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Part 2: Shaving pig heads in the basement
Lessons in the life-changing power of the "chef mindset"
I really had no choice but to shave my head.
The first week of my “stage1” had come to an end and my overgrown mop of thick wavy hair had become unbearable in the hot, ill-ventilated basement I worked in 16 hours a day.
Freshly shorn the next morning, the owner introduced himself to me as though for the first time.
I didn’t have the guts to let on we’d met 7 days before.
The only hint of the outside world from that basement kitchen was a door to a filthy, subterranean alley that offered only the barest slither of sunlight.
Unfortunately that door was strictly to be kept closed.
The owner was convinced he’d seen a mouse the size of an obese ferret living in that alley. If anyone opened the door, he was certain it would break in and set up camp in the dining room.
That didn’t stop me keeping the door ajar for some much needed fresh air though.
And then, one particularly hot late summer morning, I finally saw the now mythological ferret mouse. It was just standing there. Staring at me. Baiting me. It was so grotesquely large, I half expected it to have a collar round its neck.
I kept the door shut from then on.
I may not have appreciated it at the time, but my basement days at The Restaurant gave me everything I needed to start becoming a half decent cook.
I mean, of course the work was excruciating. I was the stagiaire2, for Christ's sake. Every morning at the chef's meeting3 "The List" was passed round for everyone to add their most tedious jobs for me to do.
I had no input, of course. For a normal person, this might’ve been a bit of a cheapening experience, especially aged 29.
But it wasn’t for me.
I was all in.
I’d shaved my beloved, Toni and Guy-styled hair with a beard trimmer for fuck’s sake.
I knew I was at the bottom of the ladder. And, frankly, it was nice to feel like I had nowhere to fall. I worshipped this team of chefs, and helping them was an absolute privilege.
And I’m not trying to paint you a pound-shop Kitchen Confidential rip-off here as though these guys were all pirates getting laid in mouse-alley or doing lines in the walk-in fridge.
I was 29, remember. I had more interest in a hot cocoa and a Nordic crime drama than any of that messy Bourdain-esque business.
I admired these guys because they did things the right way. They cared so much, so profoundly.
And I loved that they didn’t think I was crazy for exchanging a marketing job for the opportunity to trim green beans in a central London basement.
They didn’t think I was crazy, because they knew what they did mattered.
It showed me what I was doing mattered as well.
I’m sure I’ll get a chance to talk about these guys before this newsletter moves on from this first chapter of my cooking life. But, for now, there was one chef in particular during my hot and sweaty basement weeks who set me on my way to becoming something better than the worst chef in the world.
He was the first one to go out of his way to start introducing me to the working mindset of a half decent cook.
And all these years later, I still think those lessons help me today.
Both in and outside the kitchen.
His name was Frederico and, considering how much I came to like the guy, it didn’t seem to start so well.
I was doing some mundane task for one of the chefs, shaving a pig head of its whiskers or scraping the fat from a mountain of chicken skin probably, when Fred walked in to hang up his coat4.
I'd never been looked at quite so suspiciously than the moment he looked at me for the very first time.
At this point I still thought of myself as an absolute imposter of course. The office worker who was playing dress-up as a chef.
When Fred looked at me, it felt like I’d finally been found out.
That fear passed as soon as we settled into the same semi-psychotic, brotherly camaraderie, for some reason founded on the joke that we all loved Zayn from One Direction (?), that I shared with most of the other chefs.
What confused me about Fred was, despite being senior Sous Chef, he seemed to spend most of his time in the basement with me. If he wasn’t running the pass, he was never put on a section of his own like the grill or garnish5, he was always the “extra”. The guy responsible for doing the more intricate of prep work.
I make a point of specifying “intricate” prep work. While he butchered expensive sides of venison and filleted fish with all the elegance of a prima ballerina, I was hunched over my workstation, manically slicing potatoes into vats of goose fat (seasoned with copious amounts of my own sweat), while running back and forth picking up tools and ingredients I’d forgotten I needed.
A character trait of great chefs is a love of teaching. But, really, I think it must’ve just got too painful for Fred to watch me work so inefficiently for him not to try teaching me something.
So in tribute to Fred and our basement days, I’m going to put these ideas, as I understand them now, together in one place…
1 - Think about the seconds
The first thing Fred taught me seems so simple, but requires respect for your craft to really do properly.
I was prepping cooked jerusalem artichokes when he first came over to give some advice. This job consisted of carefully scooping out the cooked inner flesh so the outer (extremely delicate) skin wasn’t torn.
He told me to really think about what I was doing, how I was working, and, here’s the key thing, what I could do to make the job go quicker.
Speed hadn’t been a big part of my working life up until then, remember. Honestly, if someone asked me to do something in the office, I made it a general point to say I’d be able to get it back to them “on Thursday”.
Whatever day they were asking, it’d always be Thursday (so Friday was kept clear).
This artichoke job, meanwhile, required
unwrapping each artichoke from foil
scooping out flesh
Fred rearranged the containers I was using so I had slightly better access to them. He moved a bin closer to my side. He suggested I take each step through to completion (unwrapping all the artichokes for example) before slicing/scooping any. He even made me think about my posture (grounded feet, wide stance) for better comfort.
The benefit was seconds saved on each vegetable. Minimal gains. But after several hundred artichokes and several similar jobs one after the other throughout the day, that’s a lot of time saved.
2 - Work clean
This is an easy one.
When I cooked for anyone before I was a chef, I had one rule. Cleaning up was someone else’s concern.
This is drummed out of you the first day you ever spend in a professional kitchen.
Working clean means taking the seconds needed in the moment to save minutes and hours later. In as much, working clean isn’t just about being tidy and wiping down. It’s a state of mind. It’s about taking care as you go. Using time efficiently right now, in this moment, so that the day doesn’t avalanche into an uncontrollable mess.
Working clean may start with getting those onion skins into a waste container quickly, but it ends as a profound philosophy that helps you achieve more than you’d ever think was possible otherwise.
3 - Create parallel versions of yourself
Chefs are masters of using time to their advantage.
Chefs also know instinctively what jobs take more time than others and which of these can be started first and left to run without actively needing to be there.
Take roasting root veg or simmering stock for example.
A chef understands to get these “gigs” going before chopping chives or filleting fish.
This way, it’s almost as though the chef has several versions of themselves working parallel jobs all over the kitchen at the same time.
4 - Remember that everything is impossible until it’s done…
When I started as a chef, it felt like every second thing I was asked to do was infuriatingly difficult. I was constantly hitting roadblocks I was certain neither I, nor anyone else, could get through.
“This mayonnaise won’t stop splitting”. “The eyeball from this pig head won’t come out”. “I’m telling you, Chef, there is no fennel seed in the dry store!”
And then, for the eighth time, said Chef shoves past you on his way into the dry store, emerges holding said fennel seed jar that didn’t exist 10 seconds ago, and tells you it was in the open your fucking eyes section.
You quickly learn in the kitchen that if you don’t find a way to solve your problem, some other person will for you.
And they’ll do it in your face with a smirk on their own.
5 - … and tomorrow is not another day.
Maybe it all comes down to the pressure chefs are under. The knowledge that the seconds lost throughout the day add up to some poor bastard’s food being an hour late.
But I was shocked by how productive cooks are, even after a 6 hour service at midnight on a Saturday.
The Restaurant, for example, used a lot of pickled vegetables. Carrots in particular. One long Saturday had come to an end and the Head Chef realised our supply of beautifully preserved baby heritage carrots was running low. At midnight, I was asked to clean and pickle some more.
In my past life, a task like making pickling liquid, cleaning, and then pickling carrots would have been a leisurely Sunday afternoon’s activity.
Now it was a job that needed fixing in minutes.
To have pushed this task to another day, possibly making it another line cook’s problem as well, would have been to start undermining that day’s already carefully considered plan.
Chefs have a special ability to reframe the coordinates of what is possible in the time they have available to them.
Because, in the kitchen, sometimes tomorrow just isn’t another day.
I know a lot of you subscribers to The Recovering Line Cook6 are chefs, so let me ask what you think, what I’m missing? Chefs are great teachers, so I’d love it if you guys commented to this post and let the rest of us know what you think.
What makes the mindset of a chef such a powerful thing in your opinion?
What has being a chef taught you to do differently?
I learnt after my first day that I was not on unpaid work experience but, in fact, a stage. A stage (pronounced stahj - a la Francaise) paid no more money but sounded infinitely better when discussing it with my grandmother.
High-end restaurant industry language for unpaid work-experience bitch who gets to do the most mundane kitchen tasks.
An almost ritualistic event held every morning around 8:30am during which the Head Chef talked the rest of the kitchen staff through any menu changes and how many guests we had booked.
The basement kitchen was also a makeshift changing room.
Garnish is restaurant-speak for side dishes section, basically. Think fries and veg as opposed to sprigs of parsley.
Massive thanks to all of you, chef and non-chef!