When I was first getting to know the man who I now consider my best friend, he lived with two people whom he’d been friends with since highschool. They sounded like terrible roommates, he moaned about their lack of housekeeping skills regularly, but as soon as he’d vented the pent up irritation built up from cleaning up after them or giving them emotional support, he would always finish up by saying something like “but _____ is an amazing creature,” or “____ is such a weirdo, I’m so happy they exist.”
I didn’t know his roomies, but given all I’d heard of them tended to be negative, until he would flip and praise their existence. While I found this strange, I eventually adopted the technique — venting issues regarding the personality traits of friends or loved ones with an immediate reminder of how wonderful it is to have them in my life. In doing this I found staying angry after a quarrel almost impossible. I am thankful he taught me this. Growing up an only child (I am in fact not, but was raised as one), learning to forgive came to me late in life; fights tended to mean I would pack up my toys and run home never to return.
Similarly, the Physicist taught me the importance of not wasting energy on negativity, that staying mad only drained oneself, having little affect on others. Which may have been why I was so surprised when Chef told me the other day that I am the most miserable person he has ever worked with. Wait, really? He’s English, I thought, has he never heard a Smiths album? Clearly he has noted that he infuriates me daily with his rudeness and insults, but that I forget our differences when he accidentally steps out of his kitchen clogs on the way into the fridge, makes his disgruntled face/groan combo at the site of raw chickens that have crossed the boarder between the stainless cuisinier counter and our glorious marble, or responds with a loud and joyous “Oui, Chef!” to everyone, including the kitchen porters.
There is no doubt opening a hotel is difficult business. I have never seen so many exhausted malcontents in one place trying so hard with the bit of energy they have left to greet one another in a cheerful manner and engage in meaningless chit chat while waiting ages for the slow elevators that invariably stop at every floor.
Who needs commis when the turning slicer can make 5 radishes into six servings?
Kitchen work is gruelling to begin with. It is long, sweaty, tiring mentally and physically, requires stamina, focus, determination, drive, good timing, and quick wit. I realized early on so many men stay with kitchen life because it allows them to remain in an adolescent frame of mind. The kitchen is the Neverland of our reality, though I’m sure there are other professions that allow for such arrested development.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that chefs fail to accept responsibility or other marks of adulthood, but let’s be fair, the kitchen is one of the only work environments where sexual harassment is not only acceptable but likely encouraged, where antics prevail, jokes fly endlessly, drinking occurs, but the work continues. Stress is in the air constantly, so acting childish is the only way to feel relaxed, to stop feeling like a peeling or chopping machine. The hours are late, chefs often stay up until 3am because returning from work at 1am doesn’t mean time for bed — they need to wind down just as everyone else does. Cooking all day without eating themselves means home meals are often significantly lacking in necessary vitamins and minerals. Chefs need someone else to cook for them, they have given all their energy to strangers.
Bread is all the food groups in kitchen life.
Kitchens are families. Spending 12 or 16 hours with the same people everyday will do that. You don’t have to like each other enough to hangout after work (because you won’t go to the pub the way suits do, your hangout time tends to be before and after a service, when the stress lowers a bit, and you can chat over a bin of 75 scallops), but you must get along with everyone somehow, because everyone, chefs, servers, porters, we all work towards the same end result.
But like all communities, there is still a certain degree of divisiveness. If you’ve worked in kitchens and you walk into a new one, you can probably tell immediately who fits where on the brigade hierarchy. Sous, Head, and Exec Chefs talk to each other on an even level. CdPs are in a different league, they fall between the sous and the cogs, they have a great deal of responsibility but lack the experience to fit in with management. The Commis and DemiCdPs are given little information, mocked or tormented, and forced to do the meanial, labourous, or monotonous jobs like turning a bag of potatoes which shall, unknowingly to them, be turned into mash, or portion 25lb blocks of butter.
Commis R prepares afternoon cuppas for the chefs everyday.
Porters are treated well by higher level chefs, but often poorly or utterly ignored by the minions. Servers are regarded with much disdain from everyone, and the pastry section are considered chefs on permenant holiday.
Langostines: I still don’t know if we have a Canadian equivalent…
Little chatting happens in service. Often chefs who are sectioned near one another tend to become better friends. I was able to get to know the larder boys when I worked the Brasserie, but now that I am up in the fish resto, pastry is next to meat and fish, not larder. I don’t chat, or rather banter, with larder chefs any more.
Oxford Street Christmas lights are up. Note the elves, when lit up, will either climb into the delicious Marmite, or vomit into their cap at the thought.
Working in pastry allows me to also get to know the servers. Timing on the hot and cold lines are usually similar, but the servers are almost always the last to leave because they re-fit the dining room and polish the silverware long after the chefs have gone home. Pastry stays until it is a guarantee the last table has a dessert or is disinterested in dessert. The other chefs always pack up their mise, wash down the fridges, stoves, passe, and knives before I can consider doing such exciting things. I have always managed to see the human side of the front of house in the way that cuisiniers tend to overlook; servers don’t poke around for extra steaks or oysters at the end of the night because they know there aren’t any, but they do know if they are extra nice, they will get themselves a mousse cake or some ice cream.
A Spanish server asked me the other day “But why you come to this country?” Most of the servers in London are immigrants, Italians, Spaniards, or from Eastern Europe, and so this question has come up several times. Few people I have met here have been to Canada, and from what I hear they only know it as some large, wonderful place where everyone is equal and wealthy and comfortable. Initially of course, I said that Canada is a very young country with foggy cultural identity, short history, and wretched architecture. I said I wanted to experience a country with true history, stand in places millions had stood over the years, to try to understand why humans are they way we are now. But when the Spanish server asked me why I left such a wonderful country my only response was, “I don’t know.”
Which, to be fair, I only meant at that time. Having had what will likely be my only Commis-like experience (keep in mind when I was an actual Commis it was for accounting purposes only) with little enjoyment I was not in the best frame of mind. I wasn’t being treated like the Commis R, a mid-twenties man who’d dropped everything to become a chef. His Commis experience is authentic — he runs around all day getting things for everyone, he slaves over 25lbs of lobsters only to have his work interrupted by senior staff screaming “What are you doing? How long does that have to take? What is wrong with you?” And R hunches his shoulders and schlubs back to the lobsters while the chefs snicker quietly. I don’t think he knows how much they like him, as they just ridicule him all day.
Okay I’ve been grumpy. And distracted. Tired. I’ve eaten a good deal of madeleines and little else. My gums bleed when I brush my teeth. I live out of a suitcase. My knees have been swollen for 5 weeks. I shower every 5 days, often during my break at work. The idea of getting on another tube train upsets me a great deal. Everyone at work sounds like an asshole because I don’t understand why making fun of everyone all the time is so funny. I’ve been miserable plenty of times in my life, I’m not overjoyed by anything, but I’m not miserable now. I just have a naturally sad face. It seems they understand me as much as I understand them.
C keeps telling me it’s Culture Shock. “Yeahyeahyeah,” I say, not thinking twice about it. “I just don’t like English sarcasm. It’s mean.”
I finally look into this. The Canadian Govt website says Culture Shock causes the following:
- feelings of anger, discomfort, confusion, frustration or irritability and loss of a sense of humour;
- withdrawal: spending excessive amounts of time alone, spending time only with Canadians or other foreigners and avoiding contact with locals;
- negative feelings about the people and culture of the host country;
- compulsive eating and drinking or a need for excessive amounts of sleep; and
- boredom, fatigue and an inability to concentrate or work effectively.
Um. Yes. I am Culture Shock.
Feels good to know it’s not just me.
And I’m working on the recipes for this site’s future, they will come back. I’ll get over the culture shock and stop whining I promise.