I’d already cooked breakfast.
Fucking hours ago,7am to be precise,it was now 2.55pm and I was returning to the kitchen of a country house to assist an agency chef send a wedding for 80 plus people.My wife runs the property and usually I am the stay home dad of choice to our little monster of toddlerdom,unfortunately in my previous non parenting life I was a chef and when my wife’s head chef decided to leave with only 4 weeks notice and a replacement proved to be thinner on the ground than a reliable Lib Dem promise,you can guess who was asked to step into the fray.
The money which adds nicely to our housekeeping fund is warmly received and I don’t want my wife held ransom by mercenary agency chefs so I have helped keep the kitchen afloat whilst the next Marco Pierre White of wedding events is sought.At the moment we have an agency bod being paid head chef wages to cover the kitchen with me assisting him whenever needed.For the most part he has eschewed my help except for the physical requirements of actually serving the food.
He’s a knob,although stocked with an immense a culinary armamentarium that could happily see him equip the Savoy should they find themselves short of any utensils.Unfortunately he is a seen it,done it,got the t-shirt 38-year-old legend in his own fag break.I know I shouldn’t really care as long as he gets the job done but my god he is expensive and I have to bite down on the vitriol that at times I would like to send his way.A little break of sunshine through our darkened recruitment skies is that finally a new chef starts next week,so only a week more of Aunt Bessie’s delinquent son to endure.
He’s been cooking for 6 years but sadly never at a standard setting establishment,neglecting to climb the hierarchy and instead has become a head chef through self assessment of his own skills.If this wasn’t flawed enough,his iPhone is full of the wank fest dribbling photos of plates of food that are merely tiny and artfully arranged piles of ingredients,like a knock off Heston trying to judge the perfect quantity of food for an anorexic banquet.This is clearly a chef deeply in love with his own culinary opinion.It does force you to question how a recruitment agent could read a c.v that showed no progression through the ranks except a self-appointed head chef position a year after starting and think wow this guy has the multiplicity of skills required to hold down a myriad of head chef positions.It’s a good job that a lot of agents aren’t merciless,money grabbing bastards who count 5 digits on each hand as the only prerequisite to hold a senior chef position.
Luckily for both parties involved in this horrendous marriage of necessity the food he is being asked to produce is merely good wholesome wedding fare and not pushing for a Michelin star.It is usually a two-man kitchen,sometimes three when excruciatingly busy with the emphasis being on tasty,hot,clean & punctual food.(no bride wants to be kept waiting while a chef decides where to put his little tied bow of chives.)Before our prodigious culinary talent had arrived I had already prepped four weddings back to back on my own and organised the orders to keep the place ticking over.We had a handover and I explained in minute detail what to do,how to do it and when to do it,what to buy and from whom and when.I left very clear instructions and contact numbers in case he needed to seek my advice on any related topic.
Of course he didn’t.
Young white Ainsley thought he knew everything and was a culinary demigod effectively being asked to drop his standards to slop wedding gruel at snorting and truffle hunting brides and their porcine families.He was wrong (actually he was wrong about a lot of things,but specifically the level of skill required to organise,order,prep,cook and serve wedding meals for up to 400 people a week.)He royally fucked up a plethora of basic organisation points.I found myself bollocking him for overcooking lamb shoulder and under cooking dauphinious potatoes within the first couple of days.He quickly proved to be the kind of irritant that never quite excepted full responsibility for his actions,explaining that HE thought the lamb was fine (It wasn’t,it was cooked to buggery and not in a good way) and that the dauphs tested fine with a knife.So clearly some crazy metamorphic change had undermined his culinary brilliance and it couldn’t simply be that he had made a judgement error,possibly because he couldn’t tell a perfectly cooked creamed potato if it had sent him a text saying I’m done and I’m waiting for you,I’ll be the spud wearing a carnation.In a top kitchen environment he would probably be out the door now or certainly his card would have been well and truly marked with a barrage of flack and scrutiny until it could be confirmed whether he was either a.) a waste of space and suitably binned or b.)it was a one-off and he shows potential.But this was a unique situation,the level he was being asked to hit wasn’t that high and replacing him would be a massive arse ache and I couldn’t afford the time to break in and supervise another agency slop jockey,I didn’t want to eventually go back to stay home dad-dom to find my delinquent toddler was running feral in the middle-class woods around suffolk.Unfortunately it was a case of better the delusional Albert Roux you know.
It has always pissed me off though that some chefs buy into the aesthetic bullshit that is dangled from a thousand glossy chef books and don’t think it necessary to do the groundwork.You should never hire theses people, they always turn out to be lazy and disorganised and yet have delusions of culinary granduer.The kind of chef that’ll piss fart around all morning and come service time isn’t prepped or ready and instead relies on being bailed out by the very chefs he or she looks down upon. At the junior level always hire for attitude and then teach ability.
Anywho..I feel myself digressing.he was a knob but a necessary evil.
I came in and did two weddings back to back with him prior to todays event,bailing his slow lazy arse out of the shit for 14 hours.When service was over I sat him down and talked to him harshly about organising his misenplace (prep) into chronological order,setting strict time limits on all jobs and not wanking away precious time that he could not afford on superfluous garnishes that had no place or relevance in this style of operation.He nodded like the Churchill dog but behind his eyes he was telling me loudly and clearly to fuck off.
Whatever,my time as kitchen babysitter was thankfully coming to a close.
I’d promised to come in to do breakfast the next morning and in order to give him a good head start I’d stayed back the previous evening to resentfully prep and cut all the veg that would be required for the next wedding.I wasn’t due to work it,he had another agency bod helping him,but I had done all the peripheral tasks for him as I witnessed first hand his shufflingly slow work rate,I’d knocked out 200 chocolate truffles, veg for a 100,gravadlax cured for canapes and I was taking care of breakfast to give him an uninterrupted morning to concentrate on the wedding and not the ball ache that is breakfast.
I arrived at 7am…knocked out everything I had to and then found myself watching the clock.The pilsbury doughboy didn’t arrive until 9.15,now I had deliberately taken care of breakfast to free him up to get all his stuff organised and he waddles his fat arse in late looking all bleary eyed and ginger;I could have punched him out there and then,but I showed restraint and finished breakfast albeit through gritted teeth and barbed remarks.Breakfast ends at about 10,it was all fine,34 happy hung over guests still celebrating nuptials and enjoying the brief rented splendour of their dream country residence. Unfortunately there was no sign of agency slop jockey number 2 yet and he was already an hour late,that feeling of impending bowel discharge started brewing in my nether regions,I was pretty much at the end of my tether with sous chef Salmonella and the thought of facing another day without having the freedom of ripping his head off and explaining to him in graphic detail why he was at best an average cook and at worst he should probably just kill himself.I had to leave the back of ten in order to tag team with my wife so she could return to work and sort out the agency slop monkey deficiency we know found ourselves with and so I could take guardianship of our future little london rioter. Whilst i fed the little future freed on appeal defendant and myself some eggs and bacon,my wife had returned to her place of work and stalked the corridors and personnel like a ravenous Godzilla contemplating Tokyo.The profoundity of stupidity that she has to deal with daily sometimes distracts from her actual role,like trying to dictate war plans to a room full of generals whilst wading arse deep in a paddling pool full of quick sand.It transpires that one of the delightfully incompetent office smiles for hire that was instructed to hire the second agency slop monkey forgot to.Leaving a bewildered recruitment agent,with an abusive voicemail message from me now hopelessly searching for a possible placement on a Saturday slap bang in the middle of a bank holiday weekend and a general manager deciding where on the grounds would be the best place to dig shallow graves.
There was no hope of getting anyone,the industry which lies like a blitzed London street is in such a state of disrepair that it needs a trip to digitas to salvage any last self respect.Before the uppities get uppity about my sweeping generalisation I merely refer to the industry as a basic entity ignoring the branded apathetic but ruthlessly consistent and formulaic corporations and the 1% luxury sector of opulence and excellence;instead I refer to whats left.Agency chefs of varying neadertholic tendencies are highly sought after especially during public holidays when proprietors and managers try to systematically slam kitchens beyond the capacities of their originally proposed business plans.It’s not just making hay when the sun shines,it is making sure that every possible piece of hay that your alloted sun shine will allow you to make is seized,squeezed and wrung out irrespective of how good your hay is or how many people are needed to make it. We were never going to get a second slop monkey to help today. My wife returned to our house at about 2pm,we tagged again and swapped roles,she had done all she could to resolve the impending storm cloud hanging over the catering of a very happy but oblivious just married young couple.
I drove back to her work,now canapes were due to be sent at 2.30 I should arrive just before 3,so he should be starting to go through the main courses,traying up and finishing off the plethora of silly little jobs that plague any function that allows a modicum of choice.
I was being wildly optimistic.
I parked up,slightly pleased to see his car still there,at least this titanic will not go down without drowning its cook.The back of house grounds are lovely,a talented and surprisingly part-time gardener is growing framed vegetables and fruits at the back of the kitchen,strawberries flowers wink at you and delicate rocket leaves pirouette towards the sun through pencil thin meshes.If you have even the slightest interest in food the gardens would act as a catalyst to your inspiration.Even as I was weary of what lay ahead of me i couldn’t help but smile at the sculptured and slightly manipulated botanics that beautifully hid the shit hole I was about to walk in to like a diseased ridden prostitute with a beautiful face and sweet-smelling breath.
I wanted to kill him,then sack him,then kill him again.
it was now 3.05pm and amidst a Beruit style collection of debris,standing over the rotting corpses of shocked health inspectors he was still serving fucking canapes.In less then 90 minutes 80+ people were expecting a 3 course meal and coffee and truffles to celebrate the nuptials of two of their own.You would be hard pushed to find a court in the country that would convict me for his dismemberment.
‘right,where are we? what is still to be done? what are you doing now and next?’
My instructions to him for the rest of the afternoon would be entirely devoid of humility,He was paid an absolute fortune on the premise that he was suitably qualified to tackle the tasks at hand,the agency that sent him were complicit in the utter shit hole that i walked into.We were not friends,there was no mutual respect,we were going to serve this fucking wedding even if it comes with a body count,I was so angry that i no-longer cared if he hung around for the rest of the week,
he was about to get to know the real me.
He mumbled and pointed at a large deep filled tray of still packaged chicken breasts.
‘you haven’t started the chicken breasts yet? and the stuffing?’ nothing,silence.He busied himself with doing the last of the tapanade croute canapes. ‘Right,let’s get a few things absolutely crystal,I need to know exactly where you are? I need the function sheet and whatever list you’re working off of and if this is gonna fucking work I need you to do whatever I ask you to do whenever I ask you to do it,Now tell me about this fucking chicken’.
3.10pm- no chicken prepped,no stuffing made,no veg roasted,no chocolate sauce made,no potato pancakes made,no starters plated,no dressing made..the list went on and on and on.Everything suddenly becomes about getting the job done.this is where experience kicks in,you need to be able to knock the prep out and think coherently and quickly and in very strict reverse chronological manner.I put a couple of pans and a lidded stockpot full of water on the stove.No sign of the KP (kitchen porter,dishwasher,most valuable member of the team) so I knocked a couple of trays through every time I passed the dish washer.peeled and sliced onions very small and then chopped two boxes of mushroom and half a pound of bacon.Witha squirt of oil they were put into one of the now hot pots on the stove, a lid tightly placed on top.I started pulling the chickens out of their packaging and issuing commands to all around me.To Nigella’s foster child ‘is the veg on yet? no?? that get it on NOW,it’s gonna take at least forty minutes to cook,lots of seasoning,lots of oil’. To an errant slicked waiter trying to nonchalantly pass behind me,’ who’s wedding is this? (the co-ordinator not the bride & groom),I want to speak to them right now’. To the reappeared KP,’Hey Jack can we put a brush over this floor,it’s a shit hole,plus the bins need emptying.’intermittenly I stirred my soon to be mushroom stuffing whilst counting and checking the chicken quality and reading the function sheet for surprises.Chefs need to fight their corner in function meetings or things can get missed off function sheets,which never seem a big deal until you’re ankle-deep in the shit during a function and dietary requirement come as a quick punch in the kidneys and inaccurate timings deliver a swift knee to the bollocks. There was seven different dietary requirements on todays function,including the dreaded nut allergy,(in its severest case an anaphylactic reaction to a nut will result in death if not treated quickly enough but hey fuck it no pressure.)plus kids meals consisting of nuggets and chips.Thankfully No alterations on the starters just a veritable starting line up of required main course derivitives.I seperated out all the chickens that were now marked special.Dashing over to my stuffing i put a block of 250g of butter into it and the 400g of pinenuts.turned the heat to low and replaced the lid.Pockets had to be cut into nearly a 100 chicken breasts now to facilitate stuffing,I look over at driving miss daisy as he nonchalantly wipes his bench and knives.It’s really difficult not venting spleen every time I look at him,
‘Do you want to start fucking moving,we are serving food in less than an hour and a half and if i don’t see you break a sweat you can just fuck off,there is a mountain ahead of us,so pull your fucking finger out.Have all the plates been counted? please tell me the passe is at least hot? Where are we at with the sauce? finish the pancakes and all the sauces NOW,I’m aiming to be done with the chicken at roughly the same time the veg is ready,so you’ve got the time it takes for the veg to cook to get everything else done including the glaze for the veg,pop 400g of white chocolate under the (hot)lights and I’ll make the chocolate sauce straight after the chicken,I’m gonna need 6 gastros to tray up the chicken? okay?’ He was looking at me like I’d just taken a shite in his livingroom,bless.Push on fatty. A smart-looking suited wedding organiser appeared like a magicians stunt,’Chef?’,she enquired. ‘hi,what time are they sitting? (4.30)’ ‘right,I need as much time as possible,are they having a receiving line? (No) ‘Fuck it,how happy are they all? (reasonably),good I need you to stretch everything out,realistically I’m not gonna be in a position to serve anything until about 5pm,but I will bust my bollocks to get ready earlier.’ As I was talking to her I was also reading the function sheet and methodically butterfly pocketing chicken breast after chicken breast.’woa,hang on second,’ I shout across to numpty bollocks now busy with whisking up a dressing, ‘tonight’s evening food? 14 cheese boards on top of the buffet?’ He looks blanker than a watercolour of an avalanche covering a village of albinos. ‘I don’t remember seeing a lot of cheese in the dairy fridge,there’s cheese boards on tomorrow night aswell,fuck me did you even read these fucking sheets?’ He hadn’t,he must be feeling that a big swamp of excrement is starting to lap at his kitchen clogs.He has that hopeless expression that falls upon people when they are out of their depths and actually have no reply or reason just sometimes thinly veiled excuses designed to deflect incompetence.I wanted him to squirm a bit,he had earned a small fortune and spent the week swaggering like Clint Eastwood’s penis and I can’t remember my wife getting a discount for any incompetence experienced. I dash across to check the stuffing,adjust the seasoning with lemon and salt and then pour off the accumulated liquid into plastic tub and pour the solids onto a large tray in a single layer. ‘Right,’ addressing the co-ordinator,’ I’m gonna need to organise a Tesco run,I need cheese for 30 cheeseboards in total and whilst I remember he needs mushroom for tomorrows’ breakfast.’ She was an incredibly proactive woman and within minutes I had a junior manager in front of me with a pad and a pen,writing a list,as I dictated over the now growing mountain of chicken breasts, of stuff to buy at Britain’s worst retailer,unfortunately they were the closest and it was bank holiday weekend and everybody closed early. Pocketing the chicken,making the stuffing and stuffing the chickens took roughly 55 minutes,not my neatest work but tidy enough and the stuffing tasted great.I parchment paper lined 6 gastro trays and trayed up all the chickens,separating the “special” ones to a tray of their own.I reserved some of the fillets and now made nuggets with an egg wash and japanese panko bread crumbs.I finished my chicken work about a minute before the alarm went off on the rationale (The best combi convection oven you can buy without exception.) to say the veg was ready to be decanted into larger trays and then glazed.I put a pan of double cream on to finish the white chocolate sauce and ran through the menus and lists for the hundredth time.
4.10pm- clearing all the benches,I start laying down all the starter plates,in total there is eighty-nine starters and 6 kids meals.Fanny Craddock constantly needs reminded to clean up after himself as his prep spreads like a pandemic across all the sections,I assume like Hansel and Gretel he has plotted his escape in the form of a food trail home.
‘Get a fucking brush,you can’t work like this,spreading shite from one area to another.’
Working as quickly as I can I dress the plates, salad leaves,brie tart,cranberry/raspberry dressing and micro cress,Whilst also whisking a white chocolate sauce and talking the KP through checking all our other crockery requirements.About half way through plating the starters I actually start to visualise the whole meal now,Organised,trayed,waiting to be finished or re-heated.We don’t have a fryer so chips for the nuggets will have to be saute potatoes,entrusting the by now disgruntled le gavroche to fry away,I notice in my peripheral flashes of black.
‘Those spuds ok? …show me.Look I don’t give a fuck how much this clearly irritates you but I’m not serving burnt or raw potatoes to anyone,You’ve got time.start over.’ He dumps the raw on one side,burnt on the other potatoes in the bin and starts over.
When you become a headchef one thing that you eventually develop is a spider sense,a sixth sense for fuck ups,an almost pre-cognitive awareness of all the building blocks to a cock-up;whether it’s the awareness of the smell of butter dripping on a solid top stove from two rooms away or an acute awareness of a change in body language that would indicate either simply shielding your view or just down right dishonesty.This sense allows you to develop a real understanding of all the cogs turning at once in a very busy exact kitchen. I finish the last starter plate at 4.45.The god’s are smiling on me and there has been a delay with photographs and the wedding breakfast is running roughly half an hour behind schedule.We are organised and ready,food looks ok and everything has been checked,double checked and triple checked.A clear list of dietary requirements are stuck on the wall opposite me for easy reference.For the first time since setting foot back in the place two hours earlier I feel comfortable and ready. When the bride and groom eventually sit at their top table to be congratulated and fed, the time is 5.05pm and the kitchen is ready to go.Service is orderly and expedient,only the voice of the maitre’d and my own can be heard whilst staff are deployed to pour,place or pick up.Three courses are served within 90 minutes to nearly a hundred people by two chefs (ok one and a half) and 2 managers and 6 waiters and waitresses.The bridal party are happy because their guests are happy,my wife is happy because a happy wedding spends more money at the bar and the properties reputation is further enhanced,the agency slop monkey is happy because instead of being exposed as being a charlatan he has actually been hidden by the necessity of punctual food and a helping hand from a far superior cook without an ulterior motive.I sort out his orders and functions for the next couple of days,write a strict misenplac list for him and clean and rearrange the contents of his service fridges.Sometimes I feel I’ve been wiping chef’s arses for a quarter of a century,at least in the first couple of years it was only my own arse that needed wiping. I leave at 8pm after plating the nearly forgotten notorious cheeseboards and leaving the rest of the evening buffet food ,which is very straight forward,to Marco’s illegitimate son.As i’m leaving he shakes my hand and for the first time since I’ve met him he looks slightly humbled by the days events.He thanks me for bailing him out and tells me how glad he was that it was me walking in at 3pm and not just an agency lad.I explain that the workload he had today was easily achievable if he’d organised himself better and worked his time cleverly and strictly.
‘You have to work as if you are in the shit,as if no-one is going to bail you out and you have to rely on very exact prep lists that cover everything and leave nothing to chance,’
The over-riding irony is that our illustrious agency slop monkey is ex-army and their notorious slogan of ‘PRIOR PREPARATION PREVENTS A PISS POOR PERFORMANCE’ is one that all good kitchens have as their mantra.
I know my words have fallen on deaf ears and he’s merely placating me with nods of agreement but I don’t care,my wife has organised an agency bod to help him tomorrow.
I’ve done all I can,my last act is to scrub out my phone number that’s on his wall with a permanent black marker pen and fuck off home.