There was a time when we weren’t busy enough to have a second chef. Then there was a time when we realised that no matter how busy you were, you didn’t really want one. The relationship problems, the scattered children, the substance abuse, the prima donna antics, the petty theft, the chip on the shoulder that comes from being transient, 30-40 and never being good enough to wear the tall hat. We’ve had chefs who have lasted such a short time that we don’t even remember their names. Indeed, we’ve appointed chefs who have never turned up but we didn’t know that was going to happen until the night before – ‘My mother in Spain has been taken ill’, ‘My wife doesn’t want me to work week-ends’. Why did she marry a chef then?
No-one can remember the name of the South African chef who left Jersey to work for us at the end of the summer season. His two referees agreed that he was a good chef and said little else. His French partner was to work front of house. In Skype interviews they had seemed sensible and reliable but when they arrived from the night ferry into Weymouth, he was a very different character. He wasn’t just in your face as so much of all over your head, a constant steam of rapid-fire bullshit spewing from his mouth. Speed or coke were our first guesses. Oh well, nothing new there – we had a chef once who said that it was the drugs that attracted him to the job in the first place – so we sent them to their room to recover and start the following morning but only one turned up. Guess which one.
– E can’t come to work today, e doesn’t feel zo good from ze boat crossing.
It’s not a great start. When the girlfriend finishes work, she goes to Tesco to get him ‘something to eat’. The plastic bags strain under the weight of angular shapes within.
Sunday begins the same. At the end of a busy service, it’s time to make some calls to the Channel Islands.
-Hi, you gave me a reference for a chef named (can’t remember). You said he was a good chef.
-Yes, he is.
-Is there anything you didn’t tell me.
-He drinks……..and when he drinks, he doesn’t turn up for work.
-So, he’s a good chef if he turns up for work.
-Yes, that’s about it.
-And how often does that happen?
-A couple of times a week.
For some reason I made a second call. This time I spoke to the Head Chef. It’s a reference I will never forget.
– Well, Mondays and Tuesdays he has a bad ankle, Wednesday and Thursdays are his days off, Friday and Saturday he has a stomach ache and when he turns up on Sunday he isn’t much good.
When I fired him on the Monday (before he had actually started) he asked for his boat fare from Jersey. I’ll leave you to guess if I gave it to him.
We are setting our standards too high. Perhaps Hungarian Stan would be better but he too cannot complete a full week without ailments or injuries. He has also stolen one of the waitress’ bicycles, although he denies it. Finally, he is allowed to run the kitchen alone on a quiet winter Tuesday. We call from a night out to check if this potentially fragile arrangement is working. Isabelle answers.
– Hi Issy, how’s it going?
-Not very well. Six ladies came in and ordered dinner and when I went to the kitchen it was in darkness; Stan had locked up and left. They come in quite often and they weren’t very happy.
Another phone call.
-Stan, I hear you locked up and went home at twenty-five past eight.
-It was very quiet. Anyway, it was twenty-eight minutes past eight.
-What the fuck? (rhetorical question) You’re fired.
-That’s so unfair.
I’d like to say we never heard from Stan again but it’s not true. He came back the next day purely to spit at my wife and call me “bitch”, a nickname it took me a long time to live down, as if I was a cross between Al Murray and Joan Collins. All of the chefs we fired threatened us with tribunals but they never went there. We paid very few of them for their last week – or in some cases last month – of work. They shout a bit and threaten to ruin you but basically they just see it as an occupational hazard. Like Winston, who cycled off in a huff at 1pm on a Sunday lunchtime having kicked the shit out of the dishwasher because he was told it was not acceptable to defrost a crab in a kettle. Or Daryl, the archetypal loser who spent his spare time making false benefit claims, drinking cooking wine and robbing the safe of 10p coins in change bags and walked out on Christmas Eve. Or Lesley, who had a full-on catfight with her lesbian partner who had just discovered that her sexuality might be more fluid following a steamy encounter with a regular. A simple domestic, except it took place in full view and earshot of a guest’s wedding reception. Or Koens the Belgian, whose signature dish was chicken, cornflakes and Coca-Cola (“it tastes much better than it sounds”) (it didn’t) but whose real speciality was asking waitresses thirty years younger than himself if they wanted to go or a walk in the woods.
There was no-one however quite like Polish Stan. A tiny man, raised in a Polish army orphanage, he confided two important things at interview – he could work with anyone unless they shouted and he didn’t drink. Wow, a chef with no bad habits. Except a tendency to panic. To panic so much that when left alone, he would get the food out very quickly. Mainly because he had forgotten to cook it.
-This burger’s raw.
I resist the obvious Basil Fawlty response. You can forgive the odd mistake though and this was his first week. Monday of the second week wasn’t auspicious either and that was his day off. Anthony the Fraudster called in for an early evening pint.
-I’ve just seen your new chef, staggering down the middle of the road, pissed as a pudding. I nearly ran him over.
-But he doesn’t drink.
-Well, he was clutching a bottle of Absolut.
The mystery was solved moments later when the police arrived and poured Stan from the back of the car into the road. He simply wandered into the laundry shed and slept the night there. The next day he was acutely embarrassed.
-I am so sorry. I don’t drink but I met my girlfriend’s parents and I was so nervous I started drinking and it was a disaster. It will never happen again.
Okay, a one-off. But the following week when we returned from an evening out, a clearly lubricated Stan was there to meet us.
-We have problem in the kitchen. I need to talk you.
-Let’s talk about it tomorrow, Stan.
-No, I need to tal k now.
Julie could see I was irritated.
-I’ll deal with it, you go to bed.
Which I did. After half an hour, the discussions were continuing and the two voices were getting louder. I got up and dressed.
-Look, can we leave this until tomorrow now?
Stan indicated that he couldn’t. I shouted.
-WHATEVER IT IS, WE ARE NOT DEALING WITH IT NOW, WE ARE ALL GOING TO BED.
Stan hid behind a chair cowering and in the morning he was gone.
It’s good to have a French chef. They do know how to cook and the best of them will admit that British food is now far better than the sauce drenched throwback of haute cuisine. But you do have to cope with a lot of Gallic shrugging. We had several but Jean-Claude was particularly stereotypical – his idea of a good day off was to sit in a cafe in a black roll neck sweater with endless cups of coffee musing on his lot, only to come up with the same conclusion every week – “Life eez sheet”. Contributing to this equation were his working days when, “Zay all come at once” and order whatever he was short of. “Ow zay know?” he would scowl and follow up with the plaintive cry, “Where’s my spatula? J’ai perdu mon spatula”. “Are you French?”, one of the less bright waitresses once asked after four weeks in the job.
Of course, kitchen porters are on a different scale. Sometimes a little lacking academically or linguistically, or sometimes just young kids who think saying “My bad” forty-three times a day makes up for the forty-three service disrupting mistakes they have made. Managing them requires the skills of teacher, sergeant-major and zookeeper. Strangely, if they are truly passionate about food, they can go on to be kitchen greats and many well-known chefs have taken this route. Unfortunately however, most of them have taste buds that can just about distinguish a hot kebab from a cold kebab. We had one who didn’t know what a prawn was. Their main skill seems to be the ability to stop whatever they are doing to watch open-mouthed as the chef counts the cauliflowers in the latest veg delivery as if he is performing some sort of mathematical miracle. Most of them have lost him by the time he gets to six.
I only managed the kitchen for three weeks – it was always my wife’s job. I managed the intelligent, motivated and relatively normal people who inhabit the front of house. Three weeks out of ten years when Julie was away. I was a broken man.
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