The alarm rings, sharp, at 7.30am once more, swinging out legs which feel like elves have been around in the wee hours of the morning to shorten tendons and sinew buy six inches while we slept. The rigor mortise of the ageing chef takes hold of every extremity with vengeful fury, the spine cranks to upright with the click of notches on a rusted gear, and once more upright to the coffee cup we hurry for our morning fix, the first of many to keep this engine running like the Mark 1 ford escort of the Sunday driver. Old chefs never die, they just smell that way.
Brushing sleep out of bloodshot eyes we tell ourselves “I’m too old for this shit” but love every agonising moment of turmoil in this quickening mind as it wakes once more, and looks forward to the day ahead, twenty in the restaurant, five in the snug, thirty on the bowling green and fifty in the public bar, “oh by the way chef, their big boss is here, need to impress” grins the larger than life general manager in the knowledge his kitchen brigade will take it in their stride, business as usual. A moment to run through last night’s orders and today’s functions, Mmmmmm, yeah, we can impress, if only…….
After twenty six years in this trade, time takes its toll for each minute of a ten hour day, breakfast shift and straights. The will to cook continues as though we were still eighteen and wet behind the ears, but the body slows from abuses of this trade, both work and play. An old head chef of mine lived by the motto “work hard and play harder”, The chef, you will always find, is the first one to the party and the last one to leave, regardless of the breakfast shift he must attend at 6am and taking in to consideration the journey time form casualty to work. From this trade amongst other things like insomnia and alcoholism, we get the buzz, as addictive, as joyful and as fleeting as narcotics, but yet come the next day we crave it more than the day before. Deflated by our inadequacies with ingredients, ineptitude we are sure our guests will see through, the wish to cook that duck for moments less than we did, knots in the pit of our souls when we realise we over did that tart case, the wrestle with our own devils whether to use it regardless and the will to throw it away and begin again.
For that momentary joy to see our blood, sweat and tears appear before our eyes on plates of gleaming white and disappear from our view carried by those we never trust, hoping it will be reverently laid before your eyes, for your enjoyment but believing it never will or could ever be by waiters whom deep at heart are failed chefs.
Cooking in a fine dining restaurant is not a job, it’s not a way to earn money and vocation even sounds too clinical. Cooking is a passion, to consume you whole once you discover each other, like your first love in spring’s fresh sigh. No other career will fill you with the same thrill or drop you to pits of depression in the same way. I have seen a wife and family come and go, friends disappear from phone books, all too consumed by the heat of solid tops and six ring burners, the scream of head chefs, veins pulsating on the brink of stroke as service descends to chaos, the clatter of pans and flash of flames, the jingle that shoots up your arm as another body part is severed in the rush to prepare for your public, the insatiable burn getting worse each time you approach the stoves to cook another fillet of lamb, the sting of sweat burning blood red eyes and the dry salt crust to wash off, as you pop and crackle in the cold, post service shower.
From the start of your day in the morning, fresh produce adorns the alleyways by the walk in fridge, fresh basils pungency fills the air, robust meaty tones of wild mushrooms vie for your nasal attention, mouth waters as your brain realises the tastes that will follow further though your day as you strive to do such ingredients justice, as you pop just one more juicy fat grape to your mouth and feel it exploding in silky sweetness on your tongue.
The muttering of chefs, stainless steel brought down on boards of plastic and the low hum of music fill the electrically charged air. Smells mature in to completed dish components waiting for your spoonful to taste, adjust and cook, taste again, adjust. Constant corrections to a final yes, one more pinch of salt lingers just over the pan, and… no, thrown over the shoulder for luck. Animal parts that once run through summer fields of green, now filleted and trimmed with a surgeons skill, placed neatly in to boxes for the evenings service, your fridge full to over flowing, but not for long.
Come the weekends or high days and holidays, will this band of chefs across the land be out with buddies and their kin, no, there they will be at 6.55pm in the quiet before the storm. Stoves raging, prep done and lined up in OCD neatness, waiting, we stand, arms folded and gazing in to ourselves, in our briefest moment of respite from the onslaught to come and those hours we have spent through this long day. The slow burn of stress builds up from the darkest corner of your being and filling your mind with endorphins as your natural rush begins. Our time almost upon us once more to fill your every whim, the band of unsung heroes, waiting, the clock ticks on. Checks pile up on the tab grab; pans fly north south, east and west, cursing the skillet that spat smoking hot fat on to tender flesh, the clash of pots thrown in the light of your own incompetence. Plastic containers of prep empty in worrying rapidity as your mental job list gets longer by the second. Knowing tomorrow you have to start at the beginning once more.
Mindful of the table of one asking strange food and menu related questions, fear peaks at the back of your neck, and hair would stand on end if there were any hair left there, the dreaded word “inspector” is muttered from corners of the kitchen by men dressed in white. Trying not to give him more attention than the tables past, knowing your future hangs within his nod or shrug, we dig deeper to find our one last push to impress; we picked the wrong week to give up smoking.
The last check done, sent, and a grateful gasp is released. Hotplate lights turned off and the shop is closed, but only for the briefest of times. We gaze at depleted stock and try to re-order all we will need, come tomorrow. We wipe down and clean our sections one by one and head home past happy dinners in our shadowy guises of regular people, once dressed in civvies.
Time comes once more to unwind with our cans of amber nectar, single malts or bottles of wine to wipe work from our eager minds, while viewing “proper chefs” on the internet, working out how that dish stands up, and worshiping the mind they have as yours shuts down, but the murmur behind rolling eyes whispers over and over in anxious tones “did you order…” and the early hour phone call to a supplier follows, who’s number springs to mind like those of your old black book, how times have changed. Hyperactivity subsides around 3am and to bed we limp, until the alarm jolts us out of our slumber at 7.30am, sharp, and so to begin again once more.