for Jota and Griego –
the other two of the Bermuda Triangle.
I worked in many restaurants before. My adventure with hospitality begun a long time ago: underaged and broke I searched for a place that would hire an outcast, a high-schooler who decided to become an adult prematurely. Knowing close to nothing about the city-life, a country bumpkin who has just left the secure and the known of the hamlet to conquer new lands – I couldn’t have had any preconceptions about the job hunting scene. To what extent was it a coincidence then, that while looking for a first job ever (being abruptly faced with the reality of paying own rent) I turned my eyes to the food industry?
The restaurant business is rough, you see. No matter a chef or a waiter, working in the food industry is for the tough-skinned. Forget about regular working hours, weekends off and looking decent at work. Forget about knowing your schedule way ahead, as it more often than not surfaces on a Sunday afternoon, so one is never sure if he should make any plans for the week ahead. Want to enjoy time off when the overwhelming part of the society does? Forget it. In the restaurant, as Anthony Bourdain once said it, the rules are different, and it takes some guts to commit oneself to this lifestyle which, although fun, is also demanding.
My personal journey to the BOH or the kitchen was rather indirect – I am sometimes still mildly amused that I did end up training as a chef. A career choice that should be obvious to me and my closest friends years ago, considering the fact that I always talk about food. And if I am not talking – I am writing or reading about it, taking photos of it or cooking it. The thing with being a chef, though is that it’s still not considered a good measure of success by many, and it doesn’t have an opinion of the respectable and to-be-proud-of profession in a way that being a lawyer or a doctor does. Where I come from, it certainly is not many parents’ dream for their child to become a cook. Sadly, not many understand the need for food being anything more than means of sustenance and disregard it as something too trivial to be thought about seriously or, god forbid, passionately.
Not that I cared the slightest. Work of a cook, even if menial and mechanical sometimes, has always existed in my mind as the coolest, most badass kind of craftsmanship and artistry. I admit I have always understood a chef better than a painter. Food is, unlike any other work of art, both symbolic and material: a chef posses a power of offering us his creation that we will, quite literally, embody. So no, I did not pay much attention to the status-seekers around me, pointing towards careers that were supposedly more suitable for a girl. I found myself working in the food industry over and over again, across state borders and language barriers, to my family’s conspicuous disapproval. Bombarded with advice from well-wishers, told repeatedly that I am wasting my young years (sic!), my education and potential by working in yet another restaurant, I somehow persisted. I am not quite sure if the added feature of ‘doing it against everyone’s will’ was my driving force, or was it the adrenaline, ambition and the lifestyle that come with working in a restaurant.
This time, however, I am not just back in the restaurant. I am finally in the kitchen – the place I only admired from afar and planned mischief with while working behind the bar. You know the unwritten bar-kitchen deal, right? Sodas for the kitchen with a little extra mean respect. It’s like a test-drive for a new barman. Nobody says anything, you have to find a moment when a Coca-Cola for the kitchen should be spiced with a little vodka. And then you wait. Nobody will say anything still, only the attitude will change: you’ll feel as if the wall has crumbled between the guys from the kitchen and you. You’re mates now, together in mischief. In the restaurant, approval of the chefs is a ticket to happiness in a workplace. And I learnt that one rainy day when faced with starting my bar shift at 4am. That one shift, when I had to get up at ungodly and hitherto unimaginable hour, has changed my perception of the work in the kitchen forever.
The chefs arrive in the restaurant first. When I came in, just before 4am, there were no people anywhere: the corridors and toilets empty, no queues at Marks&Spencer, kinda eerie compared to the usual hustle and bustle of the airport. Walking into the restaurant at this time of the day felt as if I was doing it for the first time. The lights, the music and coffee machine were still off. The waiters haven’t arrived yet: it was only me, a manager, and the kitchen, already in full swing, busy with chopping, whipping and blending – doing the so-called prep. And here the delicate balance of the bar and kitchen can be seen at play. What is the very first thing a good barman does when he comes in for the morning shift? Makes coffees for everyone, obviously. This little gesture, especially if performed happily, maybe even with a little extra effort if the time allows (heart-shaped latte art, for instance) sets the mood for the day, or at least sets the shift off to a good start.
Coffees for the chefs made (large vanilla latte was always their choice), pleasantries exchanged, explanations given (‘why it’s you, and not Tiago behind the bar this morning?’), I was off to start my own prep, so different from the one for the evening shift. Fruit to cut for the million smoothies on the menu, deliveries to check, fridges to restock, coffee cups, mugs, saucers and teaspoons to prepare – all never enough for the madness that was about to start with the first morning flights to Spain, New York, and Jamaica.
Working behind the bar gives you a great perspective: you can watch the waiters running around hectically, stressing about the Ginger Blast smoothie still not ready and the customer from table 6 getting impatient and grumpy. The managers are trying to make peace between the waiters and the kitchen which – according to the floor staff – is slacking and giving them plates that are not top-notch. Difficult guest (never customer!) at table 7? A walk-out? A waiter that suddenly lost it and is now furiously throwing plates (and juicy fucks) in the kitchen? A chef that chucks his apron and runs out of the restaurant, just to come back in 5 minutes, smelling of cigarettes and looking rather embarrassed by his outburst of anger before? Standard. I’ve seen it all, and then some. I have also been the one who throws plates and fucks at the KP station after a guest drove me to the verge of insanity, watched with bottomless patience and empathy by Gabriel, the best KP I have ever met.
Working in the restaurant is an endless venture into the unknown: one can never be sure what will happen during the shift. What will break, what will go wrong, what will run out, what kind of customers will come, who will call in sick, who will write a bad review on TripAdvisor and who will argue with who? It’s intense. The restaurant is a well-thought-out system, a universe in its own rights, a Swiss watch that – if trained well – works its wonders. Teamwork makes the dream work, right? And there is something pretty amazing about it. When you see your usually lazy manager washing dishes, a barman running drinks to the tables, waiters jumping behind the bar to help with making coffees – you see the unsaid rules of the restaurant business in their glory. The unwritten, yet obvious to everyone, little quirks of the job. No wonder then, that people are drawn to work in the restaurant. Apart from flexible working hours and fairly decent pay, it gives one the feeling of belonging, of participating in something pretty cool, a secret society that nobody who has never worked in a restaurant will ever understand. And it encourages bonding, too: be it during quiet shifts when all the world problems are discussed, the music in the kitchen loud, and the atmosphere in the restaurant relaxed, or after work – when the same happens over a pint of beer.
Best parties? The ones with the restaurant staff, obviously. Oh, the sweet evening shifts that finish late at night, the chefs, waiters, barmen and managers alike gather in the empty restaurant after the shift is done, exhausted but hoping eagerly that someone will suggest going out for one. Our minds cloudy, but still pretty awake, we continue the night in a bar in town, where the time seems to stand still until we emerge, drunk, to the day at full swing out in the street. I love it when the kitchen bunch gets jolly in the local pub, the gossip runs as frequently as vodka and all the boundaries disappear: everything is discussed, often with a good sprinkle of crude, to-the-point jokes, and it turns out that in the restaurant nothing goes unnoticed. The chef that you have been secretly admiring actually knows your name? You’ll find out. And the busier and more hectic the shift before the going out occurs, the better the party. The atmosphere of camaraderie, of the job-well-done, many testosterone-packed, ready-to-party brains in tired, stinky, overworked bodies. A recipe for strong social bonds, I’d say. And for a great fiesta.
I always admired the ingenuity of the kitchen. The simplicity of the message, so that no matter what language you speak, you will always manage to understand the basic rules. What are the first phrases you learn in the kitchen? If there is a word that stayed with me after my first day of work in the professional kitchen, it’s ‘voy’. Repeated like a mantra, under-breath, mechanically and with no miss – it announces that someone is ‘coming through’. Another pleasant coma in the rush of the morning prep or the steamy kitchen in the middle of the service.
Then, you learn a whole array of swear words because, as we all know, a good chef is also a good pirate who likes to let the steam off (maybe a bit of a generalisation, but speaking from my own experience with chefs of all walks of life, it holds up). Learning how to swear in a language of the kitchen shows that you made an effort to blend in and allows you to let others in on your pain. Next time when you burn your hand and roll a juicy ‘fuck’ (apply the language of the kitchen) off your tongue, they will feel for you.
First day ever in the professional kitchen was a pretty big deal for me. Feeling a bit overdressed in my brand new chef’s jacket (also first ever), I stepped in not really knowing what to expect. Fears and miscommunications aside, I felt at home. The familiar sound of many kitchen appliances working at the same time, the smell of something frying, something being stewed, boiled or baked. The familiar controlled chaos, the assembly of – at first sight – random people who come together to do some magic for the big chunk of almost every day. Yep, I felt pretty good there.
For someone who has never held a chef’s knife before, being asked to clean 2kg of shrimp was a bit daunting of a task. I had no clue where to start! In the kitchen, when situations like this occur you have two options: hide your pride in the pocket and ask someone to show you how it’s done (and be forever remembered as ‘the girl who doesn’t know how to clean shrimp’) or pretend that you know it all and soldier through, probably failing miserably as a result. I certainly do not recommend the latter. The world is up for taking for those who ask. And the kitchen will teach you two things: modesty and confidence. Nobody likes a cocky cook. Nobody respects a cook who thinks he knows it all and is comfortably resting on laurels, having achieved it all (according to him). So, if like me, you didn’t think about practising the easiest, most basic kitchen skills before stepping into the professional kitchen, you have no choice but to ask. And even if they laugh at you, they will appreciate your approach to the problem. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? Swallow the pride and move on.
For someone like me who hates being in the spotlight, work in the kitchen is a true trial. I crumble under pressure. I hate not knowing. I can’t stand being the weakest link. I also used to think that there is no way I will ever become a chef. A cook, yes, but a chef? I didn’t think I had what it takes. Only recently I started toying with the idea of actually stepping on this path and see what happens. Surrounding myself with people who are driven, who get excited about fresh ingredients, new flavours and new cooking techniques, whose life is dictated by ambition and continuous personal growth seems like a good start. Why such a change of heart? I used to think that being a first league chef is all about ego. For some, it sure might be, but watching other chefs, especially the guys I live with here in Valencia, I figured it’s not always the case. When a great chef and great ingredients come together magical things can happen: a final plate is an ultimate form of expression, something that the chef wanted to share with the world because he thinks it’s amazing. Isn’t that what all artists do? The excitement that accompanies a good few hours in the kitchen, when you disappear to the world to immerse yourself in flavours, smells and textures, is unbeatable – even watching it happen is pretty inspiring.
It’s hard to say if people go into cooking for cooking, or is it more for the lifestyle: the relationships that are built over the years and a hot plate, the pints had together, the worries discussed and arguments had all add up to the equation. Not to mention the hard, physical labour, emotional and psychological overload, and the expected flow of creativeness in dictating new menus, new flavour pairings and trends. It’s a tough life, but it’s at least as tough, as it is rewarding. To work with a bunch of cooks, half of them you thought a bit loopy at first sight, and to see them transform during service into highly-skilled, well-organised and highly efficient machine that is able to produce food that amazes you – is something of a world’s wonder. Nothing drives me more than passion, no matter mine or someone else’s – badass explorers and rule breakers, open for change and the unknown, always ready to learn and up for the challenge – these are my kind of people. And if, by society standards, some of the chefs happen to be a bit of a degenerate kind, then be it. I aspire to become one, too. We’re doing it for the thrill, right?
Soundtrack: PNL – Le monde ou rien