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Chef Life: Kitchen War Stories

I’m currently sitting in a half empty flat in Hong Kong while the sky empties onto the city. Just a week ago, I was in London waking at 6:30am to catch a train to Sheen where I’d spend the day and evening working at the Victoria. Around 1am, I’d plop myself into bed, sometimes mentally beaten and physically bruised, but always ready to do it all over again the next day.
Now that I’m in Hong Kong, the absence of this routine seems slightly strange. It’s like going from 100 mph to zero in a matter of seconds. I used to get the same feeling after I’d wrapped production on a very intense shoot. Call it masochistic, but the first day you are actually able to sleep in you somehow just don’t enjoy it. Your body can’t deal with the fact that you’ve effectively shut off the tap to a high pressure flow of adrenaline. As you putter about your day, you find yourself missing the insane hours and the constant twinge in your stomach due to stress. Work that once seemed frustrating and tiresome you now wear like a badge of honour. And the people you slogged through the muck with, you somehow feel like you’d take a bullet for -well, maybe not “all” of them, but definitely a select few.

When I first started, Paul told me that a typical chef works 8 shifts a week -an average of 60 hours or more. The monster of all shifts is the double which means you’re clocking in from open to close. Try working two or three of these in a row and you will quickly find out the meaning of “tired”. My intention to blog about my work at the Victoria on a regular basis was quickly scuttled when the hours I spent there began to increase. This was my own choice, as I wanted to learn as much as possible before the move. But it’s also meant a build up of blog posts that need some serious attention. So although I’m in Hong Kong and currently learning a whole new set of rules, my serious case of work withdrawal leaves me no choice but to finish writing about my experiences at the Victoria.

I think a lot of people romanticise the idea of what it’s like to be a chef, but truth be told it is a lot of hard work. This may seem obvious, but until you lift a 100 litre pot of boiling blanching water on your own, “hard” is really just a relative term. When I first started at the Victoria, I noticed all the cuts, burns, and abrasions everyone had on their arms and fingers. Little did I know that I would soon earn some of my very own. Of course I have to mention that for safety’s sake, there is always a method of operating that will prevent burns and cuts. But I will also say that when you are tired and moving at high speeds something inevitably slips and you find yourself with a fresh flesh wound.

And speaking of another glamourous element to chef life, one of my favourite tasks at the Victoria is cleaning the canopy. What this means is we pull out all of the stoves, ovens, and grill and wash the walls. But it gets even better. We also must clean the extractor fans. Everyone looks forward to doing this about as much as getting one’s teeth drilled without novocaine. But when the time comes, we all pull up our big girl pants and try to get it over with as quickly as possible. My first deep cleaning experience I liken to fraternal hazing. Not because I was bullied into it, but because I think for many people who might have “fancied” themselves as chefs, this might have been the moment when they packed it all up to run back to that desk job.

In order to reach the top of the extractor, I stood on the stove which was still hot from service. The boost definitely put me within reach but almost to a fault. If I stood straight, my face was smashed against the extractor. Trying not to melt the bottom of my shoes, I came up with a few clever manoeuvres that meant either hunching over or bending backwards in order to execute some heavy duty cleaning. Wearing a pair of industrial rubber gloves, I scrubbed the metal with hot, soapy water. Gravity quickly took hold and within about four seconds, I had hot, greasy water dripping down my arm, soaking into my chef jacket. But I carried on with my cleaning frenzy, if somewhat smashed in the corner.

I watched Tomato Half pull out a spray bottle filled with liquid. “Turn your face away.” he said. “Why?” I asked. “Because this is acid.” Come again? Did he just say, acid? Fine. I turned my head the other direction as Tomato Half sprayed the surface. “This just breaks up the grease so it’s easier for us to scrub”, he said. As I continued working, I found that the grease was indeed coming off easily. I also started to feel like something was biting my arms. When Tomato Half had sprayed the acid, I had turned my face away, but kept my arms out as I was using them for balance. The mist of acid had landed on my bare skin between my gloves and chef jacket. I was discovering that this was acid the hard way. I soldiered on, and I began to realise that every shift would present something new to test my limits.

A few weeks later, after enduring a particularly shitty service as well as acquiring a few new burns that were blistering nicely, I sat on the train wondering if I was actually cut out to do this kind of work. We had hired a new senior sous chef, and he was also catching the last train home for the night. We swapped abridged life stories, a few jokes, and then he began to tell me the nightmares. All serious chefs have them. One time he’d cooked a duck breast incorrectly, and the head chef turned it into a missile targeted straight for his forehead. He also told me that there were times when he first started in his career that he would sit up at night and try not to lose it. Good, I thought. At least I’m not the only one. But then Duck Breast asked me the crucial question. “Have you gotten the bug yet?” I didn’t even have to think about the answer.

When I first set out on this journey, I remember feeling like all chefs belonged to a secret club that I wanted to be a part of. I suppose I’ve found out that being a chef is a lot more than just cooking. There is a reason why we continually burn and cut ourselves, why we work long hours until our bodies ache, why we allow others to throw duck breasts at our foreheads or scream in our faces and call us assholes. It’s the adrenaline rush. It’s the war stories. It’s a personality and a lifestyle. Working in a kitchen is a hot, dangerous, and crass place to be. I love it.

4 Comments

  1. Tess

    Jen, how are you so f***ing tough & so f***ing cute at the same time? Amazing. I'm so glad you have "the bug", and can't wait to see what you do next. We'll have that hotel in the country someday.

  2. Jen

    Exactly! Acid on the arms is all just ground work for the hotel. You had better be perfectly those pastry skills while you're at it, cause I'll be calling at some point. x

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