Cheffing it up in a professional London kitchen
Laoise Casey gets to grips with the long hours, confined hot spaces and burnt fingers that come with her ‘dream job’
If you’ve met me on the Tube recently I’d like to apologise for being that slightly deranged individual shooting murderous looks at you as you innocently sit down. You see, for the next 14 hours I’m going to be on my feet and it’s hard not to want to grab you and scream “That’s my seat! Out! OUT!” But I bite my tongue and think pleasant thoughts about the three crates of fennel I’m about to chop instead.
Last year I was business-suited, with long nails always manicured and high heeled. Now it’s chef’s whites, clumpy black safety trainers and the only attention my non-existent nails get are peeling the blue plasters off them.
When I went into my first London kitchen, the Michelin Star L’Autre Pied, my nerves were somewhat calmed to find out one of the chefs had lived around the corner from my parents in Dublin. So we played that Irish-abroad-game of “Do you know so-and-so?” while I chopped, peeled and breathed in the professional kitchen.
After two days of 15 hour shifts and three hours’ sleep, I was suddenly terrified that I’d made a horrible mistake. What was I thinking leaving my job to do this? As I sat on the couch the next day with aching feet, pains where I didn’t know pains could be and smelling of onions (I’d washed, it just never goes), I was scared, and feeling old. At 30 I’m almost fossil-like in kitchen years. But if anyone asks I’m 24.
When I met Gary O’Hanlon, head chef of Viewmount House in Co Longford last year, he encouraged me to follow this crazy dream – but to be sure I really wanted it. “It’s not glamorous, you won’t get famous, but if you want it and work hard enough, you’ll be a chef,” he said. With his words ringing in my ears I went straight back into the kitchen.
Something makes you go back and want to keep doing it over and over again. There are easier ways to make a living. But something makes you want to spend hours on your feet in front of massive pots of boiling water, gigantic grills and fryers, scorching hot plates, pulling trays out of ovens with flimsy towels while juggling three pans and remembering your meat only needs another minute in the oven before you ruin it and end up in the weeds during service. And that’s the fun part.
Every kitchen has its own personality, but there are some similarities. The atmosphere is always fast paced. During mise en place in the morning to set up for lunchtime service you’ll be prepping as quickly as you can. When service begins it feels like someone has tightened the atmosphere with a cork screw. Cheque on! One tuna Nicoise, three crayfish salad, one sea bass. You listen out to all the orders and focus on your dishes while still keeping an eye on everyone else’s as you need to be ready to plate with them. It’s a beautifully organised chaos and a pure adrenalin rush.
When service finishes you clean down your section, wipe out your fridge drawers and make sure you’re ready to go for the morning. That’s the glamorous part they don’t show on TV. After service winding down can take hours. On the Tube home, party goers are heading out, while I sit there scented with eau de garlic. My bed is calling but sleep never comes easily as I replay the day over and over in my head.
There is so much to learn in a professional kitchen and I’m just at the start of it. Mistakes are common, like the time I threw broad beans and peas into the same pan and spent an hour separating them. I won’t do that again. Everything is on a massive scale. Think of cooking your dinner at home. Now replicate that for 50, 100, 150 customers, to a consistently high standard, night after night. Learning the kitchen lingo, getting used to the equipment, learning the unspoken rules. Don’t touch the other chefs’ knives. Don’t take food, equipment, anything, from someone’s section, or if you must, ask first. Then put it back. Make yourself as small as possible to work in a tight area while standing your ground to make sure you get enough space. Learning how to take direct open criticism (I’m being very polite here). Figuring out how to stop your hand shaking when you’re quenelling during service.
It’s a tough aggressive environment to work in. You wouldn’t want to be sensitive, to put it lightly. But what has stood out to me is how welcoming chefs have been and willing to share their expertise. One of the best bits is the banter. There is a camaraderie in kitchens that is different from other workplaces. Maybe it’s the long hours, confined spaces and nature of the work, but you need that camaraderie to get you through the day and keep you going when a table comes in five minutes before closing.
Since April I’ve been working in The Ship, one of London’s finest gastro pubs where the manager Oisin Rogers and head chef Shaun kindly gave me my first job. I’ve also been doing stages (work experience) in other restaurants. When I tell people I gave up my job to do this they look at me as if I’m slightly mad. Maybe they’re right. When I wake up aching I sometimes think they are.
But I’m having the time of my life and wish I’d realised it sooner. Service please!