The head chef has already messaged me saying he is running late. That means he spent the previous night stoned and is in no condition to arrive at work on time. Sometimes it pays off to be one of the few chefs who isn’t rolling a joint in the kitchen after all is cleaned and done. It means I am the first to arrive, I open the restaurant doors and make my way past the elegantly laid out tables and towards the kitchen. It is the only time in the next fourteen hours that it will be this cool, this dark and this quiet and it is something I savour no matter how brief. No one has yet been accused of taking it in the arse, discussed the time they hired an escort or started to play terrible music (Bulgarian dubstep anyone?) It is a moment of solace that will soon be destroyed. I bring in the morning’s deliveries and get to work. I don’t even bother getting changed into my chef whites and start working my way through my days prep list and for a short while I am happy to be working. I am happy to be alone in the kitchen.
There is a time though where my being alone becomes loneliness. For to love food is to sacrifice weekends, to sacrifice old friendships, to sacrifice a regular sex life and to sacrifice any potential romance. I can only imagine that finding a partner is difficult enough for those who work a nine to five, I know full well it is even more difficult when working a nine to gone ten in the evening. We are all working too hard, too much and for too long and even more so for those who choose to be in kitchens. Loving food is hell.
“Being stuck around a bunch of guys all day makes any bird look shagable.” Dan’s a scruffy Chef de Partie and sports an unkempt Johnny Bravo quiff who; given his rough posture, round stomach and penchant for laziness, I thought to be a burnt out thirty-something but turned out to be only slightly older than myself. He is also one of those chefs who believes everyone to have an ego apart from himself and only saw the injustices of the job. If he were as talented as he thought then there may have been some truth in what he said. He not only claimed to jerk off three times a day when away from his “too attractive for a guy with his physique” girlfriend, he was also the one who told us about his exploits with escorts. During his first forays into kitchens the combination of long hours, a steady income and believing too much into the rockstar chef image popularised by Marco Pierre-White, Dan soon developed a severe drug habit with cocaine. He would often come into work and be clinging to the walls, wide-eyed and not much use. There is an unspoken rule in kitchens that you can feel free to partake in as much drink and drugs as you can handle just as long as you can still do the work the following morning. Many chefs still live by this code. Now he only goes on the irregular blowout and books himself a hotel room, stocks up on cocaine, hires an escort and does whatever it is a horny, drug-fuelled chef needs to do. I guess Neil Young was right when he sang “rock’n’roll will never die”.
Cameron was an overly opinionated Scot I worked with at country pub a few years back, who trained as a saucier at the Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor during his youth and always brought conversation round to his beloved hometown. Bald and diminutive in build, his enthusiasm for soups, stocks and sauces was only matched by his perpetual criticism of others. He gladly listed his own achievements without ever being prompted to and boasted about past successes at other restaurants; awards won, profits made, how he once cooked for UB40 and how he could carve outdated garnishes out of a bell pepper all with great nonchalance. A father of five and on his third marriage he would indulge me with tales of his adultery committed against previous wives, how he shagged housekeepers in hotel rooms and waitresses in dry stores during his time at the Hilton and also of the heartbreak he felt for never seeing any of his children grow up, always away and too busy at work, never home for birthdays or holidays. He also told me that he left his previous job amicably but I later found out from one of his former colleagues that he was fired due to questionable ability and even more questionable hygiene practices. He was likewise sacked as sous chef due to his insubordination and constant criticism of the head chef. Although I had no issues later taking the position he vacated, I enjoyed his company nonetheless for how he saw through the bullshit of working in a place with too much culinary ambition that wasn’t matched by the clientele and how his response to being addressed as “chef” was simply “don’t call me chef. Call me Cameron, twat, prick, arsehole. Anything but chef.”
Back in the kitchen, as chef whites are peeled off exhausted bodies after another fourteen hour workday, there’s the feeling that a life is starting to slip away, that a little too much has been surrendered in the name of fine dining. There won’t be a weekend for us this week, the only companionship we’ll be getting is found with people you wouldn’t ordinarily acknowledge let alone spend an entire day with. Relationships lose the grace of meaningfulness when you start to consider anyone a friend; a racist, a homophobe, a downright idiot, people who wouldn’t survive in any sane workplace. We may lose touch with any idea of spending a reasonable amount of time with a significant other but ultimately we sacrifice that so someone else can. If you are the kind of person who gets their kicks from smooth purées, leaves delicately dressed in truffle oil, and from words like fondant, butter-baked, and consommé then it is to you that we dedicate our craft. If you happen to enjoy those things with someone you love, someone you will love, or just someone you plan on sleeping with tonight, then at least the labour and the pain from burnt forearms meant something to someone. Even if I’m sleeping alone tonight then hopefully my craft created a memory to those who dined on our food. Loving food is hell, if only it weren’t so damn good.