Tuesday 25 July 2017

My life in the real Hell's kitchens

Restaurant customers are being urged to complain more about bad food and service. But if they knew what really goes on in some kitchens, they'd never eat out at all, says one-time chef Noel Burke

Behind the scenes: Noel Burke dishes the dirt on restaurants. Picture by Martin Maher
Behind the scenes: Noel Burke dishes the dirt on restaurants. Picture by Martin Maher

Noel Burke

Most chefs don't like open-plan kitchens. It's not that they are doing anything untoward while they cook your food; it's just rather disconcerting to have a room full of diners watching you as you work. Even more worrying for chefs is that from now on the customers are going to be watching a little more closely.

A recent survey has found that half of Irish consumers are reluctant to complain if they are unhappy with hygiene standards when eating out, while another 62pc resolve any issues they have by simply never going back.

To combat this, the people behind the survey are launching a campaign to encourage customers to 'speak out' if they are not happy.

The private reaction from some chefs to the campaign is likely to be similar to the very public perfomances of TV chefs such as Gordon Ramsay -- a string of expletives.

Thanks to the popularity of shows like Hell's Kitchen, Masterchef and The F-Word, diners probably think they have a pretty good idea about what goes on behind the swing doors of a busy, working kitchen,

Let me assure you, as someone who worked in restaurant kitchens here and abroad for many years, you know nothing! The scenes presented on these shows barely scratch the surface of what it's really like.

The other world of cookery, the one you don't see on TV, is the one I inhabited for many years. This is a world where the head chef is not always right, and indeed is most usually wrong; where the abusive tirades have no rhyme or reason, except that it's Saturday night and the orders are flowing in and he doesn't quite know how to handle it.

This is the world of restaurants that don't have Michelin stars, don't serve particularly nice food, and exist purely to survive, by whatever means necessary.

These are the restaurants that Irish consumers are being called upon to 'speak out' about if they are not happy.

That pub you go to that serves hot lunches? Chances are the chef who works there is not 'passionate' about food.

They are no more dedicated to their art than the barman pulling the pints.

Kitchens in general are populated by misfits; mostly men who drift from job to job, only staying until they've had a bust-up with the manager or a fellow chef before moving on to the next place.

I worked in eight different kitchens over the years, of varying quality -- although they weren't all bad experiences. I started in an Italian restaurant when I was 15, and my fellow chefs were as nice and normal as could be. Perhaps naively, I assumed it would always be like this.

Later I went to America to work as a chef, ending up in Cape Cod, outside Boston.

I was sacked from my first job, a steakhouse that served mostly Irish-Americans, but employed only Brazilians in the kitchen.

They seemed surprised that I couldn't speak Portuguese, and put me in the corner chopping onions for the night. After ignoring me for three days, they eventually advised me to find another job.

In the same town, there was a new Italian restaurant opening where I found work.

But I couldn't tell the difference between veal and steak.

My first order on my first night was two veal and one steak. Which was which?

If I admitted I didn't know, I might have been sacked.

If I guessed and got it wrong, I'd definitely be sacked. I looked at the meats.

One was a lighter colour red than the other. I took a guess and decided this was the veal. The food wasn't sent back. I could breathe again.

This was high-pressure line-cooking, serving hundreds of pasta dishes and steaks a night to busloads of retired American tourists.

The point was to get the food out, one way or the other, and fast. Mistakes were punished with a verbal tirade, or worse.

A custom I was unfamiliar with was to shout "backs" when opening the oven door, so that everyone was warned.

Having not done so a few times, a fellow cook called Mike began to suddenly yank open the oven door every time I was near and whack me with it.

It hurt the first time, and every time after that, and I remembered to always warn people when retrieving stuff from the oven.

When I returned home to Ireland I drifted from restaurant to restaurant, encountering ever more bizarre crews of chefs.

There was the pub that did a lunch trade for the business crowd, whose chef apparently once accosted the owner while stark naked to demand wages he felt he hadn't been paid.

A chef at another restaurant swore blind that the best way to deal with a bad burn was to burn it again in the same place.

After taking a bad splash of duck fat on the hand one night, he proceeded to reach into the hot pan to give it a second go. We had to send him to hospital in the middle of service to have his by now half-melted hand seen to.

Then there was the job in the canteen of a factory, where I worked alone, cooking up various feasts for the night-shift workers.

Despite having to prepare food for at least three different meals, plus a vegetarian option, all anyone ever ordered was sausage and curry chips.

Chefs don't necessarily have to like each other, and they quite often don't, but special contempt is saved for managers and owners. They are considered to be fools who have no understanding of the pain and difficulties the chefs are going through. I once had a manager who insisted that the chefs were no longer allowed cigarette breaks. His naivety was exposed here; most chefs smoke, and the ones who don't soon start, otherwise they would never get a break.

He barely avoided a mass walkout by agreeing the cigarette breaks were sacred.

Quite often a cook won't turn up for work. Even if sacked, they can just move to the restaurant across the road. Unless a chef is known to be a complete disaster, he will find employment.

There is always somewhere that needs a chef, any chef, to get them through the next few months.

In my last restaurant job I found myself elbow-deep in old dishwasher water, trying to find whatever was blocking the plughole.

It was, as it happens, an open-plan kitchen, and the diners could see me doing this. When I found a big piece of broccoli stuck in the dishwasher, I removed it, made sure the maching was working again, and retired from the profession.

It's fashionable now to be a chef, but for the life of me I don't know why.

Having done it for years, I know there is nothing glamorous about the trade. The majority of culinary grafters never get to make their hollandaise sauce in front of the TV cameras.

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