Thursday, September 23, 2010

hug a chef week

Back before it was fashionable, I had a relationship with a chef.

He worked in the kitchen of a starred hotel, part of an international chain. Each afternoon he’d iron his uniform, ready his knives and polish his boots. He’d leave the house smelling of Paco Rabanne, returning 11 or more hours later stinking of sweat, fat and god knows what else.

It wasn’t a glamorous job but it had its compensations. On the rare night off when he’d cook at home there’d always be the juiciest steaks or exotic delicacies like frogs legs, courtesy of the big hotel. Not that they knew.

The pay was lousy, despite being years out of his apprenticeship, made slightly better by penalty rates from working unsociable hours. Though I had a mate who worked nights as a rubbish collector at the time who was paid more and came home smelling a darn sight sweeter.

Knocking off late at night, when a city like Wellington was all but closed, he had three options to wind down - get pissed, stoned or fuck someone. Often all of the above. And at times I suspect all three before he left work.

From our liaison I got an appreciation for sharp knives, learnt how to make nifty little bundles of carrots held together by their own ring and became rather wary of sexually transmittable diseases.

And that was before Anthony Bourdain wrote Kitchen Confidential.

I’ve always felt a little troubled by the cult of the celebrity chef. Working split shifts in commercial kitchens are often dangerous, poorly paid and crap for your love life. When Jamie Oliver and Fifteen became popular, I queried the wisdom of putting damaged kids, often with a history of substance abuse, into such a dysfunctional work environment.

There’s little glamour in the kitchen for the average chef. Most don’t get to own an eponymous restaurant, flash their face on television or publish cookbooks. The cycle of sex, drugs and alcoholism in kitchen is apparently not a myth in this city. Of course not every chef, cook or dish pig has a raging habit and some do manage to balance healthy relationships with antisocial hours. Though I’ve got to say the healthiest and happiest chefs I’ve met are ones who’ve taken a back step from the relentless kitchen grind and diversified their skills.

Despite the sanitisation of the professional cook on television, it still looks like an adrenaline fuelled, dirty job to me.

But without them, no matter how skilled we are in our homely kitchens, eating would be a much less interesting sport.

So hug a chef today and tell them you appreciate them.

I’ve cyber stalked the long time ex to no avail. Last I’d heard he’d gone from working in prestigious kitchens to stints of cooking in Kalgoorlie and other gritty mining towns. Despite the pride he took in what he made and the exacting professionalism he once had, I get the feeling life hasn’t been easy for him since our paths last crossed.

Then again, he may have married, had kids, moved to the suburbs and become a respectable sales rep, for a pharmaceutical company.

And despite all the fancy things he could do with carrots, the ice sculpting and butter carving, I’ve not found a cookbook with his face on it yet.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Lucy said...

Beautiful.

I heard Yotam Ottolenghi on the radio just now, talking about the life of cheffing. Interesting, but man, what a gruelling job.

11:35 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

That reminds me - I forgot to mention the scars!

12:29 pm  
Blogger steve said...

Hi Aof-great post.
Where to begin? I think there is a section of chefs who wear this bad boy attitude and lets be clear, they are nearly all boys, with a bit of rock n roll swagger.

Without intending to question the great legacy the influx of british chefs had had on Australian restaurants from the early nineties, the flip side was their at times boorish and bullying kitchen culture.

When I worked over there from 87 to 90 it seemed every kicthen brigade cooked the best, worked the longest hours, drank the most, had the most scars, shagged the most and fought the hardest. It was exhausting.

In melb in the early 80's there was a real heavy drug culture in kitchens. many of the names at the more flashy end of the spectrum, back then, they were the young turks, were into hard drugs. I myself as a 16 YO apprentice regularly saw my sous chef and another cook shoot up before we headed of to the Seaview ballroom or Earls Court the venue. Everyone smoked dope and many just used to spot hash as it was quite cheap back then. Pills were yet to reel their heads.
I mostly avoided all that but came out the other end with a taste for grog.
In the noughties in Melb it was(and might still be) all about pills. The large brigade I was in charge of for some years were especially immersed in the gear and I spent a great deal of time picking up the pieces.

If you can remember the eighties as they say-you weren't there!

1:25 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Hi Steve, nice recap of the Australian drug culture through the recent decades :) I think the drugs of choice for chefs reflects the general population of those who partook in illegal substances at the time. But the thought of alfoil, neatly broken milk bottles (that alone ages me) and gas stoves brings a little tear of nostalgia to my eyes.

Though at times I wish I couldn't remember the eighties!

2:01 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

PS Steve - hope you get lots of hugs this week!

2:02 pm  
Blogger prue said...

It is always refreshing to read, in whatever guise, the realities of chef life, and the lives of those around kitchen staff. Your frankness sure beats the sanitised version marketed to people on television and in the cult of the celebrity chef these days. I've worked in kitchens on and off over the years (mostly in the UK) and cannot recall ever working under a sober chef. Granted most of these were pub chefs, not dealing with the pressures of high end cookery, but even so their souls had been crushed long ago. I'm now far away from the food industry, but the memories are certainly not the stuff of fluffy masterchef. Thanks for putting more of the balance back in to this topic.

3:23 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Prue - Nothing like putting the "reality" back into reality television :) I did a stint as a kitchen hand, though the cafe was owned by two cooks rather than classically trained chefs. One was an alcoholic the other...I can't remember, she was usually in the storeroom smoking a joint with the customers...Though props to them, I never had to steal the food. I worked the Sunday shift and they were shut early in the week, so I'd be given any of their leftover, amazing cakes and assorted savoury goodies. Needless to say I always had a lot of visitors on a monday at home!

3:58 pm  
Anonymous Paul said...

Great post, I'm coming in a bit late here but I remember thinking the same thing about fifteen when it opened. I think the whole celebrity chef thing glosses over the reality of professional cooking and god knows the destruction that masterchef will cause when people patently unsuited to the lifestyle attempt to make a career in cooking.
I spent a couple of years in a professional kitchen in my early 20s and the hours certainly were crap and I was certainly underpaid. It was full on and the staff turnover was enourmous. I think the kithcen I worked in wasn't quite as high pressure as some.
I also spent a number of years in bakeries and the toll on bakers was probably worse than anything I saw from my restaurant days. I saw a lot of pill problems during that time and I also witnessed two mental breakdowns.

6:43 pm  

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