Life

Tuesday 15 October 2019

My Summer Job: amateur cook and former kitchen porter Ian O'Doherty goes back to the kitchen - and remembers why he left

In the first instalment of our series of Summer Jobs, Ian O'Doherty writes about learning humility in the heat of a professional kitchen

Paul Flynn and Ian O’Doherty at The Tannery restaurant, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and inset below, head chef Sam Burfield. Photo: Mary Browne
Paul Flynn and Ian O’Doherty at The Tannery restaurant, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and inset below, head chef Sam Burfield. Photo: Mary Browne
Bean and gone: Paul Flynn and Ian O’Doherty at The Tannery restaurant, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and inset below, head chef Sam Burfield. Photo: Mary Browne
Paul Flynn (left) with Ian O'Doherty at The Tannery restaurant, Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Photo by Mary Browne
Head chef Sam Burfield. Photo: Mary Browne
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

It's that time of the year when the parents and kids really start to fall out with each other.

Well, it's certainly the time of the year when my parents and I used to really fall out with each other.

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Being industrious and hard working, and also incredibly mean and cruel, they always insisted I got a summer job, whether I wanted one or not.

To be honest, I never really wanted one.

Head chef Sam Burfield. Photo: Mary Browne
Head chef Sam Burfield. Photo: Mary Browne

After all, nobody understands the effort kids have to put in during the school year (ahem), so I used to argue that I deserved a break.

That cut no ice and usually descended into tears and tantrums and, when I'd calmed down, I'd still be told to go out and get a job or don't come home.

As a younger kid, I'd worked with my Da on his milk round during the summer, and that was an eye-opening experience, as well as a nostril-clenching one.

After all, you haven't experienced luxury until you're stuck in a giant fridge in Kimmage at four in the morning trying not to gag from the smell of curdled milk and rotten, spilled yogurt.

So, the old reliables - lounge boy?

Yup, I did that in a variety of different boozers and my old tennis club.

Paul Flynn (left) with Ian O'Doherty at The Tannery restaurant, Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Photo by Mary Browne
Paul Flynn (left) with Ian O'Doherty at The Tannery restaurant, Dungarvan, Co Waterford. Photo by Mary Browne

It was while taking orders, carrying drinks and trying to guess the correct change when I realised I must have some natural talent at something - because it certainly wasn't working in a bar.

I remember losing control of a tray of drinks and spilling one over a very nice lady who was remarkably understanding and kind once she realised it was my first night working there.

She wasn't so understanding and kind when I did it again half an hour later.

Being terrible with numbers, easily distracted and usually more interested in trying to flirt with the lounge girls is not a recipe for a successful career in the bar trade.

So, I ended up working in a motor rewind shop. That lasted a week. In the end, after I accidentally broke a sink, then forget to take an expensive motor out of an industrial oven at the right time and ruined it, I was given my marching orders.

As the owner explained, I had cost him more in damages and repairs than I had in the wages he was paying me.

Then, further proving that he was a capitalist pig exploiting the labour of young people, he pointed out that I was a useless, selfish, bone-idle cretin who needed to turn off my Walkman, grow up, act my age (15) and actually listen for once.

The fact that the owner was, again, my Da, who had moved out of the exciting world of milk delivery into the even more exciting world of stripping copper from motors and repairing them, certainly didn't lessen the blow of such insults, but it made for an interesting dinner that night: "Ma, Da was really horrible to me today!"

Those jobs were what my folks used to refer to as "the breaking years" - no object was safe from my casually destructive hands.

Then I got some summer work in Hot Press as a general dogsbody and thought I had it made. But it was actually working as a kitchen porter to make ends meet (reviewing records isn't much of an earner) where I often felt the most excitement.

Granted, I wasn't much good at that gig, either - not least because my first job every morning was to clean the mouse droppings and remove the dead roaches.

But restaurant kitchens were mysterious, magical places which boasted their own subculture. This was the early 90s and long before chefs became the new rock stars. But kitchen crews always seemed to have a swagger about them - they worked excitingly weird hours; they were a gang with their own codes and in-jokes; they didn't suffer fools and nobody cared where you came from or what your name was.

If you could do the job, you were accepted. If you couldn't, they would get rid of you, one way or the other.

The love of food was already there, inspired by everything from the mother's cooking to the amazing meals they made in Goodfellas. But you can only develop a proper appreciation for the arcane rules and conventions of a professional kitchen when you've been exposed to it in all its glorious, high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled madness.

So, having worked in kitchens and cooked for Marco Pierre White in his own Dublin restaurant (he liked the food but hated the subsequent article, which was the precise opposite of what I had expected), I even blagged my way on to the Today with Maura and Daithí for my own cooking slot.

That was pretty nerve-wracking.

Live TV is actually quite fun, but trying to talk sense to Daithí Ó Sé while not burning scallops or overcooking quail eggs isn't an experience I'd recommend to the faint of heart.

While there, I became a pest to the actual chefs. Paul Flynn is a regular on the show and, impertinent sod that I am, it wasn't long before I was badgering him to give me a shift in his kitchen.

Yes, the kitchen in The Tannery, one of the most highly rated and widely reviewed restaurants in the country; an establishment that has spawned a series of bestselling cookbooks and has almost single-handedly turned Dungarvan into a go-to destination.

His initial reluctance was understandable, his eventual decision to allow me backstage perhaps less so.

Speaking about it to my long suffering butcher, he reckoned it'd be grand "because you're always banging on about your cooking" - but that's a bit like thinking that because you're quite good at playing keepie-uppies at your Tuesday night five-a-side, you could line out for Man Utd.

So, last week, more nervous than I've been for a long time, I finally got back into a working kitchen - and immediately remembered everything I had forgotten.

By that, I mean the fear - the fear of doing it wrong. The fear of messing it up. The fear of cutting yourself open and looking like an arrogant amateur woefully and haplessly out of his depth. The fear of being told the dreaded command "start again and do it properly this time".

I was right to be freaked, because all the above happened within the first few hours.

The usual cliché of kitchens sounding like an industrial noise-core album being conducted by a screaming madman makes for good copy. But the reality is that proper kitchens are actually fairly quiet places as professional cooks busy themselves with the job at hand. Certainly, there were no macho histrionics from the likes of Flynn, or his head chef, Sam Burfield, or indeed anyone else in the compact, six-person kitchen.

In truth, the only person who came close to a meltdown was the idiot journalist they were prepared to indulge.

Ah, but where would I start? I'm sensible enough to realise the soufflé station was probably a bit beyond me. On the first day, anyway.

Maybe I'd fillet the fish for which they are famous? If not that, perhaps I'd trim the beef? If push came to shove, I'd be prepared to take over the braising. Maybe I'd offer them the recipe for my duck bread, which is made with warm duck stock before being glazed in duck fat (okay, its a simple recipe)?

After all, it seemed the least I could do.

The reality was rather different.

First up? Aubergines. Slice and dice them into bite-sized squares for later roasting. Easy? You try it when your hands are shaking, you're trying to appear calm and you suddenly realise that even trying to butter a slice of toast now seems an impossible task.

Aubergines eventually done, it was time for the fennel - I hate fennel, never use it and could barely pick it out of a line-up of criminal vegetables.

Remove the fronds, split the middle, trim the root but leave a centimetre. Remove the fronds, split the middle, trim the root but leave a centimetre. And again. And again.

That's the way the professionals do it.

Instead I went at them like Freddy Krueger, making the classic sucker mistake of confusing speed with proficiency - or basic competence. That was the first cut, with a knife so beautifully sharp I never felt it. I saw the results, though. And it turns out that these fancy, namby-pamby restaurants don't encourage blood in their food.

By the time they caught me, the workstation looked like the fennel had been hit by a drone strike and I heard my first "start again" of the day. It wouldn't be the last.

I also discovered that fennel and dashi is actually a great combo, and there's a brilliantly easy way of doing that which will make you look like a professional chef.

But I'm not telling the likes of you. Trade secret, and all that.

As the day wore on, and the patience of the chefs began to wear thin as we got closer to opening, I was reduced to trimming the French beans.

Well, I say "reduced to trimming". I got that part wrong as well. Every bit counts, and simply chopping them in half isn't restaurant standard, apparently.

So, apart from being asked to look after the boiling, steaming cauldron of stock and flavour, I quickly retreated to the furthest corner I could find to work and hide.

But it's a small kitchen and as the ever-patient Sam pointed out, when you're there to do a job, there's no point in hiding.

Flynn seemed to get the same impression.

In fact, at one point, when I mumbled a reply to how long my latest round of prep was going to take, he took me aside and said simply - "stop hiding, you need to speak up when you're asked a question. Chef needs to know how long you will be. Stop being so bloody quiet".

In fairness to Flynn, of all the reprimands I've ever received from various bosses, I've never been taken to task for being too quiet.

But in all honesty, how can you not be quiet when you realise that you're so far out of your depth, it's beyond a joke? That you're blundering around a place which involves serious talents cooking their heart out every night? It was what you might call a lesson in abject humility.

And then, then it just clicked.

Standing over one station, I began to find a rhythm I didn't think existed. There's a certain Zen quality that arrives with total concentration on the task at hand, even if it's just the mundane stuff a hassled chef gives some eejit.

Trim, slice, chop, compare. Trim, slice, chop, compare.

As the heat soared in the kitchen, so did my mood - I knew I stuck out like sore thumb or, more accurately, a sliced index finger, but there's a buzz in preparing food for people that simply can't be beaten.

But this gig takes blood, sweat and tears and while they got the blood and the sweat, they didn't get the tears - although my lip quivered with shame after screwing up another batch of prep.

Shift eventually done, adrenaline still racing, post-gig cigarette smoked and cold bottle of beer downed, I realised one thing - in another life, I'd be happy as a chef (I imagine many readers echo that thought).

Having said that, the other part of me also realises that my loss is the restaurant trade's gain.

If you ate in The Tannery recently? Don't worry, they didn't let me plate anything up or do anything that could damage their carefully earned reputation.

Unless you liked the vegetables.

They were all mine...

Next up in the My Summer Job series: John Meagher revisits the summers of turf-cutting of his youth

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