Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 11: Scallops for Jodie Foster
And breakfast with Shia LaBeouf
Summer arrives in Finland like hot bread from a toaster. The more you watch and wait for it, the more it shocks when it finally comes.
Here in my small corner of Finland called Pori it was still snowing only weeks ago. The mountain of shovelled snow outside my apartment building, slowly growing since November, still baiting my four-year old son to climb it.
To his disappointment the mountain is gone now. And a world that was once grey and brown and white now obnoxiously green. The birds have returned as well and it is only now, with the seagulls screeching, the crows cawing and the swallows doing whatever the hell it is they do, that I realise how quiet the winter is. How much more company the world offers now light has returned. I think summer keeps you company in a way no other season really can.
Company has been on my mind this week. Good company and friendship, too. Last week I wrote in the newsletter about my time at the fine-dining restaurant Gastrologik. I wrote about the kind of work I did as an unpaid stagiaire.
But it’s not the work I think about when I remember that time. Though the work was memorable.
It’s the people.
I have recently opened paid subscriptions. All content is still free to all, but if you are able to upgrade to a paid sub it would make all the difference in supporting my work.
Things got exciting toward the very end of my stage at Gastrologik. The owners had been offered a lot of money to close everything down for one Saturday night. Instead of serving our usual diners at the restaurant, we were packing up to become an outside catering company.
This was obviously pretty unusual for a meticulous, fine-dining, Michelin restaurant like Gastrologik. Outside catering is unpredictable. It means unreliable portable ovens. Power generators that might fail. Weather. It means a team of unfamiliar waiting staff that haven’t been indoctrinated into the monumental artistry of the head chef and how truly life-changing his food really is. And that’s not to mention how we would be serving over 100 people as opposed to our usual 15.
It took a lot of money to close down a restaurant like Gastrologik for the night, transport the team 50 miles outside Stockholm, and serve the same tasting menu normally reserved for a handful of people in a boujie Stockholm restaurant.
But the people behind this event, an elaborate wedding at a castle next to an impossibly beautiful lake, could likely just about afford it.
The groom’s surname was Heinz.
I’d spent the week before the event in an industrial kitchen on the outskirts of Stockholm where I worked alongside what I was told was a dream-team of Stockholm chefs. There was Johan Something-or-Other who used to run that restaurant I’d never heard of and who I was supposed to be very excited to meet. And Stefan Surname-Unknown who came back from whatever other Nordic country it was to help his old friend out for a few days.
Bear in mind money was no object. Even I, a mere stagiaire, was getting paid this week!
Even so, the dream team did the heavy lifting. Butchering meat, prepping gallons worth of sauce. But they took a certain fascination in this British thirty year old who, though not much younger than them, was employed only to clean endless crates of pine shoots and chop enough shallots to fill a container big enough to drown in.
The last of the dream team was a young sous chef on loan from Stockholm’s very best restaurant. In having three Michelin Stars, it was also one of the best in the world. And still is. His career hadn’t quite kicked off yet, but it was easy to see even then how it likely would in the coming years. He was beautiful for one, effortlessly talented, and his arms were entirely covered in tattoos. And he was safe as well, none of it had gone to his head. When he saw me cutting onions with all the efficiency of a pig doing the breaststroke through a pool of treacle, the bastard spent ten minutes helping me with my technique. He really did seem like a rock star chef you’d be happy to take home to grandma.
I started following him on Instagram that week. And over the next few years, I wasn’t surprised to see him start making a name for himself. Industry magazine covers. Brand partnerships. He ended up marrying the world’s most famous pornstar and moving to the US. When I heard from a friend it had ended a few years later, I really did feel bad for them. It was the kind of love story you just want to see work out.
On the Saturday of the wedding we loaded up minivans with pots, pans, scallops, and semi-defrosted salmon fillets and made the hour-long drive to the castle. It felt like a school trip. It felt exciting. And after a week in the industrial kitchen it felt good to be with my team again, the people I’d come to feel comfortable with. Jacco, the 7 foot tall dutch pastry chef. Marion, the relentlessly enthusiastic head waiter who politely requested we keep a “good tempo” before service everyday as though everyday we would forget. Jon, the moustachioed line cook who was tasked with managing the lakeside hog roast to be served once the reception had got going. If memory serves, Jon spent the drive quietly at the back of the bus, as though contemplating the mystical nature of fire and of meat.
Once we arrived, shit really got weird. After a week of planning all the rules went out the window. The dream team, which now consisted of the regular restaurant line cooks as well, got to work. Jon left to start his piggy bonfire down by the water edge, on the other side of which paparazzi could be seen in a small dinghy angling for photos. He stayed there the rest of the day tending the pig carcass wearing a distinctive cowboy hat. If you Google search that wedding long enough, you can still find a few pictures of little Jon in his hat that those dinghy-paps managed to get.
Back in the outside kitchen, the army of stagiaires was left with no direction at all.
Dream team cook number 1 (Johan) was caramelising roughly 30 trays of scallops and fielding calls on his mobile while I was still twiddling my thumbs and wondering if organising my knife roll would make me look appropriately occupied. This is when Johan called me over. I felt a slight rush of pride that he knew my name, which really got my adrenaline pumping. (I really was still desperate for validation at that point in my “career”). He wanted me to take over with the scallops. And after a 20 second masterclass, he left me to it.
At the restaurant, I wasn’t even allowed to prep the fish or meat, now I was being asked to cook several hundred of the things because the dream team, clearly, had bigger fish to fry.
Or meat to plate, soup to ladle. I had no idea.
It was around this point that Jacco emerged to order some stagiaires to help with some facet of his dessert prep. They quickly scurried off. Stagiaires have a tendency to scurry, you wouldn’t believe it but it’s true.
“Hey Wil,” he said having turned in the direction of the scurriers. “You see who we’re cooking for today?”
“Who?” I asked, sweat now basting my insufficiently caramelised scallops.
“Apparently that’s Jodie Foster’s scallops you’re burning.”
I checked, they weren’t burning, that was half the problem.
“John Kerry’s and Julia Roberts’ as well.”
Somehow the food all got out. The head chefs, aka the owners of Gastrologik, looked mildly traumatised, but the dream team had helped them pull it off. Maybe even we stagiaires did too a little bit.
And just at the point when we were starting to pack things up, we got word the newlyweds wanted to say thank you.
And so we all lined up. It felt like waiting for military inspection. Not unlike the Queen was on her way or something. I’d been shoved to first in line and, when they got to me, something just kicked in. I actually went to a military school when I was a boy you see and standing in file once again at that moment, something just clicked. I went rigid and started standing at something approaching attention. Eyes straight ahead. I guess it was some kind of muscle memory from my 13 year old self. Then, at the sound of one of the newlyweds passing me and saying thank you, I gave an awkward little nod. The rest of the line were already laughing. As they should have been.
At least I didn’t think to salute.
A week later I had my last service at Gastrologik.
After we had cleaned down, the team took me to a corner shop where we bought Pringles and cheap beer. We took them down to the waterside near the centre of Stockholm and we sat and drank until the golden sun came up. The sky was misty in the soft focus kind of way only a dry summer morning can be. It was so warm we didn’t once think to go home or even inside.
I had worked with these people for just a few weeks. Almost nothing. And yet, in that moment by the water, I wouldn’t have wanted to be with anyone else. I knew even then I likely wouldn’t see much of these guys again. That’s just life. But I knew I had learnt something that I’d keep with me always. Cooking alongside people in that environment, breaks down a barrier. It’s too weird an environment for it not to. Whether it’s in the restaurant clearing a drain mid-service with your bare hands or cooking scallops for Jodie Foster in a tent. And following this weird shared experience comes a very special bond. I admit it’s superficial, it isn’t love or anything approaching it, it's not even really friendship, though it can lead to it of course. But it is an openness. To cook with someone in that world is to submit to an inability to hide yourself from them. To submit to being honest and, with that, to being comfortable with them. And when you are comfortable with someone, things can be incredible fun.
Being as drunk as we were we decided it was a good idea to go for breakfast at Stockholm’s fanciest hotel. The same hotel the wedding guests had been staying in a week earlier.
They didn’t let us in. But, somehow, the second fanciest hotel did. And so we ate a really expensive breakfast at a table next to Shia LeBeouf. He quickly left when one of our group couldn’t stop staring at him.
My four weeks at Gastrologik had been my first full time cooking position. The people there, the company, made me begin to dream that maybe I could do this. Maybe I could succeed in this new life I’d set out on.
Which made it all the more demoralising when my next position, my first permanent chef job, couldn’t have made me feel any more different.