It isn’t very often I share personal details or events here because I try to be as professional as possible while still being somewhat entertaining. Maybe this is a mistake. Oh well, we all make them.
I have become very disenchanted with London. It is a city worth visiting, for it has so much to offer. But it is a large city. I regret I cannot call it grand. While I am not interested in wasting anyone’s precious interwebbing hours on Why I Kinda Hate London, I’ll use my collection of Abandoned Mattress* photos and some other random pics to illustrate how this city and my present job have me feeling of late and to break up the narrative.
For weeks I have been composing, in my head, a love letter to chefs. They are truly incredible creatures who go virtually unappreciated and undervalued save for the handful of celebs who no longer sweat it out in the kitchen. Cheffing requires an immense amount of persistance, dedication, responsibility, and stamina. Domestic cook all you want at home, you can never understand the pressure of a kitchen unless you’ve worked in one.
Over the last month I’ve been at a new hotel in the City. While there have been ups and downs in my career so far, feeling a complete lack of passion, creativity, and drive is where I am right now. And I don’t care for it.
This job is not hard, per se. The hours are very long. 9am to 12am without a break kind of long. That isn’t every day, though most of the cuisiniers work five or more of those shifts a week. C has also been doing those hours. My parents have been in town this week and last, so I have not worked so much. Let me explain.
My last gig became too much to be worth my while for two reasons: Gary Rhodes was pulling out of the hotel, and so everything had been abandoned; no new hires to help out with the dwindling staff, no fixing the dead freezer or ovens, no new equipment, no advertising. Also I was shit at handling my Commis and I wanted to work under a Pastry Chef for the first time ever. I had to keep learning.
C hounded me into talking to her new Executive Chef, T, who was heading the opening of a new hotel in the City. The City is the part of London that took the worst of the WW2 Blitz, and is now known for its English Brutalist monstrosities like the Barbican Centre, which is an all-in-one living and entertainment hub that reminded me of the University I attended. It is horrible. Anyway, a hotel in the city basically has crazy lunches, booming bars after 5pm, and dead weekends.
I took a tour during my interview. The kitchens were tiny but beautiful with glossly white subway tiles and brand new equipment and marbles. T was very clear about what a hotel opening would be like:”Sometimes it will be fun, sometimes you will want to throw yourself off the roof, but this type of thing happens only once every decade, so it is really an opportunity of a lifetime.”
The place was gorgeous but it made me feel uneasy. I told myself to stop being a pussy and take it cause, yeah, this was not an experience I should pass up. My stint at Rhodes was the shortest time I’ve spent at a job. I’d proudly gone 3 years, 5 years, 9 months, 1 year at previous jobs and now I’d lasted just short of 3 months. I felt shitty about it, and a bit ungreatful considering they had held the job for me for three months and let me do my own thing, supportive all the way.
In the City we make all things sweet (and a few savoury bits and bobs) for the whole place. That’s the all-day Brasserie, in-room, and bar menus (that happen to all be the same), as well as the 7th floor resto. Very British stuff. I suppose I did move here to experience another culture.
Our Head Pastry Chef has worked in Michelin star restos the world over. He is good. 15 years under his belt. I like him, for the most part. He has been willing to teach me, sort of, but I’ve learned a lot about management and assertiveness from him, and his sheer pastryness has validated my frustrations with the industry. As in, all the things I whined about in my essay on Why Pastry Chefs Cry. As I’ve learned from him, I am not outrageous in thinking that we deserve things but don’t get them or have to fight for them, and that I don’t have an anger management problem, as I was accused of having back in Canada. I’m just a frustrated patissier.
We were going over recipes and he looks at the 8 cuisiniers crowded across the room, tearing apart live lobsters, chopping onions, and cleaning marrow bones, and says with disgust, “they are just so DIRTY.” He, as with most patissiers, is borderline OCD about cleanliness.
We have stood together watching the madness of service in horror at the disorganization and chaos. “Is this what it is like everywhere,” I ask, worried considering my past experiences.
“No, it isn’t,” he reassures me.
He makes a point of getting to know the Kitchen Porters (dishwashers) right away by name. “Get them on your side. Give them ice cream and left overs at the end of the night and you’ll never worry about finding things ever again.”
He swears under his breath when he is frustrated. So do I and I feel less bad about it.
The problem however started with his not knowing what C and I were capable of. The menu is not difficult, but since he doesn’t know what we are like, right from the start he treated us like morons. We had to baby step every inch of the way. Still do. He definitely showed me how to make an ice cream base. Three days later he asked me if I felt comfortable enough to make it without supervision. He supervised me just the same.
This has been going on for a month. And as studies have dictated, if you treat someone like they are stupid, they will act stupid. I started making mistakes. I started stressing out, which lead to more mistakes. It didn’t help that he doesn’t write his recipes properly, so as to only share his secrets to those selected, so when he let us work unsupervised, we still made mistakes because the recipes were incorrect.
Then, after knowing my parents would be in town for 2 weeks, and I wasn’t going to request extra time off but that I would be spending all my free time with them, he asks me to work 5 doubles (9am-12am) and is upset when I won’t. Really? They came from Canada to see ME, not London. ME, their only daughter. “Well, just ask them if its okay.” Needless to say I didn’t have to.
My hands in general are not so bad that I can’t do my job. They get sore easily, but I work through the pain. There are a couple of things I cannot do, and filling chocolate truffle shells seems to be one of those things. After he attempted several times to teach me how to hold the piping bag, he grabbed it from me and said, “I need you to do something useful, I’ll do this.”
After ten minutes of silence, before ducking into the fridge for some cream, I said,”I hope you never experience what it is like when your brain sends messages to a part of your body and it just doesn’t respond.” When I came out of the fridge he said, “I’ve wet myself on several occasions.”
I forgave him for calling me useless and he endeared himself to me at that point.
But then he started to feel the pressure, and so did C and I. Business was going up but our pastry team was still the same size. Things were going wrong. The demand was up. As I said, I don’t like to share negative things online because of professionalism, but I honestly don’t know if I am justified in feeling really, really shitty about the following incidents.
First of all, I believe in sharing recipes, knowledge, and working towards continuous quality. I dislike elitism and pretention. But I didn’t realize I would walk right into VIP-VIP land. VIP this and VIP that is all I hear. EVERY PLATE SHOULD BE VIP. If you want to make the VIPs feel fuzzy inside, send them an extra course or a tasting of something they didn’t order, don’t instruct me to scoop VIP ice cream balls and force me to watch it unVIP (melt) as we wait for the Sous Chef to come up from the production kitchen to okay it going out to the VIP table. Needless to say, all the VIPs are getting to me, especially when they refuse free things like bowls of fruit because all the cherries are rotten and all he wanted was fucking cherries.
Then the comments started. I haven’t been called “Useless” so many times in my life, if actually at all aside from my own abusive inner dialogue. But apparently I am useless. His foul mood quickly rubbed off on me, and maybe C too, I don’t know, we live and work together but never see each other long enough to talk about anything. I was tired of everything, English sarcasm which is just plain mean, tired of the tube, the congestion, the fact that I apparently can’t digest the dairy well over here, the VIPs, the name-calling, the screwing up.
So he says to me, “What IS your problem? Is it that time of the month or something?” but not really in a funny way.
I think What the fuck it is 2012 and we are in a 1st world country. You are educated and successful and young and you just asked me if I was being a bitch cause I’m on the rag? Seriously? I mustered, “No, but thanks for the concern.”
Another similar comment came out the next day, “I am never employing women in my kitchen again.” Riiiiight.
The next day I’m in the production kitchen scaling things and thinking about how useless I am and how the Gods were clearly on to some sick joke when they formulated my existence and he comes up to me, leans in and says as seriously as possible, “Do me a favour: FUCK OFF.”
I stand stunned, motionless. I stare at the wall in front of me. I say nothing. No one has ever said anything like that to me before. I understand kitchens require you to put up with a lot of shit, after all there is a good deal of pressure and men love cheffing because they can stay childish assholes for as long a they are in the kitchen, but of all the shit I’ve put up with, that was the tantamount insult. Chefs say things in the heat of service, but this was just us, no pressure. Im not getting paid by the hour here.
Then he chuckled and said, “just kidding.”
I didn’t speak to him for a while. Am I wrong for feeling insulted? For not wanting to impress or even learn from someone who says things like that to their employee? Or am I just “hysterical” or overly-sensitive.
*Apparently London doesn’t have a mattress removal and the garbage collectors won’t take them so they just, lie around. Gross.