Culinary students and masochists search for chefs willing to let them glance upon their kingdom, all in exchange for free labour.
I wanted to have the last word in any ‘foodie’ conversation and understand the white heat of a serious kitchen. So, I did a ‘stage’ (the French term for a kitchen trial, pronounced to rhyme with ‘Raj’) at two new west London openings, both recently featured on the National Restaurant Awards’ Top 100 poll. One serves Central American cuisine using seasonal British produce, and the other does West African food. A couple of weekends were enough to prove I didn’t have the mettle to become a chef.
All the chefs I encountered – bar one – were gregarious folks trying to make a name for themselves in an unforgiving industry. The pay is plainly terrible, the hours long, the days are asocial by design, the environment is oppressively hot and your colleagues are guaranteed to be a motley crew. People come in based on a warm introduction from a previous employer and will leave based on a cool confrontation with a current superior – all within the span of a couple of hours. A lot more time is spent in ingredient preparation (mise en place as it were) and cleaning than in the actual cooking and finishing, which usually take all of five minutes.
If you’re attracted to the exhibitionistic voyeurism of an elite open-plan kitchen, then you have to put up with the unending task of vacuum-sealing slightly-too-large bags of gels and infusions. There are never any instructions listed on them either, a thin plastic bag full of murky liquid bursting all over the kitchen floor is a mistake you learn not to make twice. Clear plastic boxes (the workhorses of any professional kitchen) of yesterday’s ingredients are labelled with use-by dates (masking tape scribbled with a sharpie) and planted in a Tetris-like stack in the arctic room, each internal unlabelled shelf or ‘section’ belonging to a different service line – pastry, snacks, grill, desserts. It’s best to learn which ingredients belong on which shelf early on in the day, otherwise you risk never seeing your incorrectly shelved box of poorly brunoised shallots ever again.
Conversations between all of those in the back kitchen, especially during service, are snappy but rarely condescending – with more elaborate chat taking place either at the daily family meal or during a quick fag break out by the bins (the rest of the world watches as though you should be doing something else when you’re huddled outside, smoking while dressed in an apron). It almost felt like a meritocratic environment, one where the intersecting privileges of class and race were transcended by a love of cooking, as though a passion for food was sufficient to make up for the notoriously low wages. I remember the obviously wealthy extern from Le Cordon Bleu – wearing black Valentinos in the kitchen – sharing a drink with the down-on-his-luck porter who probably didn’t dream of eating out in the main dining room. The exceedingly middle-class stages from the Leiths School of Food and Wine appeared to have a modicum of self-awareness, coy about how much they really learned during their Three Term Diploma. The jury appeared to be out on the value of a culinary school degree, with head chefs divided on whether theoretical knowledge was superior to time spent in the barracks.
One morning, I found myself double-shelling six industrial crates of peas, because every dish had peas in it that day for some reason. The senior chef in the prep kitchen – oldest in age but youngest in appearance – stood behind me and watched over my shoulder while I took a bit too long to shuck the peas from their pods. ‘Those are the most expensive fucking peas anyone will eat, because of how slowly you’re doing them.’ I was barked at – but it felt constructive – not critical. He told me a story about walking in through the door of a two-star restaurant in New York, asking two CDPs (chefs de partie) to speak to a sous (someone who commanded a bit more respect than they would), and was then pointed towards a crouched individual at the back. He approached him with the vim of a young Londoner, giving a lengthy spiel about why he should be taken on. Five minutes into his monologue, he realised he had been tricked: he was talking to a porter with little responsibility or English-speaking skills, and he could see the two CDPs snickering in the background. In his own way, the senior chef was giving me a taste of the old-world restaurants where he had cut his teeth, a dynamic no longer tolerated by the industry’s young blood, who are a generation raised on the YouTube school of haute cuisine.
He wasn’t the most difficult person I encountered though, that would come in the form of a 25-year-old junior chef who had a very particular way of operating and didn’t need an apprentice hot on his heels for 12 hours. We disagreed on organisation, execution and whether or not diners should see us drinking water, but I learned that it was against my best interests to be openly hostile towards someone brandishing lots of long and sharp tools. I kind of wanted to be abused by a big angry chef anyway for the storytelling value, but all I got was the dull seething hostility of a short-tempered young man with a bit of a God complex, bully for me. Most people probably have an outmoded view of what a serious kitchen looks like – no one is having sex in the freezer, doing lines of coke off metal trays or shouting puta madre while throwing a burnt-up frying pan against the wall – not any more anyway. It’s mostly immature young men making dick jokes and calling each other polyglottal obscenities, and – for a brief interlude – I was one of them.