Notes From The Underground Kitchen
A day in London's 'campest' restaurant kitchen.
I am hurriedly pacing down the stairs at Arnos Grove station at half past three in the afternoon when I see a train on platform four. I switch gears and start jumping down the stairs as my mind tries to assess how long the train has been there. Will I make it in time or will I end up with half a leg inside as the doors shut and crack my nuts? I somehow manage to scoot in with my nuts intact. Owing to the momentum that my body has gathered over the course of running down the stairs, I struggle to stop myself even after entering the train and with a force that is beyond my bodily control, I lunge into the seat. I am panting. It is my first day at work today.
I am not late, I am just not prepared. It is not like I am taking over as the CEO of Apple. My job is relatively simple. I am supposed pick up food from the kitchen and run it over to waiters before it gets cold. Not that I have been a CEO before, but I am assuming that this “first day at work” feeling is agnostic to the job title.
I feel weird. This feeling is hard to pin down to one adjective. It is a mix of anticipation, nervousness, mental exhaustion from rehearsing ice breakers in my head, constantly feeling a vacuum in the stomach and an incessant urge to pee. Having already made three trips to the washroom with decreasing levels of output each subsequent time, the tickle around my tummy is not going away. I feel like peeing again, but I know there is nothing in me to let out. Adding to this discomfort are my clothes. Till my uniform arrives, I have been asked to come dressed in all black. The tight black shirt that I borrowed from a friend much thinner than me is not letting my paunch enjoy its full expanse. Even though I am breathing fine, I feel suffocated in these clothes. The suffocation is partly owed to the shirt and partly to my old friend and foe, newness. The strange feeling of putting yourself out there in a new environment, yet again. Technically, I should be fairly nonchalant at this point. This is not my first job in hospitality. I have done this before. It is stupid work.
It is slightly different this time though. My कर्मभूमि for the next few days is going to be The Midland Grand Dining Room, an iconic London brasserie opened in 1873. Slight deviation, I did not know the difference between brasserie and brassiere till a few months ago. Every time I saw a brasserie hoarding on the streets, I would wonder why London had so many fancy undergarment shops. If you are still confused, Google the difference between the two. Anyway, back to the story. Part of the Renaissance hotel (London’s version of the Taj in Bombay), the Midland Grand dining room is one of those places where people pay insane amounts of money to eat tiny portions of food that the uninitiated like me can neither afford, nor pronounce.
I am waiting to be let in at the staff entrance when a girl from HR calls me. “Why don’t you come in from the front door so that I can show you the restaurant floor before we go to the kitchen?”, the voice on the other side says. As I approach the entrance, she welcomes me with a genial smile that I will notice a lot over the next couple of hours. Like it is mandated for lawyers to wear a black robe, people in hospitality are mandated to wear a smile at all times. They don’t need to feel happy and hospitable, they just need to look like they are.
This place is a sensory experience. Before I can make sense of the place, the sum total of seeing, hearing, smelling and setting foot into this restaurant tells me that it is not usual. The ceilings are high, like that of a church. The carpet feels extra soft. It is modern, but in a very ancient style. Articulating it much better in her Guardian review of the same, Grace Dent describes the place as a “glittering, opulent, gold room” making it the “campest restaurant in the UK, if not the world.”
As I walk around the place, I sense a preemptive calm. People are preparing for a busy day ahead. Just like soldiers before a battle, I see men and women neatly folding linen with mechanical precision, setting up the tables, stocking the fridge, arranging cutlery. “Wow ! This is nice.”, I think to myself.
Cut to : I am standing in the basement kitchen, waiting for someone to talk to me, give me some work, ask me some questions or just bloody acknowledge me. I am what is called mal carne (meaning “bad meat” or “new guy”) in the restaurant world. The chain of command from mal carne to chefdom, as Anthony Bourdain writes in his iconic New Yorker article, is a rite of passage that every hospitality worker has to go through.
This underground kitchen is no less in dishing out a sensory attack on someone who walks in for the first time. Roughly seven minutes into being there, I am seeing, feeling, smelling, touching and hearing things. It is incredibly hot here. The air is damp and sticky. A little away from the kitchen, where me and my fellow mal carne work, it smells weird. Sour weird. It is the smell of steam, vinegar, boiling chicken broth, sweat and ever changing aroma coming from the adjacent kitchen. The floor is sticky too. It is not unhygienic, it is just par for the course. Bourdain again puts it much better than I ever could. In the same article, he writes :
The members of a tight, well-greased kitchen staff are a lot like a submarine crew. Confined for most of their waking hours in hot, airless spaces, and ruled by despotic leaders, they often acquire the characteristics of the poor saps who were press-ganged into the royal navies of Napoleonic times—superstition, a contempt for outsiders, and a loyalty to no flag but their own.
Uf ! What writing. Anyway, the sounds here are as harsh as the ambient jazz playing upstairs was soothing to the ears. The constant buzz of the industrial size dishwasher forces everyone to notch up their decibels in order to communicate. Amidst this buzz, I can hear knives being rubbed against each other vigorously, someone is chopping rhythmically, people are shouting instructions, jokes, match scores and TV show recommendations to each other. This noise and the sudden radio silence it follows is separated by one sound. The whizzing of a printer. Suddenly everyone is attentive. The first order has arrived.
I hear a commanding voice say, “Three gougères, one liver parfait with a beetroot, fig, walnut & smoked ricotta salad, followed by a beef tartare with green peppercorn, nasturtium & smoked bone marrow.” It is the commanding officer of this motley crew : Chef Patrick Powell. Before I can make sense of what he said, I hear a thumping “Oui” (‘yes’ in French) in unison from his team. Each chef in the kitchen has a stopwatch in front of them. As soon as the order is read out, they make note of what falls under their jurisdiction and start racing against time.
Now there is chaos again, but a more structured one. There are new sounds. Sounds of whirring flames, beeping ovens, boiling oil and then there is the sound of a fat well-salted steak landing on a feisty hot grill. This sound must be to chefs, what the sound of a crisp cover drive from Sachin must be to cricket aficionados. It is sublime.
The kitchen is as tasteless in its aesthetic as the restaurant is opulent. If not for people running around in white aprons, this place could easily pass off as a big factory floor. The basement is a maze. If you walk in one direction from the kitchen, you will enter dimly lit alleys with floor to ceiling cabinets full of wines on both the sides. Wines of all types, sizes, colours and prices. And just when you think this wine maze might never end, you land up in a laundry room where hangers after hangers are filled with aprons, blazers, blouses, skirts, suspenders and racks and racks of shoes. It feels like a portal where regular sneaker-pullover type people come in and transforms themselves into slick hospi-warriors.
Have you ever seen the bodyguards who stand behind heads of states? Have you noticed how they stand? That is exactly how I am standing behind the head chef, with my palms hooked into each other in the front, my feet spread out in line with my shoulders and my face looking straight into the unyielding pull of nothingness. Lost in the alienness of what I am seeing, I see a fellow mal carne waving at me from far. As I slowly tune out of the world inside my head, I hear a crescendoing voice —“Service please.” It comes again, slightly louder and stretched out this time, “Service pleaseeee!!”, which is when I realise I am service. I don’t have a name here. I am service. I panic and run to the chef as he is closely looking at a tray full of food under a yellow light, like scientists look at germs under a microscope. Without looking at me, he says, “You are going to table twenty nine.” I pick up the tray and start walking up the stairs.
Between the kitchen and the restaurant floor is a short climb of eighteen stairs, but it feels longer. Much longer. Across those eighteen stairs and a couple of steps, a whirlwind of thoughts cross my mind.
I am already breathless. I am so fat.
It would be so embarrassing if I trip and fall with this tray.
What the hell is this food ? I cannot even recognise the ingredients.
Do people really feel satisfied with such a small quantity ?
Holy shit! That lady in the blue dress is the most beautiful woman in the world.
Ah! The air conditioning here feels so nice.
What kind of jobs do these people do to be able to afford this food? I am pretty sure none of them wasted their time and money on a master’s degree for sure.
Wait, how much does this sh*t cost ?
“That is for table twenty nine”, I tell the waitress, almost saying it out loud to stop my train of thoughts. “Twenty nine ?” She says with the most fake real smile in the world. She almost convinces me that she is in love with me through that smile. “Yes”, I stutter. “This way please”, she says as she leads me to the table. As she sets each dish in front of the table while calmly explaining the dish to the customers, I am struggling. My hands hurt a little from the weight of the giant wooden tray and the unnecessarily large plates in which the sparrow poop quantity of food is placed. While waiting for her to finish her spiel, I pry on their conversation. The fake real smile has been accentuated now. I feel jealous. Why does the white old man get a bigger smile than I do? But more importantly, how the hell does it look like they are childhood friends catching up after a long time? How does she know so much about him?
On my way down to humid hell, I see a piece of paper taped on the large granite platform. This mentions the name of the customers, whether it is their first time, the number of people they are coming with, the purpose of their visit (birthday, business meeting etc) and whether anyone is a VIP that needs to be taken extra care of. Mind = blown.
With each subsequent trip from the kitchen to the restaurant, the sweat, hunger and muscular pain is increasing. My shirt is soaked through and through. And it is not a loose shirt, remember? It feels like the sweat might trickle back into my pores if not given enough space to evaporate. In some corner, a chef has just slid a block of butter and garlic on a hot pan. I can smell it. It smells heavenly. There is a three layered heap of chocolate cake right in front of my eyes. The strong aroma of black truffle is almost making me high as I carry the tray upstairs, but my next meal is at least five hours away, if not more. All I want to do is this.
Cut to: The dinner service has ended. One more hour to go before some food goes into my system. The last annoying set of customers are taking their time with their desserts. I see the ubiquitous smiles waning off slowly. If given a free pass, waiters would butcher these overstayers with their own hands and drink their blood to get rid of the hunger. But unfortunately, there are no free passes here, so they wait patiently. Meanwhile, contrary to slowing down, the atmosphere downstairs is picking up pace. This is the final lap. People are tired, but they are going full throttle.
Heaps of dirty dishes, bowls, knives, spoons with leftover food start coming down in a lift dedicated just for this. The kitchen porters start lifting these heaps and arranging them inside the dishwasher. There are hot water pipes hanging down in front of them like a studio microphone. They pull it down, hose the plates with hot water and then put them into the dishwasher. The dishwasher looks like an airport scanner. It is equally big in size. Dirty dishes go in from one side, and pristine white dishes come out from the other. “So I just need to stack these dishes and put them in the right place ? Shouldn’t be too hard.”, I think to myself. Naive.
My boss, a twenty year old boy from the Dominican Republic comes to me and says in broken English, “You see these marks ? We need to wipe them. Spray vinegar, take this cloth and wipe it. No fingerprints, not water marks, no stains. Okay ?” I want to say “oui” with as much passion as the chefs did on their first order, but I can’t. I have done hard labour today. My train of thoughts takes off again with dangerous, unstoppable momentum. Now they want me to clean the already cleaned plates ? Just so these rich white people can see their old ugly faces in them ? This is unfair. Marx was right. The joys of the bourgeoisie are built on the inhuman exploitation of the working people. This is unfair. I am a postgraduate degree holder who himself dines in such restaurants back home and now they want me to do this? I don’t mind working hard, but this task is just unnecessary. I don’t want to do this. Maybe the escalating frustration is reflecting on my face. I look like a child who has been asked to stay back and finish his class work after school hours. I am sad.
Maybe it was this look on my face that invited it, but I hear a loud and cheerful, “Ya good, mon?” It is one of the porters. He wants to know if I am good? I feel like punching him in the face, but he disarms me with his smile. I don’t think he is wearing this smile like his colleagues upstairs. It seems genuine. “Loving every bit of it. I could do this all day”, I say as I spray vinegar on a box full of cutlery and wipe each spoon carefully. He laughs. He is the first person who spoke to me today without a reason. Mental note taken : Wherever you work, at whatever position, always speak to people on their first day.
Terry is from Accra, the capital of Ghana. He used to work for the British Airways in Ghana where he met his wife, who is from London. She proposed to marry him and bring him to London with her. Terry works a hard shift at Tesco, a supermarket, from six in the morning to three in the afternoon. Here he loads and unloads cartons. He then takes a bus and comes to the restaurant for a 4:00 PM-1:00 AM shift. I at least get to go up on the restaurant floor to occasionally enjoy the air conditioning and the beauty of rich, good looking people. Terry and his colleagues start and end their day in the hottest, stinkiest corners of the basement. Then he takes a bus back home to be in bed by four in the morning. One hour of sleep before he is back at Tesco. A twenty hour work day, one hour of sleep and a ubiquitous smile on his face. That’s Terry.
The serious tone in which I am saying it is not the tone I heard it in. He was casually mentioning his schedule as if it is a matter of fact not just for him, but everyone. “What will you do if not work hard, mon ? This is the age to work hard.”, he tells me as I bitch and moan about my five hour shift.
The train in my head slowly departs again. No, you are not a working class man, you dumb fuck. You are the same entitled asshole who would have sat in a fancy restaurant, gobbling on overpriced food, oblivious to what’s happening to people down there in the basement. It is not the inequality that is bothering you, it is the fact that you are now at the receiving end of it. The number of hours you work in a week is how much Terry works in a day. And you thought you working a five hour shift is unfair ? Wipe those knives and forks squeaky clean and dare not complain about the pain or the heat. As if Terry’s hard work was not enough to get me grounded, I see the head chef walking towards the washing area with a giant dirty cauldron. The way a six foot something Patrick is lifting it, the empty cauldron must not be less than eight kilos. His shirt is as sweaty as mine. As I look around, white apron clad sous chefs are mounted atop the oven, the granite platform, under the kitchen sink like monkeys on different branches of a tree. They are all mopping, scrubbing and wiping the deepest and dirtiest corners of the kitchen, still cracking jokes, discussing match scores and exchanging TV show recommendations.
I don’t feel grounded. I feel buried. In shame. Stupid work? This is not stupid work. This is a rite of passage. If you want to become a marketing bigwig, you start with sales. If you want to be a filmmaker, you start with wrangling cables. If you wish to ascend up to chefdom, as Bourdain said, this is where you start. This is where everyone starts.
I have two recommendations rolled into one. As you might have seen, my weekly obsession has been the Bourdain article that I have quoted and gotten inspired by. If this world fascinates you, or if you are just fond of eating out, read this piece. The New Yorker link posted below will not let you read the whole thing, so use this link to break the paywall. This link will let you access all paywall articles for free.
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