I never wanted or planned to become a chef. Hell, I didn’t get a Masters degree in Fine Art to spend my time cleaning stovetops and getting burnt and calloused fingers. Suffice to say there aren’t many jobs in kitchens that require a higher education and not many that require an education at all. But life happens, art doesn’t pay, and upon completion of my undergraduate degree I found myself as a kitchen porter of a local gastropub.
I spent an equal amount of time prepping endless amounts of vegetables as I did scrubbing pans and unclogging drains. What I didn’t realise during this time was that I were getting another education; on how to handle a knife properly, to work cleanly and to develop a work ethic that doesn’t prohibit the usual workplace breaks employees are legally entitled to. During the height of summer, over Christmas and up to Easter I worked in a tiny pot-wash room. Imagine a room too small for an industrial washing machine with two sinks and mould growing on the walls and you’ll get the picture. It wasn’t so much a pot-wash room but a portal to ill physical and mental health.
Through hard graft and sheer desperation to get out of kitchen porter hell (I’m not exaggerating – to have “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” inscribed above the doorway would not have been ironic) I eventually worked my way up to the title of trainee. It was here that I started to learn a trade I never wanted and also when I started to learn some of the necessary basics of a culinary career:
I. Chefs are temperamental. I’m not talking about the shouting and screaming that makes good television and good television careers, I’m talking about arguments, walking out during service (something I’m guilty of) and disappearing without trace.
II. The owner is invariably (but not always) and arsehole who doesn’t understand (read: care) about the hardships of your labour.
III. A profitable restaurant is the bottom line and that simply is the bottom line. Restaurant overheads are ridiculous, food costs are constantly inflating, and as already stated, staff are both inconsistent and temperamental which all helps in the understanding of point two.
I continued to work as a chef of sorts to fund my ambitions to become an academic artist type. This was all in the hope that being labelled a master in something, anything, would spell the end of prepping vegetables and cleaning walk-in refrigerators. But you get good at what you are good at and that’s what you end up doing. I always envisaged that working in kitchens would be a means to an end – that I would get good at something else and would work with academics, attend symposia and debate topics that matter in the visual arts. Eventually things started to change as the scorching heat of the stove, the finely diced vegetables, the roasting of bones, the uninhibited use of bad language and the constant feeling of having your back up against the wall started to take over the education I had worked for. Something felt more gratifying about physically feeding people rather than the intellectualism I was fed and hoped to one day become fluent in. I feel Anthony Bourdain sums it up best when he compares good cooking to performing oral sex. You simply give pleasure and when you do it well, you can give a hell of a lot of pleasure and there’s a lot to enjoy in doing that.
Since realising my position and deciding to chase the real opportunities presented to me rather than my academic ambitions, I have worked my way up even further. Now I, a self-taught glorified kitchen porter who accidentally fell into the trade, work in a fine dining restaurant where we cook expensive food for people with expensive cars, who dine with expensive looking partners. The education remains though, always has and, thank goodness, always will. I simply changed subjects.