My induction into a commercial kitchen
I believe I am a cook, though honoured that some colleagues call me a Chef; a passion that fired when I was very young.
As a young 15 year old entering the workforce it was a little confusing, if not frightening to enter a commercial kitchen; however was this not my dream come true, having made up my mind to become a cook about nine years old.
I was (as I thought at the age of nearly 15) “street wise”, learnt from experience of being a paperboy to earn extra cash and the prospect of entering the kitchen on my first fulltime job should not have been that frightening and yet, why did my confidence appear to slump lower and lower the nearer I got to the kitchen.
It was on my first day in August 1957 in a commercial kitchen starting the first day of the rest of my life. The hotel kitchen situated in the basement was large, with stoves, steamers, work benches, wall fridges and grills on one side separating a long corridor by an extensive gleaming race, no natural light and with heavy steamy air.
I distinctly remember entering the kitchen full of anxiety about the future, a feeling that I was walking towards my gallows, moreover wearing an oversized cooks coat, a floppy white hat and a necktie that seemed impossible to tie neatly around my neck. As I entered the kitchen I had to nervously walk past a small office with windows positioned so who ever was in there had full view of the kitchen including on the other side of the corridor, a long line of walk in fridges.
It was then I heard my very first terrifying words “Eh boy, “Fermez la porte, s'il vous plait. Not understanding French added to the apprehension to my entrance. In a panic, I desperately tried to straighten my necktie, believing this to be the obvious command which emitted from a short impeccable dressed chef in full white cooks uniform and tall white hat; only to see him burst out laughing as he said in English with a French accident “ boy, I said close the fridge door”.
There stood Chef ” Devari’e,” chief and god of a brigade of 52 cooks not including the seventeen apprentices I was to learn months later, A little man with a tall white hat, a small but friendly face and deep eyes that you just knew would see everything. A paradox of a man both loved and yet feared by his team, a man who was an inspiring leader of a hot tempered multicultural brigade. Not multicultural as we understand the word today but still a gathering of many different nationalities. French sous chefs, Polish, German, Egyptian, Dutch, Swiss and English chef de parties to name a few, all with a fundamental dislike of any other nationality other than their own.
There were several sous chefs in Devari’es brigade and each in turn had several chefs de parties working under them and each parti with their own team of commis, trainee managers, porters, and apprentices.
Yet I remember the second most powerful man in the kitchen was the “aboyeur” or the order caller, who even made the sous chefs jump when he barked. Why so much power I will never know?
I soon learnt that a commercial kitchen is a very structured environment and being both an apprentice and particularly the new baby on the block meant that I was at the very bottom of the ladder.
My first assignment for 3 months was to work in the mise- en place /prep kitchen” on a floor below the main silver service grill. This was where you served your indenture in order to become an apprentice worthy of working in the main kitchen. This prep kitchen alone was much larger than most large hotel kitchens today and was the busy supply department and core of the many other kitchens in the Cumberland Hotel London.
Every delivery of fresh produce whether game, poultry, vegetables or fish came into this prep kitchen first, for initial processing, whole fish was cleaned and scaled and the chooks and grouse eviscerated and de feathered, oyster shells crushed, and vegetables washed. And what seemed like a never ending procession of goods requisitioned out on numerous trolleys that came in empty and left like clockwork on trains out of a major city station as they chuffed to the other areas of the hotel for a further preparation.
Chickens had to be literally drawn and feathered by their hundreds, fish gutted and filleted, vegetables washed sorted counted by the ton and much more and for 10 hours a day for six days a week, I stood at with hands red and sore, feet and back aching and unable to dare to answer back.
However at last I had survived the ordeal and it was to be my first day in the real world, and transferred to the “Silver Grill Kitchen” (which today, if it still had existed, would be the fine dining kitchen). It appeared that I had served my induction and now was to be “promoted” as an apprentice in the Garde Manger, but more importantly, not the baby on the block any more.
The Chef de partie garde manger “Chef Castle “not even remembering his first name, as one would only dare to call him by the title “Chef”,
In this small world of the larder section, there was a smaller god, Chef Castle, who by now must be in the great white kitchen in the sky. He was assisted by one third commis de cuisine, one second commis de cuisine, one trainee manager, and two apprentices and yes I was again at the mercy of the whole team. I was now to be the one who washes, runs and jumps even more than the others.
We made dressings and mayonnaise, salads, and cold platters, I even remember the rule to break each egg and smell it before separating the yolk from white, I pounded lobster shells, kept the trout alive in large fish tanks that were eventually to be sent to god when the fish partie called for one to be extracted gutted and cleaned for “Truite au bleu”.
I often wondered if a wily trout ever survived the deadly ordeal by knowing when one’s time was up and swim to the bottom or hide in such a way as not to be the one caught this time. Maybe for years an “old man trout” swam around the tank until luck or age caught up.
It was here that I watched in wonder as the chef prepared a Chaud-froid picture from blanched vegetable on a velvet white background and the 20 or more hors d'oeuvre platters made daily for the dining room trolley.
No one told you, showed you, or gave you handouts, you learnt by sight, taste, and smell and become proficient by doing a task over and over; and over again and getting better and faster every time.
Now after 4 months and learning to survive, and next assigned to the roast partie. This partie was not such a large section as the larder with only three of us, the Chef the 3rd commis, and lowly me with mountains of chickens to roast, grouse, and pheasant to truss and now ten hours of standing in front of an oven and soaked in sweat, which was to be my first experience of real heat.
I remember once the chef de partie in a German accent dared to tell the aboyeur that the chicken was off the menu only to be screamed at by the aboyeur and Sous chef that he had better get some more on the way and that a GREAT KITCHENS WILL ALWAYS HONOUR WHAT IT HAD ON THE MENU.
At the same time I was immediately dispatched to literally run to another kitchen to obtain a chicken and ordered to be back in minutes or my guts were garters. I discovered later that the Polish hated the Germans, who hated the English, who hated the French and all considered the Hungarians as fools and took every opportunity to scream abuse to each other to let everyone know when someone stuffed up.
It was here that I learnt that real kitchens made their own convenience foods, only we called it names like "Glace de Viand", prepared from hours of reduction of the roast juices and stock made into a thick black meaty molasses and why the other Chefs revered this product.
The gods looked down on me and showed mercy and I was to get away from the daily hell of roasting in both the oven and words after only two months in that hell.
My next assignment was to be sent to the soup partie where gallons of consommé and other soups were prepared each day from it seemed masses of bones and mirepoix. The soups made in pots big enough to have a bath prepared, soup for not only for the silver grill dining room but all the soups required for the banquet Kitchen, and the many other food outlets of the hotel, A nice friendly Hungarian chef de partie and probably my best time as an apprentice, as we actually got on together and only two of us would cover the seven days on split shifts.
Funny none of the other Chefs de parties, or apprentices liked the small bald-headed man who profusely swore in Hungarian, who wore glasses that steamed up as he paddled through the various velouté each day. Still as far as I was concerned I was now being treated like a human at last. Actually was given a break now and again to go to the staff kitchen for a meal, for you would not dare eat in the kitchen. At least not while the chef or Sous chefs were around, needless to say, a sneaky snack sometimes in the afternoon on the rare straight shift.
In the staff kitchen, they called it a meal, made from the best of the worst scraps, the food prepared by cooks that could not cook anywhere else in the industry.
I remember one day, the word got around that the young new French Sous chef (all the Sous chefs were French) was not happy with the apprentices’ performances and was planning to move them all as this trivial roster was not done by the head chef, but allocated to one of his minions.
Ah, this was my first lesson and opportunity to be involved in politics, I was now in the job more than a year and learnt the lesson that real politics is more doing what you are told by the ones who make the actual decisions than being able to influence someone with more power than you.
There I was at last in the golden partie "the sauce". A great partie and the largest in the kitchen run again by a Demi god with three commis 2 trainee managers and 2 apprentices and even with its own porter.
Daily stocks were prepared, not just a general stock, but a brown beef stock that simmered for three to four days, a white stock that cooked till full of flavour from chicken carcasses and the numerous other daily made sauces such as the veal bones made into jus-lie, tomato sauce and béchamel all made with tender loving care. God help anyone who put anything into the stockpot without first checking with the saucier chef.
I was supposed to enjoy working with this Polish chef de partie, I do not believe that I am racist, but why were the polish chefs the hardest to work for.
I soon learnt that they were even harder and expected even more then the much-hated French Sous chefs who in turn seemed to dislike all chef de parties. “Could anyone ever turn this into a team?"
It was here that I discovered the "kitchen bible" from the almost violent arguments that aroused daily around the posted “plat du jour menu” which would end at the first court of appeal “Le Repertoire de la Cuisine” and if that book did not settle the argument or the point scoring, recourse to the immortal Guide by Escoffier.
Also in the sauce corner, we learnt to look down on the loufiats, (waiters) who were the lowest of the low and even lower than the plongeur who washed the pots and pans.
My next yearn, like all the other apprentices, was to be assigned to the Patissiére where we would actually learn mostly by watching how to make sugar baskets, ice-cream bombes and much more, the real secrets carefully being covertly hidden by the English chef de partie.
But before my dream would become reality, a 6 month stint in the entremettier where my fingers would bleed from peeling bags of chestnuts, making every evening, pan upon pan of pommes voison, the sauté potatoes; that had to be exactly right, the epinard en branch (or branched spinach), and the other varieties of daily vegetables. Prepared in a hell where slave labour was the norm and the only part of the day worth living was the daily ritual of playing poker each afternoon from 3 pm to 5 pm before returning to work and all for 2 pounds 15 shillings a week.
But now, a one month rest, yes a holiday on the grill designed to make one sweat from morning to night in front of a charcoal grill. Does anyone really know how damn hot those things get? Filet mignon, point rump which must have the triangle fat, French cutlets, mixed grills and more, all turned over and at the precise moment and poked with sticky fingers to ensure degree of doneness is perfect.
And then a transfer to the fish section, second only in reputation to the sauce partie and music to ones daily routine, cooking at last, but no, polishing the copper pans with lemon juice and salt, making hollandaise twice daily, but in my second year I have power! I am in charge of another apprentice and damned hard he will work.
“He is my slave and if I did not like it, he would do it”, and even if I wished to be amused will send him to the maintenance department for left handed hammer or put a shilling into the gas meter, yes bliss, I am now powerful, I have finally tasted power and I like it.
At last, it is my third year the "sweets"; which really meant, burnt fingers from sugar, ice-cold hands, and working with a equally demanding Patissiére. It was here that I learnt the lesson to enter competitions and “Voilá” my first silver medal at Earls Court, Salon Culinaire for what I believed was a perfect Charlotte Royal displayed amongst endless other charlottes that were awarded gold, however it was mine, I had won, I was king.
It was hard work in conditions that would not be acceptable today, at the time, I was “not happy, Jan” but on reflection, thank goodness I could not change it.
For I had unknowingly learnt discipline, skills, respect and more importantly, I discovered that before one can lead and give orders, one needs to learn how to take orders.
I suggest that whilst these old days are gone for good, I believe that our modern apprentices miss out on some real life skills.
I doubt very much if any modern apprentices who most seem to have a self inflated view of entitlement, would take the abuse the conditions and the rate of pay, but there again how many of them learnt to make basic sauces and extend them into hundreds of combinations. Tell a degree of doneness of a roast from just looking at it, pull sugar, carve a carrot into a carnation and know how to decorate food in an elegant way, how many apprentices experience the passion, the sense of duty the daily urgency and soak it up like a sunny day; leaving work everyday with a fuzzy warm feeling?
I just thank god and the many demi gods that I was an apprentice in that era and welcome the reality.