I’ve been working in television for the last ten years, and my work has given me the opportunity to not only talk about food but also work with some of the best chefs in the industry. I’ve seen a lot over the years, and even though chefs would let us into their restaurants and their lives for a glimpse “behind the scenes”, I always felt like there was an invisible curtain. It was as if these guys belonged to a club with its own secret language. They seemed to know something I didn’t. And it killed me. I didn’t want to just observe the madness, I wanted to be part of it too.
So while we bide our time in London before the move to Hong Kong, I’ve decided to press the pause button on my TV career and try something new. I emailed Paul Merrett, a chef who I had filmed with a few years ago. Back then he was opening a new restaurant on the edge of Richmond Park called the Victoria, and I was impressed with his attitude and effort. After that shoot day, I made a mental note that perhaps he’d be someone I’d like to work for in the future. Well after two years, Paul still remembered me and was open to letting me join the team.
Aside from filming, I’d never spent any time in a professional kitchen, so I’d be starting from the ground up. Keeping that in mind, I expected to be peeling potatoes for weeks on end. My first day, I arrived embarrassingly early. I was greeted by a chef who was clearly in the middle of doing something and had little time to spend explaining anything to me. That said, I could tell he hadn’t been the one delegated to give me the “welcome” chat, so I sequestered myself in the staff changing room, killing time by giving my hands an extra long wash in the loo and carefully reading and then rereading all the labels on shelves. All the chef jackets were neatly folded on the top shelf. One shelf down held the aprons. Then rows of fresh towels were stacked on the bottom.
People started to trickle in, and I introduced myself trying not to appear like the over eager dork I really was. A tall, lanky guy walked in and removed his motorbike helmet.
“Are you Jen? Yeah, I think you’re with me today”, he said. “Grab a jacket, an apron, and two towels”. I was finally happy to have a task, even if it was as simple as getting dressed. I quickly changed and made my way to the kitchen.
The chef quickly set up a workspace for me, and I was told I’d be making Scotch eggs. “Wow”, I thought. “This was exciting. And seemingly higher up on the list than potato peeling.” The chef showed me how to wrap the farce, or sausage mix, around soft boiled eggs which seemed easy enough. It was easy, but also a sticky mess. I was trying to not spread farce all over the kitchen, but quickly everything I touched became tainted with raw pork. And without a sink directly behind me, my obsessive compulsive habit of washing my hands or workspace when dirty, was impossible to satisfy. Why wasn’t it that when Scotch Egg showed me how to flatted the farce and shape it, his hands had not turned into giant pork gloves as mine were now?
I quietly dealt with my pork crisis, pretending as though I had been making them since birth and this was the way it was supposed to be done. The only reason I knew that I hadn’t completely fucked them up was because of Scotch Egg’s encouraging comments. I did, however, have to spend extra time sanitising my workspace after my expression of pork glee.
As we continued to work, Scotch Egg and I chatted about the States. He said he had been to Los Angeles once to visit his uncle. Apparently his uncle had revived “Pogs” popularity in the 90’s, but then lost his fortune to an extravagant LA lifestyle. He now lives somewhere in the jungle in Brazil. I also found out that Scotch Egg was only 21, but had been cooking in restaurants since he was 15. Already, I was impressed with his ability to teach and delegate. Most 21-year-olds I have dealt with are lucky to leave the house in the morning without their finger up their nose.
Someone turned some music on, and everyone in the kitchen settled into a task. Every once in awhile, someone would sing out a line of a lyric. The energy of the kitchen was great, and I instantly felt comfortable. I’d later find out that this was just the calm before the storm. Because in just a few hours, service would begin.