What Really Goes On In a Restaurant Kitchen
Feb 23 2013
The X-Files were right about something: the truth is out there. And just like Mulder and Scully’s nemeses at the FBI, we in the catering trade will do everything we can to keep it from you. If you're smart, you should consider visiting a restaurant in the same vein as going to the theatre – just focus on what's put in front of you, suspend your disbelief. If you're not smart, then try not to think about it at all. Either way, you're entering willingly in to a world designed to deceive.
Deception is vital to the running of a successful restaurant. Customers needn’t know that I was smashing it up in a Soho dive bar until 7.30AM, or that I slept for two hours spread like a starfish on the floor of a stranger’s flat. A good waiter looks clean, fresh and happy, regardless of whether they're drooling a little bit, or have semen in their hair.
To help maintain that lie, my Iocker contains a razor, a toothbrush and a stack of clean shirts and trousers. There’s a large bottle of cleansing eyedrops behind the till on the first floor to stop me looking like Michael Barrymore on an off day, and my colleague Esther has a pot of Ibuprofen so big it’s got its own weather system.
Just after midday, the customers begin to arrive and by 1PM we’re full. As usual the food seems to be taking a little too long, so it's no surprise when the chef phones the intercom in total meltdown. These guys live in a perpetual state of come-down meltdown, by the way. Anyway he tells me that the kitchens are knee-deep in the shit because one of the crew has cut himself so badly he’s being rushed to hospital. Customers don't tend to like their food with blood sauce, so it's going to take some time.
Up top, where we breathe air and see daylight, the waiters disguise the gory delay with little chats, extra glasses of wine and free snacks. We dole out assurances like: “I’ve checked with the kitchen and it’s all on the way.” Without adding "Boy, I'm surprised you could't hear the screaming from up here!" People smile and drink and nobody thinks about it, confident everything is under control. I guess it kind of is.
Duped by the lies, people have no idea of the illusion in which they sit. They imagine that The Dungeon where the chefs are kept is sort of like a constant episode of Saturday Kitchen; lots of stainless steel and witty banter. It isn’t. Actually it's more like a torture facility; all tiles and wipe clean walls, strip lighting and suffocating heat. The staff loo compared with the customer one? They’d sack me if I told you. Okay fine, just think 'frequent rushed urination'. A lot of it.
In the basement, away from peeping eyes and prying ears, the waiting staff undergo a sort of morph. We mill around playing abhorrent customer Top Trumps with the night’s stories, ripping like vultures into the flesh of the most revolting. During service we let each other know who the heinous assholes are so that we can visit each other’s tables and they can be discussed again once the restaurant closes up. If you're really bad, we might have checked the name on your credit card and start rifling through your Facebook pictures, laughing at your stupid life.
However, although we're all bitter individuals, the battle between waiters and chefs is one of the industry’s biggest lies, bandied about to make things seem more exciting. I haven’t worked anywhere where the staff aren’t tight. We spend more time with each other than our friends and families, and nasty people are quickly replaced. There’s no need to be best friends but you spend about as many hours together as a mother and her newborn baby, so it's going to happen anyway. Oh yeah, and everyone fucks everyone. Obviously.
Friendship and sporadic bursts of sex are pretty important to the chefs, because the kitchen is a truly brutal place. The heat and the pressure make the atmosphere less like a "pressure cooker" and more like the atmosphere in a WWII trench. Maybe it's not that traumatic, I guess it's more like a four-day bender at Frankie Boyle’s house: funny to some, horribly upsetting to others. Still, you have to appreciate that all the bravado hides the fact that the chefs are consummate professionals, working more hours, for less money than basically the entire rest of the country.
When I go into the kitchen, the chefs generally start discussing which vegetable they’d introduce to my girlfriend, which, weirdly, is a good thing. Once they start being polite, it's because they think you're a dickhead, and suddenly you’ve fallen from favour and you should probably start looking for another job. If you cock up someone’s order you need to know they’ve got your back. It's the same as everywhere, right? The slaves have all the power.
The intercom buzzes upstairs and I’m told staff food is ready. For some reason people imagine that before work we all sit down with a bottle of wine and enjoy a banquet of dishes from the menu. “The food is so good here,” they say. “You’re so lucky you get to eat it every day.” Funny that, I’ve never worked anywhere where the staff ate from the menu.
Tonight our decadent culinary treat is egg on toast, which is as terrible as it sounds. Still, the worst is the risotto. Nothing says thanks for all the hard work like a midnight plate of burnt rice cooked by the kitchen porter. It is a perpetual mystery why, in a room full of professional chefs, they get the only person who isn’t to cook for the staff. But hey, with the hours we work, by midnight I’d probably eat a shit on toast. Then again I can probably find that on the floor of the staff toilet any time, if I need to.
Celebrity chefs on TV, with their makeup and fancy clothes, have clouded the impression people have of who actually does the cooking in restaurants. It’s not that dapper guy with silver stubble and an organic farm off Top Chef, it’s a sweaty, hungover man with the worst diet in Britain, working his twelfth day in a row, for minimum wage. In case you didn't know, chefs drink a lot of vodka. To be honest, out of all the professions in the world, these guys are the ones who actually need it.
Dylan once sang: “His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean.” This sublime line works literally and metaphorically when you look at the kitchen staff. Once service is over, they stand quietly in a row, leaning on the wall, exhausted, jackets like Jackson Pollock paintings.
They get changed while I count the laundry and I’m surrounded by more tattoos than a Metallica gig. In between the spots of ink I see the pain that earns them their money. Their arms are the worst, covered in burns and blisters and cuts and scars, many of them have hernias from the physical toll the job and their lifestyles take on their bodies. How these great, hulking people make food that dainty and beautiful, that delicate and delicious, is perhaps the trade’s greatest deceit of all.
Follow Max on Twitter: @lunchluncheon
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