Ten Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Chef
"Almost everyone does drugs in this business. I think it helps stimulate your creativity and muscles when you're standing in a kitchen for 15 hours straight."
Photo by Jojo Schulmeister
This article originally appeared on VICE Switzerland.
Peter* is a chef in a popular upscale Italian restaurant in Zurich, who has asked to remain anonymous so he can talk freely about just how many drugs he takes at his restaurant, and reveal what he saw working the galleys of cruise ships, serving up buffet-style meals and hiding filth from inspectors.
I spoke to Peter in Zurich to find out whether he's ever spat in a customer's meal, what he really thinks about food critics, and celebrity chefs, and whether chefs really are angry all the time.
VICE: How do you trick health inspectors?
Peter Zurich: It's almost impossible in Switzerland to trick them; they're not easily distracted. Once, I offered one of them a coffee and he just shot me a look that said he knew what I was trying to do. The situation is fairly different on cruise ships, though. When an inspector shows up, everyone except the head chef disappears. So if the inspection starts on the first floor, all the staff run up to the next level and start hiding dirty dishes and pressure washing everything.
Do you wash your hands every time you return from the bathroom?
Yes, and so do my colleagues. I'm really particular about it because I've had food poisoning myself. It happened at a festival, though, not at my restaurant. It was so awful and painful—I wouldn't wish it on anyone. That's why I'm so strict about hygiene now.
Do you scream in your private life as much as you do in the kitchen?
No, and times have changed in the kitchen. When I first started cooking there was a strict hierarchy, sort of like the military. But today, we only scream when someone really screws up. We try not to make the kitchen more stressful than it already is.
Do you take drugs in the kitchen?
Yes. In this business, almost everyone does drugs. I think it helps to stimulate your creativity and your muscles when you're standing in a kitchen for 15 hours straight. We normally stick to weed, ecstasy, MDMA, and, occasionally, coke. But we mostly do it on the weekends and not necessarily at work. There was a brief time when a few of us were taking LSD, but that didn't really help with stress levels in the kitchen. We stopped after about a month because we couldn't sleep anymore.
How do you punish a customer who orders a three-course meal 15 minutes before closing?
I just make it clear to them that I'm not really happy about the whole thing. Firstly, I go to the bar and order a beer so that they're fully aware I'm about to get off work and I'm not going to stress myself over their meal.
I'm not shy about letting customers know when they've annoyed me. Yesterday, a woman asked three times for a bigger portion of pasta, and a lot of extra vegetables. I told her that if she was really that hungry then she should order another portion. Our portions are always large, anyway, because I think it's only fair when someone is paying a lot for it.
How often do you cook with ready-made products?
I've used lots of ready-made stuff in the past if it made my job easier, or if it's what my employer wanted. In big hotels, I used an unbelievable amount of ready-made mashed potatoes because I had to prepare the meals so quickly. Just add a bit of powdered milk, and give it a stir—done. I had to do it so often, I got to the point where I began to lose my love for cooking. I don't feel that way anymore, though. I cook with passion now.
Do you hate restaurant critics?
To be honest, I don't really care what they think, and I don't give them any sort of special treatment. Critics have no idea what's important in a restaurant or in each dish. There are so many self-proclaimed experts now, it's hard to know who the actual connoisseurs are. Only about 2 percent of them are actually legit, the others only do it because they couldn't get a job in a restaurant themselves. Then there are the TripAdvisor critics. I work in a renowned restaurant that's open seven days a week and we're always fully booked. But despite that, we have one of the lowest TripAdvisor ratings in Zurich. In my opinion, it's a huge mistake to give so much power to people who know nothing about the industry.
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Of the dishes you prepare, which one would you never eat yourself?
Where I currently work, a colleague and I came up with the menu together, so obviously I'd eat all of it. But when I was cooking on cruise ships, I was preparing massive buffet-style meals that weren't great.
How do you get your revenge on annoying customers?
I normally don't do anything. I'd never spit on someone's food, for example. But sometimes people need to be told that their poor behavior is unacceptable. I once had a large group of Brits in the restaurant for dinner. I was getting more and more annoyed at them because they were getting more and more drunk. At one point, they started being disrespectful to their server, who just happens to be the nicest person ever. So I had to go out and tell them to shut up or get out, and that was that.
Are you jealous of celebrity chefs?
I was actually on a cooking show once. I was on a Swiss Italian program where I had to prepare a dish using gluten-free pasta. Unfortunately, I had the brilliant idea of going to a rave the night before they shot the episode. When I turned up at 11 AM, the producer immediately gave me this really worried look. They had to cover my dark circles with makeup. My friends loved the episode though—they had no idea I was hungover.
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