Friday, September 15, 2006

Foodies Corner....

I mentioned the other day that I'm a big fan of Jamie Oliver. His enthusiasm, straight-talking and touch of insanity inspire me. I easily relate to him. The first episode of his ten-week series, "Jamie's Kitchen: Australia" commenced on television Thursday evening just past. I watched it with interest and I know I will be following this programme each of its further nine episodes. It's close to my heart. This is his fourth creation of his "Fifteen" restaurant project. The first three, one in London, one in Cornwall and the third in Amsterdam are successful. Oliver, himself, is head chef at the London "Fifteen". Australian chef, Tobie Puttock, a good friend of Jamie's (both worked together at one stage in their careers) is in charge of operations at the Australian "Fifteen" being set up in Melbourne, Victoria. Thousands of young people applied for the 20 positions advertised. The theme is to take disadvantaged youth off the streets and give them something to aspire to. Those chosen will have a rude awakening and will have a long hard road ahead of them. Some will drop out, that's a given. But, it has succeeded in the first three restaurants and I hope it succeeds here.

Working in kitchens is no easy job as these kids have already discovered. The pressure is horrendous and it takes a special kind of person to handle it. No quarters are given. The pace is at full throttle. The work is hard but rewarding if one's heart and soul are fully committed. I know, I've been there! It's a very challenging job, one in which your adrenalin rages above meter readings, where your timing has to be spot in which you have to be completely focused. It's not a job for the faint-hearted nor those who think they're in for a easy ride. It's a job where you MUST have a sense of humour...a sense of the ridiculous...if not, there is no point going into it in the first instance.

Vividly I remember my debut cooking in a restaurant kitchen. Seeing my meals disappear out through the kitchen door in the waitress's hands caused me nervous spasms and knots in my stomach. It was how a mother would feel when someone takes her child from her, I'm sure! I knew I had done my best but I wasn't sure I had faith in the person delivering my food to the diners. Did she have any understanding and knowledge of food and, in particular, the food being presented? Was her demeanour with the diners a pleasant, inviting one? What I presented on the plates was MY creation! I had gone through the motions with her earlier in the night but time was of the essence as I had been called in at the last moment because the previous chef had walked out leaving the restaurateurs...who, by the way, had absolutely no knowledge of how to run a restaurant, let alone be welcoming to customers (more about that later!)...out on a limb...hence, their shout for help to me. I, who had never cooked in a commercial kitchen before! It mattered little as I was prepared and more than willing to tackle the challenge. That evening was to be the first of many years of challenges in the hospitality industry for me. I have no regrets whatsoever about taking on that challenge and all the future challenges that were to follow.

It is uncomprising work. You have so many different forces with which to battle. I think I conquered 99% of them when I was in the business.

My first battle was with the 'restaurateurs' of that first restaurant. They had not a clue! Desserts would not have gone out and the male of the couple would start ringing off the till! He would go as far as turning off some lights and placing chairs up on unoccupied tables! That was when I felt I had to enter the restaurant and chat with the diners to put them at ease in an effort to make them feel welcome, a practice I continued throughout my years in the business. On the distaff side, she insisted on keeping 20lt containers of mayonnaise out of refrigeration. After many fruitless arguments with her about the dangers of this practice, I just refused to use it, throwing it out eventually. I hate mayonnaise, anyway and very, very rarely use it, preferring to use yoghurt or sour cream in its stead where needed. The menu, when I commenced there, had far too many selections on it for the capacity of the restaurant. I suggested putting together a new, concise menu. This they agreed to and I spent hours composing a new one only to have it ignored! Knowing they had little interest, I just ceremoniously and diligently crossed off items on the existing menu (I hated having to do that but I had no other option), informed the waitresses of my method and I ended up with a concise menu after all! There is nothing worse than having to present to a diner a menu with items clearly deleted on it but I was forced into a corner. And those who know me well, know I don't like defeat! ;)

I have so many stories to tell about my days in the hospitality day I might write that book I've been threatening to write!


  1. I, too, have worked in restaurants, but not as a chef. As a dishwasher, a waitress, a bar tender and manager, not necessarily in that order. I feel it is an industry where one is almost obliged to lose one's cool periodically and no-one gives a damn! They're too busy losing their own cool to worry about anyone else - lol.

    Like you, I could write a book on the experience. It's a great industry for seeing all the differents sides to people, isn't it?

  2. God! Yes! I'll readily admit I've lost my cool many times in kitchens and when I was managing resorts...always warranted, too!

    Sometimes it can take me a while to blow my fuse, but when I do, helmets and battle fatigues are required! ;)

  3. My daughter Carlena works as head chef at a restaurant in Glenelg in Adelaide. She started, cooking hamburgers in an overnight burger bar, while studying marine biology at university, then she moved to a restaurant, in the kitchen, and the cooking took over as she found she had a talent for food and organisation.

  4. That's great, Della. It's a good job when one has his/her heart in it. It's a great outlet for one's creativity. I wish her well.