“Come on! Send out the f’n bread!” screamed the Head Chef. His nickname was “Dog” and man could he bark! The pressure was immense, if the bread didn’t go out fast, the dockets backed up and everyone had to wait too long for their meals, drinks would be promo’d, the service would slow down and easily run until 11/12pm…unheard of in Brisbane during the mid 90’s!
Aged 17 I was one of 5 new, first year apprentices starting in a suburban Italian restaurant that was pumping out 350 meals 7 nights a week. My first section was “breads”. There were three types: pesto focaccia, garlic focaccia or tomato bruschetta.
Too easy right? Wrong! Every one of those people had bread to start and it all came off my section. I had trays of fresh focaccia buttered, oiled and pesto’d. Buckets of carefully, painfully, hand-diced tomato & basil mix (free of fingers, band-aids and blood) all ready to run through the most inadequate bread oven any restaurant had ever seen and man was it HOT!
Ah closing time – that meant pull apart the kitchen, scrub it down and, for us new “monkeys”…a mountain of dishes! The best bit? Staff beers. The only way to wind down fast and get some sleep before tomorrow’s early start.
The cream always rises to the top – or indeed the scum gets skimmed (culinary pun intended), either way I managed to advance through cold larder (salad) section, onto the hot-entree, pans section fairly quickly. There I learnt the absolute thrill and adrenaline rush associated with “Mise En Place”. The process of setting up your section with every ingredient for every dish within easy reach. Enough of it so that you don’t have to move for the next 4 hours of service. It is incredibly satisfying.
Anthony Bourdain writes extensively about Mise en Place (among other things) in his chef’s bible/expose “Kitchen Confidential”. Never have I identified with anyone else’s writing more than his. That book was given to me as a second year apprentice and further confirmed I was on the right track and should be proud of my career choice. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend you do.
There is some strange beauty in the almost choreographed movements of a dozen or so chefs during service. A troupe of sometimes drunk, often hungover, usually unshaven, tattooed, swearing, disheveled, (mostly) blokes with anger issues all coming together with precision, military timing to consistently produce a range of beautiful meals that people willingly pay for multiple times over.
I now had multiple ‘apprenti’ under me in rank (cos they started after me) and they had to do the dishes while I went and got the chefs a beer. Things were looking up!
Then I got sent to college. Six weeks of 9-5, classrooms, theory, ancient, irrelevant (to me at the time) “classic” recipes and techniques. Stocks, sauces, terrines, omelets, brunoise, julienne. Tall hats, neck ‘kerchiefs, starched aprons. I learned that there was much more to learn and that I needed to find a new job.
My employer reluctantly agreed and made some calls. He lined me up with an eccentric, Hong Kong born English chef at “Fridays” – a restaurant/bar/club/function centre. We catered for Brisbane’s stockbrokers, CBD lunch, evening diners and club/bar snackers. The days were long and the nights even longer. “You work hard, you play hard” was the motto.
Mr Wong went through kitchen staff as often as he traded shares. He was the largest private investor in the Australian stock exchange at the time and would often be on his mobile phone buying and selling during the busy lunch service. Always followed by celebratory drinks with the brokers in the bar for the afternoon. After about 9 months I was the longest serving kitchen member. I had learned his mysterious ways and fell into the role of 2IC even though I was still only a 3rd year apprentice.
I qualified 6 months early after a stint at the QLD club. An exclusive “gentlemen only “ club. I was stationed in the fine diner restaurant serving dinner to Prime Ministers and federal politicians.
My most vivid memory however is the time I lit the gas grill – but it didn’t light. I noticed a minute later, struck a match and leaned in close. The fireball singed the hair off my eyebrows, face and right arm. My right hand and forearm immediately blistered and the wall behind me was blackened. I was sat down out the back with my arm in a bucket of iced water while the other chefs handled service that night. I remember driving home with my arm hanging out the window using the cool air to stop the burning. The pain was intense when I had to stop at the lights. I detoured to the medical centre, via the bottle shop and returned to work the next day with a bandaged right arm. The show must go on.
Fast forward 2 years. I was riding the double decker bus home in central London hanging my freshly burnt left hand out the window sipping one of those huge cans of English lager. This time it was a splash of hot oil from a frying pan up the thumb and wrist – a pretty common accident. That night I self medicated and backed up for 8am the next day.
Twelve months in the English sun (or lack thereof) and it was time to make my triumphant return to Bris-Vegas. I landed a chef de partie role at Australia’s leading steak restaurant down on the riverside. 10am – 11pm 5 days a week for $500 after tax. This was it. The big time! As per usual, it wasn’t long before I was one of the longest standing chefs and got promoted to sous chef. $650 a week, longer hours and more responsibility. Fantastic! The experience, camaraderie and the lasting friendships, priceless.
It soon became clear that there was no endpoint, no top, no pinnacle of my career. At no point in their career does a chef stop learning, developing or creating. I had a couple more restaurant jobs, met my future wife and we moved to the country to assist in managing a boutique lodge on top of a mountain. We lasted 9, secluded months and we moved to the beautiful, sunny Gold Coast with aspirations of entering the cafe scene.
I took a role at the prestigious Palazzo Versace hotel where again I furthered my knowledge and experience, made some great friendships and spent time researching the cafe game.
Aged 29 we celebrated our wedding, moved into our first home and we settled on Caffe Republic. Eight years on, we’re planning renovations, upgrades and developing another new menu. Still reaching for that pinnacle. Still learning. Still developing new skills….including parenthood.
We’re fortunate enough to have built up a dedicated and skillful team at Republic which affords me the time to make up for all those overtime hours with my family and new hobbies.
Chef-life can be all consuming. Poor conditions, terrible pay, high stress, incredibly hard on the body. But holy-shit, it’s so damn rewarding! The romance, the art, the beauty, the ingredients, the produce, the service period when everything goes to plan, the celebrations afterwards, the joy of the diner, passing on knowledge to an apprentice, learning a new technique….
I often wonder what else I could have done or what I may have missed out on while I was slaving away in kitchens…. maybe a suntan? But just as often I’m reminded that it ain’t over yet!
I’m truly so grateful for my life today and who’s to say it could have been any better? After all we are exactly where we are meant to be. The Universe has provided. I have no regrets and am extremely happy!
What are you grateful for today?
Let me know in the Comments below!