Wednesday, January 30, 2008

confessions of a kitchen hand

My parents’ original kitchen had a low bench, the perfect height for a child to learn the basics of cookery. It was the spot to mix eggs and sugar for cake batter with the electric hand beater or later the huge trusty Kenwood. The perfect height for making pastry or kneading bread. The right nook for placing the electric fry pay when cooking up a batch of pikelets or as a forerunner to a wok for making such 70’s savoury exotics as chop suey. It was where I liked to sit and swing my legs while watching the workings of the kitchen and ask those unending childhood questions that always began with “Why..?”

My familial apprenticeship complete, I moved to my first shared house equipped with my handwritten recipes and a toaster oven. A couple of houses later I’d finished my B.A. and quite unsurprisingly found myself unemployed. With a choice of being a waitress or a kitchen hand I opted for the latter. I’ve never done servility well and anyway tipping didn’t exist in the kind of establishments that I was likely to work in at the time. If I were to work hard, I’d prefer to get dirty and sweaty with a smile being entirely optional.

I found myself getting some plum shifts at a chaotic café run by a couple of refugees from the theatre. They had the romantic vision along the lines of “I’ve always fancied running a café” common to people who’d never worked in hospitality before in their lives. They were good women, working in the most grossly under funded area of the arts who wished to create a bohemian haven for their fellow travellers. Art adorned the walls, a soundproof door could be pulled across to make a performance space, there was often a joint to be shared in the storeroom and there was always a satisfying meal to be had for a pittance.

The kitchen was a moderate size and open for all to see behind a servery hatch. I’d start the shift prepping salads or whatever in the whirl of their day had not been completed a whisker before opening for dinner. The food was basic stuff – vats of homemade soup, large bakes, massive bowls of salad, huge cakes served in generous slices, a pudding with lashes of cream. There was no table service. Punters would line up behind the counter and be served on the spot. In the odd liquor licensing of the day there was no bar but Irish coffees were permitted – a mug of filter coffee with a dollop of whipped cream with a nip of whiskey poured over the top.

Once the food was on the counter – I’d toil at the sink washing dishes, serve when one of the owners wanted a break, clear the odd table and wash more dishes. With no true chef on the premises I cannot confess to learning how to correctly slice or dice or pick up any handy cooking techniques but I’m proud to say my mother had trained me well enough that if a health inspector happened to pop in while I was on duty, the café would never fail the test. Of the many odd jobs of my youth, this is one I remember dearly. My ill-suited employers were good bosses, nice people and what’s more – on Sunday nights I got to take home all the leftover cake as they were shut the next day.

Wellington is now a city of funky cafes and more espresso machines than people know what to do with. The home of my hospitality experience of the 80’s has long ceased to exist, the women sold the place after a couple of years to someone more suited to the task. It eventually changed its name and at some point between visits the place sunk without a trace. But it was a great concept and I'm sure it holds a place in the hearts and stomachs of those who frequented it.

Whenever I hear someone who enjoys eating and cooking look around their local haunt and utter, “I’d like to run a café”, I smile quietly to myself and ask if they’ve ever worked in such a place. The reply inevitably is negative followed by a big but – they eat out so much they know how restaurants are run/all their friends tell them they are such a great cook and they should open their own place one day/they are sure it couldn’t be that hard. I think of the two friends from the theatre who followed their vision, worked so hard as to knock a few years off their life expectancy (or in one owner’s case – pickled her liver to compensate) and left a legacy of memories for some of their customers and the odd kitchen hand they employed.

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