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Part 17: Pork shank redemption
Christmas in a Swedish bistro
This edition of my Secret Memoirs of a Line Cook series looks back to 2017. The year I cooked my first Swedish Christmas buffet and upset a very angry cook called Mårran…
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They’re dangerous things, boiled pigs’ feet. Add them to a passive-aggressive WhatsApp group and there’s really no way to go but down.
Here’s the thing. Despite the long hours and occasional loss of fingers or a few layers of skin here and there, it isn’t easy for chefs to switch off having walked out those kitchen doors.
There always remains a nasty, vinegary nagging at the back of your head about some stupid thing you might have forgotten.
Did you order enough pointy cabbage?
Did you leave that tray of berries defrosting on the oven again?
Surely there’s no way you locked the work experience kid in the upstairs kitchen peeling pistachios when you left this evening.
Because the thing about having a job as a chef is that it's never really your job at all. You just look after it for a service or two until someone else is scheduled to keep it running in your absence.
I think this is why there's always something working at the back of a line cook’s mind about how your section is doing on your days off.
I was terrible with this. So anxious was I of having actually left a tray of berries defrosting on an oven, I managed to set the restaurant alarm off late one night after using my key to get back in the kitchen to check.
I may have been trusted with a key, but not the alarm code.
A security team were called out and it cost the restaurant 5000 Swedish Krona (about $500).
This difficulty with “switching off”, however, was never more obvious than during my first Christmas season at a restaurant called Oaxen.
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From mid-November to a few days shy of Christmas, life at Oaxen changed entirely.
Out went the modern interpretations of traditional Nordic dishes and flavours. The “grilled butter” pork chop for example, and fermented potatoes with vendace roe. Instead we served a Christmas buffet even Swedish grandmothers probably found a bit old fashioned.
Roasted ham coated in mustard and breadcrumbs.
Cold cuts of slow-roasted beef and lamb.
A roasted potato dish poetically named “Jansson’s Temptation”
About 300 varieties of herring.
Terrines and pates of deer and moose.
Something I can only describe as beef jello.
Endless varieties of devilled egg.
And absolutely nobody’s favourite, boiled pigs’ feet.
And for those who pre-ordered, the roasted pig’s head. This was slowly baked then roasted so savagely that the ears ended up crispy enough to shiv a man if broken off at an acute enough angle.
The way we worked changed as well. Service didn’t involve cooking anymore. Instead it consisted largely of keeping the buffet stocked up in the dining room for guests to serve themselves from. A few chefs helped keep the herring and devilled eggs topped up from our usual “hot” kitchen downstairs, and one guy moved upstairs to the “cold” kitchen where the sliced beef tongue, pigs feet and desserts were kept.
I was one of three cooks working upstairs.
The usual inhabitant of this kitchen, Ellie the Oaxen pastry chef, had, like most pastry chefs, always been a source of wonder for me.
I’d been cooking for a few years by Christmas 2017. I still enjoyed meeting cooks who didn’t correspond to the typical “chef” stereotype. I’d always considered myself something of a delicate indie rock and roll flower after all. Meeting other sensitive types in the kitchen was always reassuring to me.
Ellie was one such sensitive person. She had the delicate, angled features of a young Tove Jansson, and moved about her kitchen like a fastidious scientist rather than heavy-handed cook. A botanist tending delicate orchids in contrast to the frequently vulgar, though admittedly hilarious, cooks I worked alongside downstairs.
Joining me in the three-man team getting in the way of Ellie, was our sous chef Marcus (who I loved) and a cantankerous, misery called Mårran (who I was a little afraid of).
Like me, Mårran (a nickname) had become a chef later in life, and he was older than me still. Surrounded by twenty-year-olds at Oaxen, I was grateful someone else was referred to as the old man.
And as for that nickname. Mårran is pronounced not a million miles from moron, and is the name of a villainous and much-feared Moomin character considered the embodiment of loneliness in the Moomin world.
Our Mårran wasn’t that bad but he was a grumpy sod.
His grumpiness, diluted among the larger crew downstairs during the rest of the year, had been easy to manage. Split between just me, Marcus, and Ellie, it became too much to bear.
And much of that was WhatsApp’s fault.
Early in the Christmas season, Marcus, sensible sous chef that he was, created our own upstairs team WhatsApp group. Like most bad ideas, it seemed like a great one at the time.
And for the first few days that WhatsApp group worked perfectly.
No one used it.
And why would we have? We kept our list in order. Shift to shift handovers included all that needed to be said in person. If we were closing the station down in the evening, we’d even leave notes for the morning guy covered in smiley faces and xxx’s.
Though maybe that was just me.
Unfortunately that friendly relationship wasn’t the case for Mårran and Ellie.
Despite it really being her kitchen, he’d complain endlessly about the way she worked in there. He was adamant she didn’t help clean when she was supposed to. She certainly didn’t take the bin out often enough. He also got very upset about her changing the music to her preferred modern pop playlist over his 90’s happy hardcore classics.
And, as I saw first hand during handover, he had no problem letting her know about it.
Being pathologically averse to even second-hand confrontation, I found his behaviour terrifying.
Seriously, getting caught in the middle of it was like watching mummy and daddy duke it out all over again.
And then, inevitably, Marcus and I became the target of it as well.
And it started with a pig’s foot.
I don’t know how it had happened. Maybe I’d been careless. Maybe Ellie had taken her frustration with Mårran out on my innocent mise en place. But somehow, a carefully stored pigs trotter wrapped neatly in plastic on a small metal tray had fallen from the rack of shelves in the walk in fridge to the floor.
When Mårran found this the next morning on his shift, he used our WhatsApp group to let us know, and to let us know his displeasure (along with several pictures from multiple angles of the offending foot).
I woke up to that message on my day off. And, being the type of guy that breaks in to kitchens just to check on his screw-ups, I couldn’t ignore it. My day off was ruined. I couldn’t stop imagining Mårran’s anger, his frustration at the state of his kitchen, his frustration at me.
Over the next week or two, this went on and on. Maybe a job on the prep list hadn’t been completed. Maybe a few slices of beef hadn’t been packed away as he would have done it. Whatever the issue, he let us know how pissed he was on that bloody WhatsApp group.
It had never been more clear, even on my days off, that a little part of me still existed in the restaurant. The job was always our collective problem, not just the guy on shift.
I was still a part-time worker at Oaxen, desperate for a full-time gig. I didn’t want to rattle cages. And so, instead of ever asking him to stop bothering me on my days off, I made do with feeling sympathetic for poor Ellie.
It started with him walking through the upstairs kitchen door and giving me a look as though I’d just told him his mother and I had embarked on an extra-marital relationship.
Before he’d allow me to leave, I needed to “clean this shithole”, “get cakes iced” and, importantly, “get 16 lamb roasts in the oven”. They needed to slowly cook for the next few hours at no hotter than 55°c.
In that brief period, I learnt that something happens to even moderately capable people when working under the angry eye of a forty-something, grumpy, Swedish chef.
I carefully placed the lamb in the oven. He repeated the temperature they needed to roast at. And I was just about to set the dial when Ellie turned to me and thanked me for helping clean up. Anytime, I told her and smiled.
Really, just like a young Tove Janson. But with tattoos.
Maybe I should be a pastry chef, I thought to myself.
Daydream over, I turned back to the oven and carefully dialled in the number Mårran had just told me. In that moment, so focussed was I on his directions, all my training and experience seemed to fade away among nerves and over-thinking. Somehow 55 became 155. That’s what I was certain Mårran had said.
And then I closed the door.
An hour later he almost looked delighted to show me how badly I’d fucked up.
I couldn’t react. I didn’t know how. It felt like someone was playing a terrible trick on me and yet, every time I thought of who it could’ve been, it was my own stupid face I saw.
I packed the overcooked lamb away, told the head chef downstairs what had happened, and went home.
I waited all night to get an irate message from that WhatsApp group reminding me what an arse I was.
I think it was even worse that none ever came.
Ellie was the first to say something. I arrived to work the next day and, on my way to the changing rooms, heard her telling Marcus how tired she was of Mårran. That it was her kitchen as much as his upstairs. Marcus promised he would do something about it.
“And I’m gonna tell him to give up on those fucking WhatApps messages every time I get a day off, as well,” he told me.
“Oh, yeah, good idea,” I replied. “You know I was meaning to mention that.”
Well, at least Ellie knew how to stand up for herself.
Being a chef is hard. You burn and bleed to get the job done somedays.
But I’m glad Mårran did his best to make that Christmas season even worse. It taught me that the best cooks, the ones people really love to work with, actively do the opposite. They are generous enough, when faced with someone else’s cock-up, to make the problem their own.
Because even the idiot who mistakes 155 for 55 and leaves trays of berries on ovens overnight deserves a proper day off.
Six years on I still think of that WhatsApp group when I’m compelled to send a petty message to satisfy nothing but my own self-righteousness at the expense of someone else’s feelings.
Six years on and it still helps me stop from pressing send.
For that, I guess I can thank Mårran, the grumpiest Swedish chef I ever worked with.