“Hell Week consists of 5 1/2 days of cold, wet, brutally difficult operational training on fewer than four hours of sleep. Hell Week tests physical endurance, mental toughness, pain and cold tolerance, teamwork, attitude, and your ability to perform work under high physical and mental stress, and sleep deprivation.” Source NavySeals.Com
I had my Hell Week, well I say week it was really 11 days with one day off where I racked up over 120 hours in the kitchen in total. Think of that? Over 120 hours, I was only a few hours short and had one arm too many of having Danny Boyle make a fucking movie about me! I have suffered more exhaustion, tiredness, aches and pains than I possibly thought I could cope with. I’ve had my ass kicked, my ego bruised, lost my temper, worked through breaks and still got told I wasn’t working fast enough.
I wanted to write this piece on Monday but I was so tired that I could barely function, I slept most of the day and when I finally dragged my ass out of bed I kept falling asleep on the couch. I got to the point where I thought maybe Tony Bourdain was right, maybe I am too old for this, maybe it’s a dream but no more than that. I can say over the last few days I have developed doubts as to whether I can really do this.
My run of 11 days ran from a Thursday to the following Sunday week with only the middle Tuesday off. Starting a week on a Thursday is tough, you get no chance to ease into the week or get well ahead on your prep. It’s pretty much turn up and go, lunch times are getting busier and will continue to do so as The Ship’s reputation is building and more and more people are seeking us out. The reputation is deserved but the continually increasing numbers mean continually increasing work loads.
Because of how my shifts have been arranged I have, with only one exception worked through my breaks (even then I only actually took 45 minutes of my scheduled 2 hours). I have been on double shifts working 10 till 2 and then back from 4 to 10. Normally you do 10 to 4 and 4 till 10. The thing is the couple of hours post lunch service is the only time you really have to try and get ahead on your prep so when you don’t have that chance its tough to keep on top of it. When you come back on at 4 you are the only person in the kitchen so you have to handle any orders that come in from the classics menu, prepare the staff food and get your section restocked for evening service. I know that the more experienced chefs can get more done in that time but I’m not there yet.
I keep getting told to speed up, I have to speed up and that’s fine I know that but fucking hell it’s not like I’m sat there reading the paper, I don’t enjoy not taking a break, I work through to stop myself falling behind so that I can clear the decks in preparation for getting my ass kicked in service. I have said that I don’t expect or want special treatment and I don’t, but at the same time I would like to see anyone who 6 weeks into a cooking career could give more or do more in a kitchen than I can.
Don’t get me wrong I still love working as a chef but it’s frustrating watching guys who are relatively close to me in age but are simply light years ahead of me as chefs. I want to be able to do what they do and will bust my ass to get there.
There have been good times in those 11 days. Oliver Thring and James Ramsden dropped by the kitchen to say hi and I dazzled them with bread making skills as did Masterchef winner Dhruv Baker who dropped by last Saturday. I joked with Dhruv that we have both decided to take the same path but I chose to side step the fame and glory and go straight for the mental work hours and shit pay as a more authentic experience! You get disconnected when you spend so much time in a kitchen, the world outside becomes a bus journey to and from work and a few hastily snatched cigarette breaks so having the guys drop by and say hi gave me a big boost. I think I really impressed Dhruv with my ability to breadcrumb scotch eggs!
On my one day off I was very fortunate to meet up with Grant Hawthorne, a fantastic chef and a great guy who sat there happily while I bitched and moaned and then calmly explained life in a kitchen to me. Talking food with a chef of his calibre and experience was brilliant, it’s something I want to go again very soon but this time hopefully he will be able to have beers as well. I felt a little guilty downing pints of nice cold Orchard cider while Grant had to make do with coffee as he was driving.
I had an interesting experience on the first Saturday, having worked through my break again the head chef said I could finish at 8pm, I ended up staying till 9 o’Clock in order to get some canapes made for a private party that had booked the front bar as the guys were in the middle of a very busy service at the pass. Oisin the manager had some friends over from Ireland and together with some other members of the diaspora had reserved the function room for dinner. I stopped by and caught up with Osh as well as Gearoid and Merro, two of the finest Irish rogues to grace the pubs of London, as they were having their starters. Needless to say I pulled up a chair and poured a glass of wine and joined in the chat and banter but in reality I was scrutinising every plate to see what if anything I had cooked or prepped that was on their plate and how they looked while eating it. It was a little surreal but even seeing someone running their finger round the inside of a ramekin to get at the last of a chutney that I made is immensely satisfying. I made things other than just chutney in case you were wondering.
As I neared the end of my Hell Week my mood became increasingly fractious, I was flat broke as pay-day approached, I was more and more exhausted, my aches never seemed to ease let alone stop and all I seemed to hear was “you have to speed up”. Walking out amd hearing that after a day where you turn up early, work through your break and finish late so that you have literally pushed yourself past the pain barrier in a 13+ hour shift is fucking soul-destroying, there is no other word for it. Sitting at the most windswept fucking bus stop in London, counting the change in your pocket to see if you can afford a can of coke and a packet of crisps you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t question what you are doing. I have always said that the one thing I wouldn’t do for this was put myself in debt, I would find a way to survive on the shit money or I would walk away but I have started using the first of the 3 credit cards I recently got, to make matters worse I used it only to fund a night out on the piss to blow off some steam. I want to make something very clear, I have bitched and moaned mostly about the money, the thing is by industry standards Young’s pay above the odds, which is mind-blowing.
While talking to Grant I said that in my opinion London is killing the art of cheffing, too many chains want cooks and not chefs and the whole industry is being forced to accept lower and lower wages. It’s a fucking disgrace, yes there is in some kitchens no need for chefs, people who can prepare food to a corporate step by step recipe will suffice but when you want a meal to be more than a means of getting food into you to carry you through the day then you need a chef. People want too much for fuck all these days, they demand a level of excellence in their food but rarely want to pay for it. Restaurants are losing money, big name chefs are constantly walking the tight rope of financial oblivion, some have already fallen off. Thinking of just how long I will have to work until I can make a relatively decent wage is truly concerning.
Worse still is that I know now I can survive the kitchen side of, I can take the punishment, I can handle the hours, the heat, the pressure even the occasional ass kicking, hey I fucking survived my Hell Week so if what forces me out of the kitchen is money it will be a very bitter pill to swallow.