The last of the lunatic chefs

Restaurant kitchens have changed a lot in recent years, but they remain a subculture with rules and norms that just couldn't exist in most modern workplaces. 

I want people to get a sense of what it's actually like to be a part of a tough kitchen brigade, so I called up one of the year’s most talked about restaurants and asked to come in and work for them for a shift or two. The owner had a reputation for hostility, bordering on madness, so I knew at the very least it wouldn’t be a boring day.

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Junior chefs, terrified of being unready for lunch service, often get to work as much as two hours before their shift starts. So I wasn’t surprised, when I wandered in to the kitchen at 7:10am, to find that I was last to arrive.

The owner was focused on his laptop, leaving the running of the kitchen to his head chef; who stood at the pass preparing hunks of oxtail and veal shin, occasionally growling at the more junior chefs to no obvious end but his own amusement. He shouted that he needed scissors and I offered mine. He took them silently and moments later slapped them back in front of me - dirty - without a word.

I was set to work with a young Australian on the garnish section. I’d worked with chefs like him countless times in the past; he had a lot to learn but he was talented, efficient and calm. He was a good guy, though I also noticed in him the hard edge he’d taken from the senior chefs, and I knew that if I did anything to slow him down, he would quickly become my enemy.

In contrast to the cocky competence of the garnish chef, a ghostly, sallow presence stood at the same bench. I'd hardly noticed he was there until the head chef turned on him shouting, “Is that all you’ve done today…peeled a few parsnips? Well done you!” The chef in question didn’t respond, he just slouched a little further. Both he and the fish chef, working opposite, had been on the receiving end of some fairly frank appraisals of their abilities that morning.

The fish chef didn't take the criticism too much to heart, but this guy looked broken. He wore the perpetually harrowed look of a man out of his depth. I felt for him, I’ve been there myself. I wanted to tell him not to worry, it’ll get easier, but I never found the time.

As lunch was drawing near, I slipped away and headed over to the pastry section. It’s not unusual, even at this level, to have just one chef on pastry; but here there were four. The á la carte menu boasts a selection of remarkably intricate desserts, and each table is also given a pre-dessert and a huge array of petit fours. I was getting dizzy thinking about the length of their prep list, and that was before the head pastry chef told me that they also had to come up with two daily specials, and all of the bread is made in-house! He was leaving that Friday, feeling - quite reasonably - that after a year, he’d served his time.

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The chefs here start work before half seven in the morning and frequently leave after midnight. They eat as they work and take just an hour or so off in the afternoon, though only if they’re ready for evening service. The owner enjoyed making frequent references to the generosity of the chefs’ salaries; but spread over their 80-hour weeks, it’s a pittance of an hourly wage.

This probably all seems like madness to anyone outside of the industry, but it may be worth the sacrifice for this young, ambitious brigade.

What better way to prove yourself? The hours are longer, the food better and the chef harsher than almost anywhere in the world. If you can survive a year at this kind of establishment you’ll have the respect of every colleague you work with for the rest of your career. Though even the head chef confessed, “working here is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”     

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Towards evening service the sombre atmosphere began to lighten a little. As the chefs started to feel ready for the task ahead there was more laughter and chatting. This felt more like the sort of kitchen I knew. The larder chef (who’d had a less than exemplary lunch service) made a delicious, palate-searing Malaysian curry for the staff and the head chef quipped “now if you could just get your head around French cuisine before service tonight...”

By his standard, that was funny.

Cut in very much the same mould as the head chef; the sous chef had given voice to some quite astonishing imbecilities during the course of the day. Yet, when the fish section was in trouble again before service, he alone jumped in to help.

While the rest of the brigade stood back and sneered, the sous chef was sorting through fridges and finishing fish prep while shouting instructions as to what else had to be done. The fish chef, running around under his instruction, managed to slip and plant his leg in a pan of hot veal stock that had been left on the floor to clear stove space before service.

As any chef will tell you: once you’re in the shit, nothing goes right.

As dinner service began, the owner, head chef and sous chef took up positions at the pass. From the very first starter there was an unceasing stream of abuse from these three towards the others. This can be amusing and friendly and can help to keep the service upbeat. Unfortunately, amongst these guys’ undoubted virtues, wit does not rest. That said, as they danced effortlessly around each other, sending out beautiful plate after beautiful plate, I couldn’t help but be impressed.

Midway through service the fish chef sent an undercooked piece of turbot to the pass. I watched uncomfortably as the owner opened up the fillet and pressed it onto the fish chef’s nose, screaming, “Now tell me, you little shit, is that hot?” He sent the chef back to his section still screaming abuse at him, always finishing with a question, forcing him to answer ‘yes chef’ to each insult.

Finally, he worked himself into such a frenzy of irritation that he picked up a pan and raised it above his head. He paused, thinking better of it, then reconsidering again, sent it flying within a couple of feet of the chef’s head. “Keep this up and you’ll be on a porter’s wage by the end of the week,” he added for good measure.

I remember working in a restaurant where, on being passed something substandard during service, you would pretend to be devastated and in a maudlin voice whisper something like ‘you’re ruining my life,’or ‘why is there so much pain in the world’. It was one of those too-often repeated jokes that develop in tight-knit teams. I guess it helped to keep things in perspective.

Perfection is always the aim but it’s hard to achieve, and during a busy service even the best chefs make mistakes. To most chefs cooking is a passion, but also a profession. To some, who spend their every waking moment in the kitchen watching over their food, it is infinitely more.

The standard justification for the unhinged behaviour I witnessed here is that the owner has his name above the door, he could lose a star or get panned in the national press (etc), and all because of the ineptitude of an inattentive underling.

This is bullshit.

If a desire for perfection or even consistency is the aim, then good training is the way to achieve it. People don’t become better cooks through fear or intimidation. And as chefs like to say – it’s not rocket science: just call the guy back and say “look, Scott, this is undercooked mate. Press it – see, it’s barely springing back at all. Get it back in the pan and I’ll check it again in a minute”.

No intimidation. No risk of injury, and even a bit of guidance as to how he can get it right next time. Best of all, it didn’t bring the kitchen grinding to a halt with an embarrassing hissy fit. Perhaps this is the main reason that the lunatic chef is increasingly the exception rather than the rule: being a nutter just doesn’t achieve anything.

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It was half ten and service was slowing down. The fish chef sat and nursed his scalded foot; he’d been through a lot that night and had impressed me. In a place like this, dealing with the hours and the chefs above you takes real strength, and I think he has it.

The owner was again focused on his laptop and the head and sous chefs were left to oversee the last few dishes. They looked shattered.

I got the chance to chat to them at the end of the evening and they’re not bad guys. They perpetuate a culture that comes to them from the owner, who is – in my opinion – a bad guy. While these two come across as monsters, I think they’re mostly just exhausted and stressed. Perhaps the worst to be said of them is that they lack the strength of character to be nice.

Comically, as I chatted to them, they lamented the fact that they just can’t seem to keep hold of staff. I nodded in a comradely way, pretending to share in their mystification.

They thanked me for coming in and asked if I’d be interested in working there full time. I’m not exactly sure what my face did, but before I’d managed to answer, the head chef said, “no, I didn’t think so”.