rubbed up against the Michelin cooks was unquestionably the most entertaining thing I’ve ever done in the work place.
I don’t want to come off as bragging here, but you can watch The Bear all you like and read Kitchen Confidential until your eyes go numb. Nothing will compare to the pure entertainment I experienced every service working in a Michelin star kitchen without any of the stress of actually working in a Michelin star kitchen.
And that entertainment is entirely down to my cooking a metre away from Krog’s Icelandic sous chef Steinar, and Head Chef Ian from Ireland.
Working with these two has pretty much rendered every cooking show, kitchen TV drama or Instagram “chef” a source of automatic disappointment to me. Whoever it is will never make me laugh as much as Ian and Steinar. These two together were like an elegantly written comedy double act. The (occasionally) severe Head Chef and the ever-wishing-to-please sous. Ian was able to move in seconds from near foaming-at-the-mouth anger toward Steinar at, say, a potentially splitting sauce, to the most loving, brotherly smiles and hugs. By the time I was working next to them, I’d been married for 2 months. For the first time in my life I could say from experience that watching them together was not unlike watching an old married couple. The drama, the emotions. Even the language they used hinted at a rich, hidden past. This is just a guess I should admit, I could be entirely mistaken. But I always wondered why Steinar so often replied with “I believe so, chef” instead of the simpler alternative “I think so.” Had people saying “I think so” angered Ian once upon a time? Was that too flimsy an answer for him? I’ll never know, but it’s the way I like to explain it all these years later.
The cooks at Oaxen Krog and Slip didn’t run on coffee or Red Bull or even the chocolate couverture pellets the pastry chef kept hidden upstairs. They ran on banter. They ran on energy derived from taking the piss out of each other. And since the Josper grill was next to Ian’s pass, I was often left enjoying the force of his piss-taking.
My favourite was a line of his he’d repeat that straddled the hilarious and the boastful. Along with the ribeye and the whole grilled fish, one of the things I cooked most in the Josper were potato flatbreads. I’d eventually learn that the rate at which those flatbreads burnt to a blackened crisp once the Josper door was closed behind them, was at least 50%. It was a like a law of physics. Once those breads were put in that oven, a certain percentage were required to burn or the sun would extinguish or something. The first time I did it, unaware of this universal law, I wanted to get it in the bin before anyone could see. Ian, of course, got there before I managed it. In a beat he leaned over and, in a voice as sincere as I’ve ever heard, said: “I’m no Gary Rhodes, but that looks a bit too coloured to me, chef.”
Chefs run on getting the piss taken out of them. Ian and Steinar kept me well fed.
30 minutes into that miserable July brunch shift and my headache had just about moved into the stage best described as several pigs have taken a shit in my head and I want my mother to come and pick me up now please.
It had gone too far. The tunnel vision had got progressively worse, and I could barely keep my eyes open for the sweat in them. Once the pace of service finally dipped a moment, I took the Head Chef aside. He was new as well. He was a kind, supportive older guy called Håkan.
“Chef,” I told him, “this heat is really doing a number on me today.”
“I mean, I’m feeling a little faint, chef.”
He nodded with a care and concern that briefly made me feel less of the piece of shit I clearly was.
And then came the hard part.
“I’ll be honest, chef. I was out last night. With Steinar and a few others. But this is not about that. I really had just the one drink. It really must be the heat.”
He nodded. He looked like he believed me. He didn’t look angry at all. He seemed so accepting of the one beer line that I almost started to believe it myself.
It was a simple gig, my summer job at Oaxen. I didn’t have my own “section”, I was just the grill guy. I didn’t need to worry about placing orders or mise en place lists or even learning the front of house staff names for that matter. I arrived in the morning, cleaned the Josper, the tickets started firing and I cooked some meat.
The Josper may have had limited heat control, but this was made up for by what was going on at the top of the Josper oven itself. At about my shoulder height the roof of the oven was a flat, level, steel surface. It was also very hot. But by placing some trays on this surface, and on these some wire racks, you’d create an area of far gentler, indirect hear that held consistently for an entire service at around 40-45°.
The perfect heat to slowly cook things like ribeye steak and whole fish.
The technique went thus: hard grill the fish or steak at 300° in the Josper, get the appropriate colour you want, then leave it on top of the Josper to slowly cook to, near as damn it, perfection. A quick blast in the Josper to increase the surface temperature before service and you had the perfect internal temperature. It was a technique simultaneously as gentle as anything done in a plastic bag and water bath, while still getting the colour and flavour from searingly high charcoal grilling.
When each piece of fish or meat was ready, I would place it down on the Head Chef’s chopping board for him to slice ready for plating. Every time, like a kid peaking downstairs to see their Christmas presents, I’d lean over to check it was cooked the way we wanted it. Blushing medium rare. Sometimes it was a bit under and we’d “flash” it in the oven a few seconds longer. Sometimes it was a bit over and Ian would invariably crane his neck over, announce he wasn’t Gary Rhodes, and suggest it looked a bit fucking burnt to him.
Eventually, I stopped having to check every time.
And even now, I replicate that process when I cook a home. Start off very hard in the pan, then very gentle in a low oven.
Do something like this yourself and you’ll never have a steak with a thick grey edge and raw centre again.
By 1pm I was 200 metres away from my Josper face down in a park being laughed at by what I thought must’ve been a group of teenagers. I didn’t look to check. Any further movement by that point I was confident would have ended in vomiting.
I’d learnt a lot about cooking in those first few weeks at Oaxen. I’d learnt a lot about what it was to get by in a great restaurant kitchen as well. The importance of fun. Of relaxing. And, yes, how to cook a good steak nicely.
Most of all I’d learnt not to stay up until 3am drinking beer and schnapps when I needed to be stood in front of a 350° grill the next day for 16 hours.
The thing about being a restaurant chef is that you’re only as good as the last steak you cooked. That sounds kind of depressing, but really it’s quite a freeing thing. Especially for someone like me who had always felt incapable of proving myself having started cooking professionally so late in life. After a few weeks at Oaxen, I’d learnt that, as much of an idiot as I was face down in the grass that day, I was not back to square one. I hadn’t thrown away all the work I’d done so far. I didn’t need to do all that much to prove anything.
All it needed was one nicely cooked steak and I’d be back on top once again.
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