Discover more from The Recovering Line Cook
Part 9: We like mash thick in London, actually.
How to impress among Stockholm's fine-dining elite
It was June 2016 and my year at culinary school had come to an end. One year on from quitting my office job (and three years since meeting a random Finnish girl in a filthy East London pub) I was moving to Stockholm to pursue love and life as a cook.
I flew out on the Monday after Britain voted to leave the EU. I had been devastated by the result. For months I’d been reassuring my fiancé, Silja, that “we”, the British public, would vote to remain. I hated that the vote turned out differently. And when I saw the concern on her face over Skype that last weekend before I left for her, I hated I’d been made a liar as well. And what would this mean for me and my dream of a life in the EU with my future wife? Everything had been made slightly more uncertain. And I had no words of reassurance for Silja, or myself.
This all contributed to the sense of escape I felt boarding the flight on that warm, dry day at Heathrow airport. I was making it out just in time. Walls were being put up behind me, I was ahead of them, but I still feared whether I might end up trapped behind them again one day.
Work began the very next day. Silja and I had no “honeymoon” period. No time to celebrate our finally being together. Instead, I was headed to one of the richest, most beautiful areas of Stockholm and a small restaurant called Gastrologik to start a month-long stage.
The Gastrologik Stagiaire Handbook had been in my inbox for over 6 months by this point. This gives a hint into the realities of getting work experience at fancy Michelin-starred restaurants. To secure the privilege of working at such a place for free, you have to sign up a (very) long time in advance. You also have to promise to do so for a not insignificant amount of time. I’d offered two weeks at first, conscious that rent would need paying for our new home. Not to mention food bills, railcards, and the countless other black holes into which money inevitably falls. The Head Chef I’d applied to, who had signed off his emails only with “MF”, countered that they only accepted stages for a minimum of a month. Being desperate, I agreed, and tried to reassure myself my severely malnourished savings could cover a few extra weeks without pay.
The first thing MF asked me was whether I had a personnummer. Over the next few months, I would learn that the personnummer, a social security number basically, was the key to pretty much every aspect of life in Sweden. Bank accounts, doctor’s appointments, library cards, even the points card at the supermarket, none of these was possible without a personnummer. I told him I had only flown in yesterday and, so far, didn’t even have a front door key let alone a personnummer. He suggested I sort that out as quickly as possible.
MF must have had almost two foot on me, and his gaunt, lithe frame stretched out over me as though he were a giraffe. But it was an altogether nervous giraffe. Uncertain of himself. His handshake had all the vigour of a day old soufflé. This wasn’t what I’d expected from the Head Chef of one of Sweden’s most revered fine-dining restaurants.
We went first to the changing rooms. A run of lockers, personalised with photos, cartoons and vulgar notes, lined the wall to one side. MF explained the different items we cooks were required to wear. During prep we wore standard, run of the mill chefs whites. Thin, over-washed things you could see nipples through that were identical to those I had been wearing in London.
Things got more interesting when it came to the service uniform. During service we were to change into navy blue denim shirts and little black caps. Put together, apron, cap and shirt, I wondered whether the uniform had been designed to make the team look like 19th century London chimney sweeps.
Luckily, having always considered myself something of an East London dandy, I had no problem with the 19th century chimney sweep look at all.
There were two kitchens at Gastrologik. A prep kitchen and a service kitchen. The former was much like what you’d expect from a pro restaurant kitchen. It was hidden from the guests, had a walk-in fridge attached to it, and in the corner various overworked men on rotation could be found washing dishes while listening to Metallica.
The service kitchen was a little different though. A bit more modern. This was the “open kitchen”, was in full view of the guests, and spanned the entire length of the rear restaurant wall. It consisted of three stations, one next to the other, meaning all cooks faced the guests as they worked. The restaurant I’d just left in London had an open kitchen as well, but this was open to an entirely different degree.
The three stations were manned by three very different men when MF showed me in that first day. At the far end in the dessert section was Jacco. He was even taller than MF and had the most glorious beard I’d ever seen. It was dark brown and thick and left me wondering why he was here and not wearing an Aran jumper on a boat somewhere in the North Atlantic fishing for cod.
Patric, in the central cold dishes section, had long blond hair, model good looks, and finally offered me someone I could see eye to eye with.
The final cook I was introduced to would be the one I was assigned to. His name was Jon and, while Jacco and Patric had offered some light small talk and jokes as I was introduced to them, Jon was all business. He may have had a thin, immaculately kept moustache I found hard to take seriously, but his stern demeanour and quietness more than made up for it. MF asked him politely to take me round the kitchen.
This was seven years ago now, of course. What he said as he took me round I most likely forget 10 minutes after he had done so. But one thing, I do remember…
Having arrived at a particular work station in the back prep kitchen, Jon gestured to it and said this was where they prepared meat. Then he turned to me.
“But you,” he said, maintaining perfect eye contact, “will not touch any meat while you are here.”
He looked me up and down as though I were wearing a t-shirt with “I’M GOING TO TOUCH YOUR MEAT, JON!!” written all over it.
“None of your jobs will be with our meat,” he said, not altogether unthreateningly. Then he led me back out to the service kitchen where, thankfully, there would be witnesses.
Portland Restaurant back in London and Gastrologik both had one Michelin Star, but that’s where the similarities ended.
Unlike Portland, Gastrologik had been aiming for a second star for years. And this was reflected in every element of how the restaurant was run. It was open only five days a week. It only had a dinner service. And the table clothes were ironed once on an ironing board, then a second time having been placed on the table itself.
It also exclusively served a tasting menu that couldn’t even be researched online because, as the website declared proudly, the menu changed according to the ingredients available every morning.
I had found myself in that echelon of fine-dining that, in pursuit of perfection, had decided to take agency away from the guest. The guest being one variable too many to accommodate in the creation of perfection.
Unsurprisingly after my forewarning from Jon, much of my work was with vegetables and, quite often, flowers.
This involved making perfect diagonal slices of young garlic stems. I had to clean and pick out the most perfect specimens from huge bags of what I was told were sea vegetables. I didn’t even know vegetables grew near the sea until recently. Now I was working with sea purslane, samphire, agretti, salicornia. All woody, spindly vegetables that tasted deliciously salty and left my fingers smelling like I’d been running around beach all day.
My most important job, however, was to leave the restaurant, go to the top floor of an apartment building next door, and pick endless amounts of ornate edible flowers with which the chefs would decorate their dishes later that evening. It was during these moments in my first week I reflected on what a potentially ridiculous thing I’d done to myself over the past 12 months. It was July. A full year to the week I’d quit my job in a central London marketing company working with clients such as Canon, Toshiba and Activision. Now I was on my own, upstairs in a random Stockholm apartment building on a terrace, picking flowers for rich people to eat. My main concern being how quickly it would take Jon, Jacco and Patric to figure out how much of a fraud I was.
Despite my feelings of imposter syndrome, and hope that no one would figure out I was 30 and was working in an office barely 20 minutes ago, it didn’t take long to realise I actually had something with which I could legitimise myself among these real chefs. London. Or, specifically, the fact I did, technically, have experience working as a chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant in London. They didn’t need to know I only worked there one day a week and did little more than cook staff food for everyone when I did. That was all detail. And so when they asked what life was like as a cook in London, I was sure to really lay it on thick how hard it was.
“Oh yes,” I would say, “18 hour shifts, easy.”
“Actually, yes, I did have to sleep in the dry store some nights we finished so late.”
“Of course the head chef threw pans at us from time to time, you wouldn’t understand but it’s just how it’s done in London.”
My guess is it wasn’t convincing. But I felt it at least distinguished me a little bit, and drew attention from my severe lack of confidence.
And when I was asked to make staff food at the end of that first week I leant into the British angle once again.
“Chips” would have been a nightmare so I settled on fried fish and mashed potatoes.
It wasn’t a total failure. The fish was cooked at least. Not entirely dried out. Though, having put most of my efforts into the fish, I wasn’t all too certain about the potatoes. And it was these that Jacco came to me after we’d eaten to ask about.
“Thanks for lunch,” he said politely, “but I’ve never had potatoes… umm… like that.”
“Oh?” I responded, knowing precisely what he was getting at.
“Very… umm… thick,” he said. “That’s new to me.”
“Oh.” I responded, tapping him ever so confidently on the back. “That’s how we like our mash in London, don’t you know.”
As is the nature of first weeks, the days went quickly, and once service ended on Saturday night I’d even started to relax a little.
The rest of the team took me along to a “pub” called The Bull and Bear. Dressed in their trendy clothes and statement facial hair, they looked every bit the glamourous, fine-dining cooks you might expect from a chic restaurant in Stockholm. I was wearing the same baggy tracksuit bottoms and hoody I’d been travelling to and from work in all week.
On our way to the pub, Patric looked to me and asked what was with the “runkabyxor”?
It would be an entire year before I found out runkabyxor means “wank pants”.
But he said it with a smile. And then, while stood at the bar, Patric asked me what I wanted to drink. I told him whatever he was getting. The barman, who was speaking English, looked to me and asked Patric if I was “industry” as well. It turns out, at this pub, chefs, bar-people, waiting staff, they all got a discount on drinks.
Patric looked to me and said “yeah, this one’s Gastrologik.”