Service Charge

My head hurts, my feet ache, and I’m only half way through the afternoon. I still have the rest of the prep to do and a busy service that probably won’t finish till around midnight. I am a bit concerned whether I can cope with it. It must be something to do with it being a week of hectic nights and the over zealous sampling of the new half bottles last night that has put me in this state; but hell, I’ve coped with more, feeling worse and no doubt I’ll do it again.

By 6.30, with some surprise, I realise I’ve done most of my main jobs, sorted through the fridge, taken all the debris through to the kitchen porter and cleaned down my work surface. Now just the mise en place [wonderful phrase mise en place, no proper English equivalent ]. That and ‘Merde’ is probably the only culinary French I still use.

The waitresses have arrived getting the restaurant ready for service and putting a bit of glamour into our lives. Then the first customers walk through the door and suddenly the whole machine shifts into first gear. Three orders later everything is moving along on oiled wheels; Pans clatter, fat sizzles, flames leap, knives chop, orders are barked. Four or five orders later, two main courses out of the way and we are out of top gear and into overdrive. My headache has gone and my feet don’t ache. I’m moving from stove to fridge, weaving, pirouetting, dodging in a well choreographed and practised routine. I’m reaching from top to bottom shelves, doing more knees bends than in the average work out. My mind is juggling orders, timing and judging cooking accuracy remembering garnishes, strategically planning the next move, all in micro-seconds. Not only do I feel great, I’m actually enjoying myself. It’s a challenge pitting your wits against anything they can throw at you. And all because of …… Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a big round of applause – let’s hear it for ADRENALIN. Those little glands on top of the kidneys pumping out the wonder drug that makes you capable of almost anything.

There is something about a busy service in a kitchen that is unique. Emotions have a raw edge; you feel and show anger, frustration, elation. Repartee and wit is faster, funnier, more acute and barbed. It’s not like the office, the shop or the factory floor; you can’t keep up pretences or present a carefully prepared front to your work colleagues – it would crumble in minutes. There is a camaraderie born of the fact you experienced it together, supported each other and came through it bowed and bloodied but unbroken.

A few years ago I was working with a young chap who had just finished training – he was keen and hungry and one of the fastest chefs I have worked with. One particular Saturday night we were overbooked with more people than we would normally do. But we prepped up, psyched ourselves up and hit it head on. After the last main course had gone out and we surveyed the debris of our glorious battlefield I said: ‘Well how do you feel after that?’ and he punched the air and said: ‘I feel like I could conquer the world’. He then looked a bit sheepish and embarrassed as if he’d gone a bit over the top. But to me he had just summed everything up.
The qualities required to do this job transcend gender, race and class. I’ve worked with all sorts of people: men, women, gay, straight, French, African, German, toffs, commoners, punks, and anarchists, and it all comes down to the same thing: can they hack it during a busy service. It is stimulating, therapeutic, emotionally charged, physically draining, creative, exciting, challenging and never 100% satisfying.

When I interview people for kitchen work I try to ascertain whether they are a nervous type. You can’t ask people outright because they tend to deny it thinking it is not a trait to be proud of. But I view it as a bonus. Nervous types have the mental agility, the physical nimbleness and the sense of urgency that a busy service requires, best described by someone once as ‘controlled panic’. Maybe their adrenalin spills into their blood stream quicker or perhaps they need to channel that nervous energy into something.

Just when you think you are never going to catch up; that the orders are coming infaster than you can churn out the food; just when that bastard difficult pudding order comes in when everyone is frantic you suddenly realise you’ve actually got the last order. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not an express train coming the other way. Things begin to wind down. The last main course goes out. At this point I et everyone a drink and apologise to anyone I snapped at, and then we start to clear the debris and clean the kitchen down. We have another drink, someone cracks a joke and we’re all laughing – a release after all that tension. Adrenalin and alcohol makes a nice combination. That and relaxing makes you mildly high. We sit down and have a chat after work and have another drink. It’s impossible even to think about going to bed for some time yet. Let’s open another bottle of wine – I’m going to feel like ‘merde’ in the morning.