So there I was in a “foreign” kitchen racing against the clock preparing for the night ahead; my first night as the restaurant's cook. (I was a self-taught cook...not a formally-trained chef).
The sun refused to slow its descent, not even for me! It was rapidly disappearing over the western horizon. There was no time to waste.
Studying the restaurant’s comprehensive menu, I made quite a number of deletions to simplify that first service. There was nothing else I could do. I'd quickly whipped up a soup because there was no way I was prepared to serve the remains left in one of the fridges of what maybe had been a soup at one stage. I'm prepared to bet I can beat any world record in the time it takes to make pumpkin!
When the waitress arrived for her shift, I immediately took her aside and pointed out what she had to do; which items I’d temporarily removed from the menu for that evening’s service. I hated doing so, deleting dishes. It wasn’t something I enjoyed doing – having to tell diners that certain dishes listed on the menu weren’t available. To my mind, it didn't shine a bright light upon the restaurant; any restaurant. In any of the restaurants I cooked in throughout the ensuing years I hated having to do so, and 99.9% of the time I didn’t operate that way. Whatever was on the menu was available to the diners at all times.
However, that night I had no other choice. And as it turned out, it was a practice I continued while cooking at “The Ebony Emu”; again, I was left with no other choices.
The menu was ridiculous. It had far too many items on it. For such a small restaurant whoever originally planned the menu needed their head read. There were about 10 offerings of chicken, done 10 different ways! Similar applied to beef, fish/seafood and desserts. There were even a couple of veal dishes on the menu, as well as pork! To top all of the above off, there were five or six different duck dishes as well!
For goodness sake! It was absolutely insane; and totally unnecessary. The diners had about 20 entrees (“starters” for Northern Hemisphere readers) to choose from before they even got to the main meal orders! And then, of course, a multitude of desserts awaited! I couldn’t believe it. I still shake my head in wonderment when I think about it!
On that first evening by the time the clock ticked over and the restaurant doors were opened to the public, I was ready - somehow. And I’d coached the waitress into what was required of her.
My bosses were milling about; the wife more than her husband. He manned the bar while she wafted around the restaurant doing I knew not what. Most of the time she just sat at a dimly-lit end corner of the bar. Every now and then she poked her head into the kitchen, but I was too busy to take much notice of her. She had nothing constructive to offer, anyway!
I will never forget how concerned I felt that night when the first meals were taken off me by the waitress. As Lisa (the waitress) headed out through the kitchen door to present the meals to the diners I felt as if someone had taken my baby from me. An odd emotion flowed through my being. It was a really strange reaction; but it was how I felt. I’d created what was on the plates. I was proud of my creations…and once they were taken from me I felt had no further control over them. It’s probably hard to understand unless you’ve been in a similar situation (within the restaurant trade, I mean)…but, in all honesty, it’s how I felt.
I had an overpowering urge to serve the tables myself; to greet and smile at the diners who were about to eat my food. I didn’t know how the waitress dealt with the public. I’d met her only about 30 minutes or so before the restaurant opened for the night’s service. For all I knew, she could’ve had a gruff approach. Eye appeal of the food on the plate is very important; almost as important as the taste of the food itself; and so is the person serving the food. A meal can quickly be ruined by the manner of the person waiting on the tables.
As it turned out I need not have worried. Lisa was a very proficient waitress with a wonderful manner towards the diners. All went smoothly in that department; and in no time at all, she and I worked together well. She was on my side; or in today’s vernacular –“we were on the same page”. (However, the monstrosity of a menu had more than one page)!
Pointing out to Lisa that, in my opinion, the menu had far too many dishes listed for such a small restaurant/turnover, I explained what my intentions were until I could sway Ellen, my boss, the owner of the premises to allow me to produce a new, concise menu more suitable to the restaurant’s requirements and covers. The existing menu was far too confusing. Too much stock needed to be carried to cater to it. Too much stock was wasted, and far too much stock was being frozen in the sparse refrigeration to cover the numerous, varied dishes. There was no logic to how the kitchen-restaurant was being run.
Against everything I believed in, and going against my grain, I consciously deleted certain dishes from the menu, informing Lisa of what I'd done each time she turned up for her shift. I then got to work on Ellen, but that was like whistling in the wind. Finally, she agreed to allowing me to put together a new menu, but with her final approval. I worked conscientiously on a new menu; presented it to her and a day later, she refused to go with it!
Two can play the game.
I didn’t argue with Ellen; there was no point. It was kind of like the saying – “all the lights were on, but no one’s at home”. So I just continued on deleting dishes off the menu, as I saw fit – by ruling lines through them. It wasn’t a very attractive look on the menu; and I hated having to deal with the problem that way, but I wasn’t going to be held responsible for poisoning a diner/s because of the ignorance and stubbornness of the owners. Nor was I prepared to use frozen produce all the time. I wanted to use fresh produce; so I did. She never looked at the menu, anyway. And she was totally oblivious to what was going on around her.
I'd argued until I was purple in the face about the way the mayonnaise was stored; but I gave up on that, too. It was a pointless argument. Ellen never listened to what I had to say, let alone heed my suggestions. She had absolutely no clue how to run a restaurant kitchen, or even a restaurant. Her people skills were non-existent.
I had a simple remedy - I just didn't use mayonnaise. It was deleted from the menu and from my mind. The buckets of mayo could rot as far as I was concerned.
And then there was her husband – Dudley. He was another strange person. They were kindred spirits; a good pair!
Each evening, no sooner had I sent the last main meal out Dudley, behind the cocktail bar, would start tallying up the night’s takings, as well as going around the empty tables, putting the chairs up on said tables to make it easy to clean the floor! The clinking of coins and the scraping of chairs on the floor before they were put up on the tables echoed through the restaurant while diners were still eating. It was comedy! The diners would still be there TRYING to relax over their meal. Night after night, most had not yet finished their main meal, and they, at one stage, no doubt, had had thoughts of having dessert, followed perhaps by coffee and liqueurs – that is, until all the closing-up activities started going on around them! It was unbelievable - and so very rude!
To my mind what Dudley did was disrespectful to the diners - and to me, the person cooking the meals! It was an insult of the highest degree!
His bad manners made me feel very embarrassed (and angry). I’d stop what I was doing in the kitchen, enter the dining area and go out around the tables talking cheerfully with the customers in an effort to appease the situation - trying to distract their attention from the stupidity of what was happening around them.
I tried to explain to Dudley what he was doing was the height of bad manners, but nothing sunk in. I’m not sure what world he and Ellen lived in, but I didn’t want to be part of it.
I didn’t stay long at The Ebony Emu. I didn’t want my name linked with the place. Soon after I left so did they! Little wonder!
It certainly was an experience…but one that didn’t put me off working/cooking in restaurants.
Dudley and Ellen should never have entered the hospitality industry. They didn’t have a hospitable bone between them – not even a chewed upon chicken bone!
Lee's Pumpkin Soup: Melt 30g butter in a large saucepan; sauté 1 finely-chopped onion, 2 celery stalks, diced and 2 crushed garlic cloves, until soft, without colouring. Add a couple of pinches of ground cumin; fry very gently for a minute or so. Add 750-800g peeled Jap (or butternut) pumpkin, cut into pieces, 2 cups quality vegetable or chicken stock, 2c water and 1 can diced tomatoes. Bring slowly to the boil; simmer, covered for about 15 minutes, until the pumpkin is tender. Season to taste. Cool slightly and purée the mixture in several lots, using a food processor or blender (or, preferably, in the pot, using a stick blender). Check seasoning to taste. If you feel the soup is too thick add a little more stock…but don’t make the soup too thin. Reheat gently; ladle into bowls. Swirl a little cream on top, if you like; or sprinkle with coarsely- chopped parsley or torn fresh coriander (cilantro).
Piri-Piri Chicken: Make the piri piri sauce; put 2 char-grilled capsicums/peppers, 1-2 dried chillies and 1 large, long red chilli, deseeded and chopped, 1tbs red wine vinegar, 4 chopped garlic cloves, 1/2tsp smoked paprika and 1/2tsp coriander powder into a food processor. Add enough olive oil to make a loose paste. Spread the piri piri over 2 chicken thighs (boneless if you like); marinate overnight. Heat barbecue or griddle pan to hot; cook chicken on both sides until crisp, brown and cooked through. Heat the remaining marinade in saucepan; Serve with the chicken. Sprinkle cooked chicken with chopped coriander, lemon/lime wedges, extra sauce and fresh, crusty bread.
Potato-Kumara-Soy Mayonnaise Salad:Combine 1-2tbs soy mayonnaise and 1tsp Dijon mustard; set aside. Cook 2 large sweet potato/kumara and 2 large potatoes in a large saucepan of salted boiling water for 12 minutes or until each are just tender; don’t overcook. Drain. When cool enough to handle, cut into 2cm pieces; place in large bowl; add thinly-sliced shallots, 1 red onion, diced; while the potatoes are still warm; add a little vinaigrette dressing; toss the salad; then add soy mayonnaise; coat the vegetables well; serve.