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My (brief) life as a restaurant cook

Originally published in OPEN magazine, http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/true-life/kitchen-confidential

On the second day of my third week in Hamburg, 3 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, my hands trembled, my lunch dried up into cruel, hard balls of sandpaper, the inside of my head came unstuck and tingled. The formidably competent staff of the Bullerei, a roaringly-popular restaurant in Hamburg, Germany, were sitting down to a cheerful potatoes-and-beef sort of lunch, while I was struggling to keep my food down, the laughs and companiable chatter looping and curling around me. Something about the loneliness of crowds, the madding crowd, the voice of the lonely crowd, some book or song tried repeatedly to make its way to my mind and broke into an unformed, staccato fragment. I was stuck, my belt tight around my middle, my food rising up my throat, my breath stopping, staccato, stuck.

I got up and fairly swam to the bathroom, locked myself into a cubicle, grabbed a roll of toilet paper, and shook with hard, dry tears.

Three months in the Bullerei

We had spent the morning learning the basics of professional slicing and dicing. A couple of days ago, we had been gifted breathtakingly beauteous knives of Japanese steel, walnut wood and murderous capacities. These knives cut like the finest sarcasm. The first two days, we’d been allowed to fool around with them, which is to say chop and mince the way we knew. Today had been the first real day of training. Culinary professionals consider themselves artists, and with very good reason. What they mean by cutting is a highly stylised form of minimalism, liquid and limpid, practised with great reverence and adherence to formal technique. A whole spectrum of shapes and textures, from chillies to pumpkins to mangoes, came our way. I mutilated everything with my unpractised hand. The others at least made impressive first-timers. Finally, the head chef had come up to me and pleaded with me to stop chopping because his heart was going “boop-boop-boop” with alarm. I knew instantly as he demonstrated the boop-boop-boop with a flowering of his hands that everybody had stopped and looked up from their cutting boards to watch.

Humiliation, I had expected. Even ignominy. I remember looking up the word to send a text to a friend in my second week of the fellowship. We were five people from Germany, Indonesia, Slovakia, India and the US, come to Hamburg to learn food and cooking and processes from the outrageously popular chef, Tim Mälzer. Four of us did not have any professional culinary training, but the American boy at least had worked many years in cafes and fast food restaurants. I, at 28, was the eldest of the lot, and it was a distinction I didn’t care for.

Still, I hadn’t expected being reduced to this: a heap of shaking, dry tears crumpled on a pot, desperate to throw up though there probably wasn’t any food for my body to throw up. It sounds a lot like the Masterchef experience, except I wouldn’t have qualified for any version of that TV show. Like ever.

Just a couple of weeks into my fellowship, I could see how back-achingly, hip-foldingly tough life in the professional kitchen is. The fellowship, though flexible, was mostly structured around working in two restaurant kitchens: one being the kitchen of Mälzer’s restaurant Bullerei, an XXL-sized space that catered to 320 guests a night (Bullerei has a cover of 160 seats) and another being the generously proportioned kitchen of a 35-seater place called the Lokal Eins. Restaurant kitchens have the level of organisation that McKinsey & Co will pay to study (and Malcolm Gladwell will get paid to write on). All manner of mothers will find in it the tutorial for life (some call it the Gita). Whisks stay on one sill, spatulas in one deep dish, coffee spoons in one allotted groove of the cutlery trays, green onions in one shelf of the fresh-produce fridge and red onions in a separate one, even as colanders hang in one particular row. The kitchen is a map of positions, and every enlisted spoon has to be stationed at the specified outpost. Always. Even at 2 am of a Sunday night.

For this to happen, the kitchen staff work from 12 pm to 1 am every day, chopping, mincing, beating, cleaning, whisking, grinding, peeling, cleaning, cooking, grilling, fetching, cleaning, but always, always on their feet. The first week I spent at Bullerei, my back ached, my butt felt like excess baggage, and my feet swelled up and bulged painfully against my one-size larger pair of comfy trainers. When I took off the shoes, I was worried I might puncture a vein, my feet were that bloated from the non-stop standing. And I perennially had the feeling that I would cry if someone shook me, I was so tired all the time.

The restaurant, Bullerei, is open only for dinner (though there is a deli that is all-day with a separate staff). The kitchen staff come in at noon, and begin ‘prepping’. That’s the trade term for the preparation of food before it is cooked. So potatoes are peeled, tomato seeds are scooped out (in a marvellous, silken motion), fish are deboned, prawns are deveined, duck is pre-baked, and everything is neatly put away in cling-wrapped trays/boxes and placed at the designated station. And of course, every chopping board, dish and knife is scrubbed, scoured, washed and cleansed multiple times. The French term for prepping is mise en place and thank God for it, because it lends what is decidedly unglamorous hard labour something of the easy French elegance. (Imagine cleaning squid shit for two hours, and then think of it as mise en place. Know what I mean?)

Noon to 6 pm goes in mise en place, about half of a 13-hour day. The first reservations are for 6 pm, and that is when the real cooking begins as the orders come in. The standard European time for an order is 10 minutes, counted from the time the order is placed to the serving of the food on the table. Taking into account time for waitering and the odd accident, this leaves about six minutes for the staff in the kitchen to get each order ready and plate it. What I see from the sidelines (because after 6 pm we were graciously asked to relax) is a finely choreographed dance with flawless coordination. The red potatoes are heated, the duck is popped into the oven for a final glaze, the serving plates are brought out, the sauce is stirred. And then, in a fine ballet of hands, a bed of red potatoes is moulded, a glossy slice of duck is placed on it, sauce is poured around the red bed, a single chip is placed on the slice of duck, and three reasonably gleaming leaves of a herb are placed artfully on the chip. The bell is sounded, the plate is ready to go. In the stipulated six minutes.

Later, the dance analogy is reinforced when Mälzer explains the five-movement rule for dishes. At any point in time, the Bullerei staff and Mälzer himself research and work on recipes. Once the best have been shortlisted, the final selection is made on the basis of the five-movement rule. Which is to say that if a dish takes more than five movements to be plated, it does not make it to the restaurant menu, no matter how super lecker it is (‘lecker’ is the German word for delicious, ‘super’ is the American word for everything).

Placing the bed of red potatoes, for instance, would constitute one movement. The duck dish, then, makes the list with exactly five movements. (Putting the duck slice over it is the second movement, the pouring of the sauce the third, the placing of the chip the fourth, and the placing of herbs, the fifth movement.)

The recipes that don’t make it to the restaurant menu often make their way to Mälzer’s lustrous cookery books, and sometimes to his much-loved TV show. What I understand from watching Mälzer shoot for the weekly show is that TV cooking caters to amateurs, cookbooks are meant for enthusiasts with a little allowance for fancies, and restaurant cooking is for showing off, provided it falls within the five-movement stipulation.

The other thing I noticed about full service restaurant kitchens is the startling lack of women. In Bullerei’s XXL-sized kitchen of clatter and laughter, there were two striking women: Constanze Fürst and Franziska Maderecker. When I met them, Fürst was in charge of the dessert station, and Maderecker did a bit of everything: meat, soup, another dessert, a third. Two women in a staff of 15, I was told without any discomfiture, is the industry average, possibly even better than the average. It always is an unreasonably unbalanced ratio between women and men.

The imbalance begins, Bullerei’s head chef Micke Wolf says, in culinary school itself. In his batch of 30, there were seven women. Culinary school in Europe is a structured, nerve-wracking four- to five-year programme, with a reputation for producing drop-outs. Only three of the seven women who started out graduated with Wolf.

Mälzer, though, disagrees. His own experience is that the numbers (of men and women) in culinary school are roughly equal. The difference surfaces after graduation because women dislike the hardscrabble, blood-in-the-nails life of the professional kitchen, the endless hours and rough talk. In my three months in the kitchen, the only German I pick up is ‘lecker’ and ‘scheisee’ (shit). Everything else I hear is ‘fuck’, ‘fuck off’, ‘fucker’, ‘cocksucker’.

I asked Fürst what she makes of it, and she says the grind gets to them. “Twelve-hour work days don’t leave time for much else. Anything else, actually. You also need power to operate the machinery in a professional kitchen. There’s the heavy stuff you have to carry: 40 thick china plates at one go, trays full of frying pans. It’s real hard work. Though you get used to it,” she smiles.

Then there’s also the thing about the compulsory dessert station posting. Patisserie is typically considered a woman’s domain. It’s too dainty for the men. It’s also seen as restricting. Of all the male chefs and cooks I meet, only two of them enjoy doing desserts. All the others speak of how pastry doesn’t offer the inventions of meat and vegetables. In a New Yorker story dated 2010 though, the excellent Adam Gopnik argues that from the legendary Epicurious to the Addria brothers of El Bulli, it is pastry that has allowed for the discovery of newfound lands. Happily, for Fürst, the posting was one she asked for. Maderecker, who works with the quiet assurance of the superbly competent, is the rare woman who enjoys doing meats and gets to do it too. Her friends in other places, she says, aren’t so lucky. By the time I left several weeks later, a couple of more determined young women had joined the ranks as apprentices.

Perhaps it is because they are given their own space that Bullerei’s kitchen is a cheerful, even if stressful, place. The work is hard and long, often wet and smelly. Entire afternoons can go in cleaning prawn shit. Just an armload of dirty dishes wore me out like a bad date. The work week is 60 hours, the pay no more than regular 40-hour-week jobs.

Yet, during the time I was there, I didn’t hear any raised voices, just a lot of American hard rock and high-fiving. This level of calm productivity under unreasonable deadlines is possible because culinary professionals accept a rigid hierarchy in the workplace. It is accepted, for instance, that no one argues when the head chef issues instructions. Consummate professionals that the Bullerei staff are, they didn’t need any telling. But when Mälzer took charge of us enthusiasts in the kitchen, he coolly told us to shut up. “There’s only one guy who does the talking here. The rest are chicken running around.” The chicken fell in line and shut up, a dinner of five courses reached the table right on schedule and the service that night was extraordinary.

My feeling is that you need this strict discipline of an unforgiving hierarchy for a creative space like the kitchen. That’s because a lot of people can have very good and valid ideas about duck breast. But the thing is, it has to reach the table within the 10-minute limit.

Pretty much everybody I asked told me they couldn’t imagine doing anything else for a living: the thrill of seeing what they created on the plate made up for everything. Despite this, the rate of attrition is high. In my three months there, I was invited to four farewell parties. All of these four people were leaving after stints of 12-14 months. This, by all accounts, is a more than respectable stretch of time to work in one place. The ones who stay are the ones who are picked out early for bigger things. It is not uncommon to hear of head chefs in their early thirties. Many of these chosen ones open their own restaurants by the time they hit 35. For the rest, the 60-hour grind continues at the unrewarding scale of pay. Some, tired of the late nights and working on Christmas, move to the fast food sector, which is mechanised, singularly uncreative and spectacularly monotonous. Later in my fellowship, I spent some time at a fast food place and I learnt from the staff there that the sector offers employees more scope of management responsibilities. The manager at that joint, whose responsibilities included serving coffee and fries, told me the work was repetitive but at least it gave him a chance to make some decisions. Even if that only meant drawing up the weekly work schedule.

The prospect of this bleakness, though, rarely strikes you when you see the studiedly tattooed chatty bunch at the Bullerei kitchen, with their proclivity for high-fives, late-night parties and pot stories. Easily the coolest of them are the guys who tend bar. Their plaid shirts are just the right degree of laidback cool, their voices are assuredly audible over the dinner-time buzz and music. They never shout, they make wheeling drinks on a crate look like a cool thing, they squeeze lemons with undeniable class. They invoke aspirational feelings. Felix, Dea Young and a marvellously leggy lady showed me around during my brief but exceedingly agreeable internship at the Bullerei bar, where my primary responsibility was to hover at the sidelines. This, though, I invested with as much style as I could muster, cocking my head to one side and trying to channel my inner Arjun Rampal. Some weeks later, on the other side of the bar as a customer, I perched at the edge of a stool so I looked taller and my legs thinner, and spoke in a voice several pitches lower than my usual tone. In my head, several Bond girls were crossing their legs. My order arrived with a crisp compliment and a wisp of a smile, but before I could say something cool in reply, Felix was gone. Earlier, he had told me the stereotype of the friendly, sympathetic bar tender was downmarket. A good bartender, in his opinion, has hip clothes, a gift for one-liners and a smooth voice. To that list, I would add one more thing: long legs.

It goes without saying that you need to know your drinks and glasses. Both Dea Young and Felix have gone to bartending school, with a master’s to show for it.

I don’t know how much I’ve mastered of food and drink, of its conventions and confections, from my excellent teachers in the kitchen. What I know is that I’ve come back with a curiosity for the new and a heart for failure. I can now try something complex and ambitious without worrying about things turning out wrong.

I also know that I’ve learned, finally, how to eat. And this, too, is no small lesson. In her book How to Eat, Nigella Lawson, whose writing is even more becoming than her person, argues that ‘although it’s possible to love eating without being able to cook, I don’t believe you can ever really cook unless you love eating’. A few days after I returned from Hamburg, my father took us out for a five-star hotel buffet meal. This was one of those buffets with a menu exceeding 40 items easily. The idea being, I suppose, something for everybody, which is what five-star coffee shops are meant to be. Slivers of meat and seafood with fruit and sharp sauces, tiny half moons of papaya with dill, glorious anti-pasti, gleaming tortellini, a voluptuous baked lamb, broad beans in an ingenious mustard sauce, a chiffon strawberry tiramisu—for the first time in my life, I sampled every single beautiful thing that had been laid out, and savoured it too.

Afterward, I didn’t feel ill or short of breath; I just went to sleep, peacefully.

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Sohini Chattopadhyay, an Open staffer, spent three months in Hamburg after winning a generous fellowship awarded by Dekeyser and Friends

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