I once read an interview with a reformed football hooligan in which he discussed turning up for a prearranged fight with Man Utd despite being vastly out numbered, he said they knew they were going to get smashed but they thought “fuck it”. Now I don’t for a minute condone violence of any sort, even towards people who despite being told by numerous restaurant staff the kitchen is closed approach the pass at 10.40pm asking if they could order something, but I do sort of understand the fatalism of what he said. You will understand why later on in this post.
My week began with Sunday service, the quaint sounding, yet terror inducing mania that is Sunday lunch at The Ship in Wandsworth. As usual everyone and their brother decided to rock up at exactly the same fucking time (seriously do ye synchronize you’re watches or what?) looking to be fed.
I had gone in an hour early to get any last-minute prep out-of-the-way and it made a big difference. Like the lamb that was on the lunch menu I am well seasoned now, that said the quantities are still a little daunting. We had enough carrots prepped to do the on site catering for a remake of Watership Down and the last time I saw that much Swede it was trying to knock out Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV (for reasons of good taste I have omitted several jokes about just how much meat we had).
The waiting staff do their best to stagger the orders but its like doing your best to stagger incoming artillery strikes, each round is still going to knock 7 bells out of you. Tempers were running high, chefs were running in from the front demanding lunch plates to go with a la carte orders that were ready to hit the pass. Richie the banqueting chef was refusing to give ground, the food was leaving the kitchen fast but food was leaving the kitchen right.
That said we had plates fairly hitting the bench before they were sent out. This despite having 3 different veg plates to go with the 3 roast options that were on for lunch. This is a great example of the difference between Friday morning and Sunday lunch time. Friday morning we chat excitedly about what new thing we want to try this week, one person says let’s do lamb, then some roguishly handsome Irish guy says “I’ll make an awesome marinade with anchovies & truffle oil, just as soon as I am finished chatting up the waitresses”, before another chef chips in with the idea to put roast turnips and parsnips with the meat to make it different.
Then Sunday this culinary brainstorming deteriorates to a screaming match with shouts of “turnips, fucking turnips, what fucking arsehole came up with this then?”. It might seem a little dramatic but you have to understand that when the orders are “8 beef plates, 7 lamb, 5 turkey and I need them now” shouted by a flash of white jacket, speed and fury that is our sous chef Robbie its a different kettle of fish! That said we coped admirably due in no small part to my veg peeling heroics on Saturday. We sold out of everything by about half 3 so it was just a matter of checking if they were running low of anything at the front, doing the clean down and heading for a well-earned post work pint.
Monday was a full service at the pass doing the starters and a couple of the main courses, just the risotto and pasta dishes, but it felt good, like being a proper chef. The restaurant was busy but despite a small brigade we coped well and I felt like I was getting up to speed. There is a sense of satisfaction getting through a busy service. Maybe it’s just me but I don’t think so, seasoned battle hardened chefs look happy when they have put in a good shift, I really began to feel like I was getting into step. I even got to demonstrate my impressive, if suspicious, butchery skills in prepping the rib eyes for the week. It’s good to know that all those hitchhikers didn’t die in vain. Then yesterday arrived and the merde hit the Moulinex as the French might say.
I was on a 12 hour shift which is enough to make me a bit nervous, then I discovered we were going to be a man down all day and the restaurant was booked solid with Christmas parties and lunchers and there was 140 booked in for dinner, hearing this I couldn’t have been anymore nervous if I was playing pass the parcel with a bunch of Brazilian waiters at Stockwell tube station.
Straight away it became obvious we were going to get smashed. This is what I mean about fatalism. A depleted, injury hit brigade marching into battle, vastly outnumbered, facing insurmountable odds, knowing that the victory is in the survival. It was like the final scene in Braveheart except none of us are Scottish and there was considerably more salad than seen at any Scottish event. Seeing very experienced chefs looking less than confident about what’s ahead is unsettling, these guys are good, they are very fucking good, between the top 3 guys in the kitchen yesterday they have 45+ years of hard kitchen experience and they looked worried.
There was just enough time to get my section prepped and get a quick run down of how the ticket system worked. Until now there was enough time for someone to directly tell me when something I was looking after was away (technical term for when a dish that has been ordered needs to be cooked). That wasn’t going to be possible, it was a case of sink or swim with the added pressure that if I went down I would drag the rest of the kitchen down with me.
The lunch rush hit like a brick. We were under the gun from the get go. The thing about kitchens is that alot of people criticise them for bring aggressive or bad-tempered but they need to be. When I burned my hand 15mins into service Dave the head chef offered me a “tough pill”, it was a joke but it reminded me that moaning about a burnt finger wasn’t going to make my finger better and it certainly wasn’t going to get my dishes on the pass any quicker. Dave acted as the grizzled Sergeant Major through out lunch, directing operations and dispensing kicks in the arse when needed and I needed it on occasion. Normally we stop sending food around 2.30pm in a lunch service but plates were still leaving at 4 O’Clock to be taking to various tables of Christmas parties who decided to kick off corporate festivities early and get the food out-of-the-way so the drinking, singing, bad impressions of the boss and sexual harassment cases could be reached sooner.
When on a double you get a break at 4pm for a couple of hours, about quarter past 4 I had finished what I needed to do, changed out of my whites and went to sit in the bar and read the paper while resting my bones. This lasted until I looked across into the restaurant to see the rest of the battle fatigued brigade still working away. Then I pulled on my whites and reentered the fray. I quickly knocked up some staff food, restocked my section and waited for the evening service to kick off.
And kick off it did, if lunch was tough then dinner was fucking mental, 140 booked, walk ins, full function room and bar snacks with only a small brigade. There is talk amongst certain athletes that you always play hurt, american football players and boxers talk about it. You’re never 100%, you’re always carrying an injury, you just get out there and give everything you have. That’s what it felt like walking into dinner service, there is a difference though, it’s that fatalism, you’re already hurt, the restaurant has already given you a battering but you are still standing (if only just).
As the orders come flying in, and start piling up and you just start swinging, it’s out of desperation to begin with, then its down to stubbornness, that bloody mindedness that fuck it you won’t be beaten, bring it, come on let’s have you then coz I’m still here mate, I’m still standing and you’re starting to gas. You become almost giddy as the last orders arrive. I used to watch Gordon Ramsay on one of the many TV shows he sold his soul for with his “make the last plate as good as the first” and think “oh fuck off you crinkle browed, bleached blonde gobshite and get back in the kitchen where you belong” but I now know what he means.
I fussed over my last plates, half an hour after service should have ended, over 12 hours from when I first walked into the kitchen and baby I was dancing. I eyed the restaurant, packed with full, happy diners and though “is that it, is that all you’ve got because you haven’t beaten me, I’m right fucking here so come on, give me more, I can take it!”. I wanted to jump on to the pass and yell “who wants fish and chips, come on you bastards, do your worst”. That’s how pumped you feel, adrenaline courses through your veins, all the aches, all your burns, your pain has vanished, you are positively giddy, simply because you have survived, you’ve been battle tested and you’ve passed, you’ve refused to buckle, it may be nothing but brute force and ignorance that got you through but got you through it did. Of course the second you pull your whites off all the aches, pains, bruises and burns come rushing back and bring a few you never knew you had with them but you’re too damn happy to care.
I know Anthony Bourdain has done a description of service that will stand alone in terms of brilliance and brutal eloquence but I wanted to try to convey what it feels like to me to make it through a damn hard day with two manic services. What I know is that for some reason, because of some part of me I never knew till now even existed I want to go through that again, I want to be pushed to and maybe even passed my limits, because I know what to expect and as fucking crazy as it sounds I will miss it till I have it again.
And as for people who ignore waitresses and walk up to the pass at 10.40pm looking for us to cook from scratch for them, while I don’t advocate violence towards them I won’t shed a tear if a piano falls on them on their way home!
On the plus side I got paid today for my labours, well I say paid but to convey how badly chefs are paid for what they do, there are children in a sneaker factory in indonesia who are organising a charity bake sale in aid of me!