There is a look soldiers get when they have been through a bloody and grueling battle, they call it the 1000 yard stare. When I emerged from the kitchen at The Ship yesterday that was the look that greeted me in the mirror, glassy-eyed, slightly unfocused and knowing I would never be the same again, for better or worse I’m a chef now. I know it’s not only what I want to do but it’s what I was put on this earth to do.
Owing far more to a lack of staff than the need for my individual brilliance I have been in pretty much constant demand in the kitchen since my trial shift. I have worked everyday since then, including yesterday’s dreaded Sunday service, which I will get to later, firstly there are a few things I would like to point out to anyone considering making the move to a pro kitchen.
The quantities are mind-boggling, they truly are. Ever made Yorkshire puddings? Ever made them using 50eggs? Then made another batch because the first lake of batter wasn’t going to last long? Thought not! Everything in a pro kitchen is hot, pointy and designed to injure you, every piece of equipment is a baffling ordeal to operate, the food mixer looks like it needs a co-pilot and 3 cabin crew to operate it, the rest of the equipment looks like it could be used to drill a second channel tunnel and if you stand still for more than 3 seconds someone carrying something that’s roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun will slam into you.
After my trial shift I dropped into The Ship on Wednesday to chat to Oisin and Dave the head chef to see how I had gotten on and found myself immediately put to work in the kitchen. I was asked to skin, pin bone and portion up the cod for fish and chips and use the trimmings to make fish cakes. Seems easy right? You probably think this cheffy lark is a bit of a doddle, well to be honest I felt a bit that way myself at the time, until a tray containing enough cod to make Captain Birdseye think twice hoved into view. Add to this the pressure of having to portion the fish to an exact weight by eye, knowing that if you balls it up you’ve just wasted the main element of a £10.95 plate of food and its safe to say that they didn’t make any allowances for it being only my second time in a pro kitchen. Obviously I aced it, I was a veritable fish skinning machine, in fact I got into such a groove that I skinned an entire side of wild salmon perfectly as well, bit of a shame that it wasn’t supposed to be skinned though.
I got my first proper chef injury this week (best to get these things out of the way early) when I almost chopped the top of my thumb off. I’m not going to brag about how I simply shook it off, stuck a band-aid on it and carried on regardless anymore than I am going to admit that I ran screaming from the kitchen and sobbed in the yard until the head chef coaxed me back in to the kitchen. To be honest I had been for a few beers the night before and that may have played a part in my accident. It did help me realise that while it’s always been fine for me to turn up to work with a hangover it’s a different story when that work involves the potential to lose a digit or set yourself alight.
By the time I finished on Friday I felt like I had given a decent account of myself and that the other chefs had accepted me. I had been trusted to make the shepherds pie without supervision, I had made the fish cakes and prepped any number of other dishes. So all the talk of the dreaded Sunday service didn’t really faze me, I mean it couldn’t be as hard as they made out, sure it would be busy but there is only so many people can fit in the place, right? Wrong, so very, very wrong.
How can I convey just what Sunday service is like? Imagine the opening 10 minutes of Saving Private Ryan if there had been a buffet on the other side of that beach. A small band of determined chefs squared off against a vast horde of hungry diners, either we would send them home full and happy or we would go down trying.
From the start it was different, everything was more urgent, I was determined that not only would I keep up but I would contribute as much as I possibly could. Prep was at a fairly frantic pace, once I had made enough Yorkshire pudding batter to drown a small elephant, I moved on to making the bread sauce and getting some shepherds pies made up before lunch service began.
Lunch service was manic, I saw enough white plates to induce snow blindness although at the rate they were leaving the kitchen I didn’t see them for long. Working alongside two other chefs we were plating roast lunches by the dozen. Robbie was pushing the whole brigade hard, the phrase “come on, we are in the shit” was reverberating around the kitchen when the unthinkable happened, we ran out of carrots.
This may not seem like that big a deal to you but in a packed restaurant where people are willing to wait simply to be seated for the best Sunday lunch in London this is a fucking catastrophe. If this was a war movie then we would have been pinned down by enemy fire with no hope of rescue. Just like in all great war movies, a hero was needed, someone had to break cover and storm the enemy gun emplacement, possibly sacrificing themselves for the greater good. I am proud to say I was that soldier, with absolutely no regard for my own safety, I turned to my comrades said “Remember guys, pain fades, glory lasts for ever and chicks dig scars” and I peeled those carrots! Ok maybe the risk to my own safety was fairly minimal as the carrots put up virtually no struggle.
So a week in do I think I have made the right decision? Honestly yes, I have loved every single minute of it. Its felt as natural as breathing to do it and I have learned more about how a kitchen works than I could have in a lifetime from eating in restaurants. The amount of preparation and planning involved is incredible, a good head chef needs the organisational skills that could plan an invasion and occupation of Belgium on a fortnight’s notice.
I do hope I can make this work, I don’t really want to do anything else, when I finished my shift on Sunday night I felt like a chef for the first time and not just come guy who works in a kitchen. This is a massive step for me, up to that point I had felt like I was watching a first person point of view cooking show. I would look down and see this apron, and the white sleeves of my chefs jacket and think “oh what’s this guy going to do” before thinking they were my own hands! I even got to cook my first dish at the pass, it was only fish and chips but it felt great to see it go out and I have to say the cod had been skinned and portioned by someone with incredible talent!
I got home to find an email from a recruitment company the other night, with an opening a client of theirs had for an event manager and I didn’t even bother replying. If someone offered me a job in events now I don’t honestly know if I could walk away from the kitchen, despite the vast different in money and the far easier work involved. I’ve spent probably half my life wanting to be a chef and if the sacrifices I have to make are long hours, hard work and shit money then I am simply going to have to put up with it.