Wednesday, May 13, 2015

2 years on...

It has been 2 years since I left the world of kitchens. People ask me all the time if I miss it. My answer? Not even a little bit.

Not long after writing 50 things they never told you about being a chef, I quit my job. It was getting too much. The list itself was written on an night bus home after having missed the last tube train, again. If I missed the last tube train, my journey home would take 2 to 2 and a half hours, meaning that I wouldn't be home until around 3 in the morning. I would then have to get up in time to be at work for 8. Knowing that there were always problems with public transport at rush hour, this would mean leaving the house at 6:30. you do the math.

I wrote this list as a way of reminding myself why I was doing this to myself. Why I was putting myself through living hell. In kitchens, they brainwash you. You end up believing that anyone who doesn't put in at least 60 hours a week is a lazy "part-timer" (the worst insult there is in kitchens). You are taught to feed off your passion for what you do. Never mind the poor working conditions, never mind the abuse, both sexual and emotional. Never mind the ridiculously low pay.

I had spent years slaving away for a pittance while my friends complained about only earning £35-40K a year and needing a raise. I was always horrified that they all gopt so much money for so little pay, when I was working my arse off and yet not able to pay rent, bills, feed and clothe myself, and take the cats to the vet if I needed to. My housemate kept on telling me I was wasting away. She kept on telling me it was slavery. But I didn't listen. I was stubborn. I had taken this decision in life, and I had to make it work. At the time, I was working in a new London hotel that I had helped open. y head pastry chef was being exceedingly abusive towards me. I had been so excited to work under him. I had worked alone on the pastry section of every place I had worked in. I wanted to learn from someone. I was over-enthusiastic I guess. He hated me. He treated me like shit, and he loved doing it. He was manipulative and ruthless. A proper sadist. But I kept at it, thinking he was doing it to bring out the best in me. Then, he employed two other women. They were your regular girly girls, all giggly and cute. He was so nice to them. He let them relax and chat when they arrived at work, eating their breakfast before starting. There was something wrong here. I knew it. He wasn't pushing them. They were allowed to eat. He didn't talk to them like they were dirt. He didn't like me. That was what it was. He didn't like me, and he enjoyed picking on me. That was it! I was out. Fuck kitchens. Since coming back to England 2 years earlier, I had gone from a size 14 down to a size 8. I was skin and bones. I looked sick...

I decided that I needed to find a relaxed job, at all costs. I am now 2 years into a new career. My time in kitchens has served me well. I learnt a lot from them. My time in Canadian kitchens was wonderful. I met amazing people, the employers cared about their staff and made sure we weren't overworked, we were not paid great, but we were paid fairly. London though is a whole other ball game. It's purely and simply slave labour. We worked so hard that sometimes we would sleep in the staff cafeteria rather than go home, since we only had a few hours between shifts. We were extremely poorly paid. not enough to live a life in London. I lived in one of the shittest parts of London, and my rent, not including bills and council tax, was half my net pay. Add the rest on top, and public transport, and I only had about £150 left for the month. This was how I lived, in my late twenties, after years in a career for which you need to be highly trained.

Looking back on my life, the best piece of advice I can give to any cook is this:

Work for a few years, learn as much as you can, then get the fuck out of kitdchens before they eat you up and start your own business. Not a restaurant, but something that will give you the time to live. I spent years missing out on the most important part of life: living it. And I am now hellbent on making up for those years.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Who am I and what do I do?

It's the beginning of 2013.
It has been nearly eight years since I took the decision to leave university and ended up in kitchens. It's been a russian mountain of a journey, full of ups and downs, many moves, many challenges and much self discovery.
For the start of this year I am setting myself a task. To actually write this blog.
I've started many a blog and never kept up with the writing. I blame my Attention Deficit Disorder. And some laziness.

So, to (re)start this blog on the right foot, let's look at what it means to be a pastry chef.
When I meet new people and they ask me what I do for a living, the answer more often than not leaves them confused. I believe that the majority of people think that I make pastry, and that's it. I get asked far too often about pie.

So what does a pastry chef actually do?
We make all things sweet, and some not so sweet.
A qualified pastry chef should be able to do the following:
-Make cakes of all descriptions.
-Make ice cream, sorbet and other frozen desserts.
-Make filled chocolates, sweets, gummies, candied fruit etc.
-Make restaurant style plated desserts.
-Make biscuits and cookies.
-Make breakfast pastries  such as croissants and danishes
-Bake bread and other leavened products such as brioche.
-Make puff pastry
-Make edible showpieces out of chocolate, sugar, ice etc.

There are many different work environments in which you will find us.
Pastry chefs are not limited to working in bakeries and cake shops. We work in hotels, restaurants, chocolate shops, embassies, large scale cake production companies, and many other places.

So now that we've cleared up the issue of what it is that I do, why am I writing this blog?
Well there's a reason that I left university and ended up in kitchens. But that reason only became truly clear about a year ago when I got diagnosed with Attention deficit disorder of the inattentive type.

I have struggled my entire life with education, but always managed to scrape through. However, once in university and away from home, I just couldn't do it. I never attended classes, didn't do assignments and just generally slacked off. At the end of my second year, I realised that I was due to fail and go myself a kitchen job under a chef who was willing to train me. Over the years I became more and more enthused with my career and as I write this, 8 years down the line, I still love what I do for a living. But it has been hard, as would be any career that I chose. I am forgetful (i.e. I burn things a lot), I don't pay attention to what people are saying when they speak to me directly, making eye contact because my mind is drifting off elsewhere even though I'm nodding at what they say. So I miss out on important information, and then when I snap back into myself I am too embarrassed to say to them that I actually didn't pay attention to a word they said and need to hear it all again.
I am incredibly clumsy and break things, drop things, bump into people and hurt myself a lot. I'm very bad at organising myself because I can't prioritize and work out what needs to be done first. I make mistakes all the time that I shouldn't make because my mind is elsewhere and I forget a vital step.

However, ADD does have its good sides. Because of spending my entire life messing things up, I am a perfectionist and will not rest until I have mastered a technique, I am nocturnal, so the later in the day it is the better I work. This is fantastic in the restaurant industry where you finish work at around midnight. I am also very creative, and love repetitive tasks. And most important of all, When things get hectic, my brain goes into high efficiency mode and I become a machine. I read somewhere that you find a lot of people with ADD in emergency units in hospitals, in the police force, fire brigade etc. because the rush they get from an emergency makes them their best selves. This holds true for my job too.

Despite the difficulties that I encounter every day and the major knocks to my confidence that I have experienced over the years, I am determined to one day become a master of my trade and I want to record that journey here. In the last quarter of 2012, I started taking ritalin and it is completely changing the way that I work. Last summer, I saw the future through a veil of uncertainty. I was stagnating, unable to learn anymore. I was constantly exhausted and depressed. I felt as though I was a failure, unable to achieve what I wished to, unable to grow.
But with a new year comes new hope. I have been working under another pastry chef for the first time in my life. It is very hard for me to work under somebody else, but I know that it is good for me. I am planning to work under him for 3 years in order to learn as much as I can and although I can't say that I look forward to it, I know that it will be rewarding in the end.

So here's a toast to the new year, to writing a blog and to beating my ADD.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

50 things they never told you about being a chef

When people are thinking of taking their first steps into kitchens, many around them are quick to give advice. They will warn of the toil involved, the strength of character and the stamina that are needed, the long hours... But however much warning is given, one is always quick to disregard it and shrug one's shoulders because really, how hard can it be?
In my years working in kitchens I have seen hundreds come and go; eager at the start but quickly disenchanted and just as eager to get out. Only a small percentage of people who walk into the world of gastronomy stay there once faced with this harsh environment.
Below is a list that I compiled of all the realities  of day to day life as a chef, based on my own experience as well as on my observations.

What you can expect from making a living in a professional kitchen:
  1. You'll almost always have open wounds on your hands and arms.
  2. You'll never meet new people because your social life deteriorates into non-existence.
  3. You'll find it hard to start relationships because alone time will become a precious thing.
  4. You'll lose your social skills.
  5. Your sense of humour will degrade into the politically incorrect and socially unacceptable.
  6. You'll eventually start swearing like a sailor and you won't even notice yourself doing it.
  7. You'll turn into an anorak/monomaniac and always turn all conversations back to food.
  8. You'll earn a pittance for years/decades.
  9. You'll either lose a vast amount of weight or gain a vast amount of weight.
  10. You'll never ever have a tan ever again.
  11. You won't become famous.
  12. You'll develop a habit, whether it be coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, cannabis, cocaine, or even red bull.
  13. Your feet will get destroyed.
  14. Your back will get destroyed.
  15. Your hands will get destroyed.
  16. You'll live in a constant state of sleep deprivation, indefinitely.
  17. You'll have to ask your friends to plan everything around your schedule, which is in complete opposition with their availability, because you never know your days off in advance and you probably won't be able to change it. 
  18. You'll become of a very highly strung nature
  19. You'll become more prone to temper flare ups
  20. Your awareness of other people's lack of efficiency and common sense will increase and your tolerance of it will decrease.
  21. You'll spend the largest part of your life cooped up in a small, undecorated room with poor ventilation, high temperatures, a lot of noise, humidity, no natural light and no windows, with a small group of people who will become your only social interactions.
  22. You will work longer hours than you ever imagined possible or thought legal.
  23. You will spend all your waking hours on your feet, never getting a chance to sit down even for 5 minutes.
  24. Your shortest work days will be longer than most people's longest, and your longer work days, which make up about half of your working week, will be longer than the average person is awake in a day.
  25. You will not cook gourmet dinners at home. You'll be too tired, and too fed up of cooking.
  26. You will probably start eating mostly fast food and cheap instant noodles.
  27. You will be the subject of abuse, whether physical or emotional. Officially, it will be as a test of character. In reality, it will be as a form of entertainment.
  28. You will end up spending so much time at work that your colleagues will know you better than your partner/family/friends do.
  29. You will meet and form strong bonds with types of people whom you'd previously never even have imagined sharing conversations with.
  30. You will be in a constant state of stress.
  31. You will never be irreplaceable and will be expected to constantly give 110%.
  32. You will always be exhausted.
  33. You will not be allowed to call in sick for a hangover.
  34. You will be expected to place your work before any other part of your life in your list of priorities.
  35. You will never be congratulated on your work.
  36. You will be expected to treat your superiors as absolute masters and never answer back, try to explain yourself, start a conversation, or show any other type of insubordination, even if you know that they are in the wrong or feel as if their behaviour towards you is unacceptable.
  37. It will become very difficult to watch friends cook.
  38. Your mum will stop cooking for you because she feels embarrassed.
  39. You will be expected to cook for family gatherings such as Christmas EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Luckily, at least one year out of two, you will be working on Christmas.
  40. At least one year out of two, and maybe every year, you will work Christmas, New Year's Eve, Easter, Valentine's day, Mother's day, Father's day, bank holidays, Halloween, your birthday, and pretty much every other day of celebration on the calendar.
  41. You will have to work many years in menial positions before attaining any level of authority in the workplace.
  42. The better the restaurant is, the longer the work hours become, the more pressure you end up under, the more unhealthy your lifestyle will  become, the more likely you will be to develop a habit, the more competitive the people around you will become, the less sleep you'll get, the less you'll eat etc.
  43. You will constantly make mistakes, and every time you do make a mistake, someone will notice it and make you understand that you are clearly a subhuman because only a subhuman could make such a mistake.
  44. If you are a woman, you will constantly be the subject of misogynist remarks and jokes, sexual harassment, belittlement and remarks about your menstrual cycle.
  45. None of your friends or family will understand what is involved in your work and you will never be able to make them understand.
  46. You will spend vast amounts of money on equipment, books, eating in good restaurants etc, which will leave you with not much money for other things.
  47. You will develop a creepy obsession with knives.
  48. If you are a pastry chef, you will develop a creepy obsession with spoons.
  49. You will get a rash in your arse crack from the mixture of heat, sweat and friction that will not heal well, sometimes get infected, will mostly always be slimy and itchy and will be there most of the time.
  50. If you are the right type of person, you will thank your lucky star every single day for the rest of your life for making you take the best decision you ever did and become a chef. And you will fall in love with your job and never look back.

A stranger looks back

Returning home from work on the tube last night, I caught my reflection in the tunnel blackened window of the carriage. I stared and stared and could not believe that the person looking back was me. I remember years ago, before ever working in kitchens or even contemplating it, watching a documentary about one of Ramsay's restaurants. The staff were all far too thin and wearing ill fitting clothes, ghostly white, had sunken eyes with dark circles under them, and arms and hands covered in fresh, pink, shiny scars.
Last night, the person in the window was all of these things. I have barely eaten in days (mainly due to our abysmally dreadful staff chef making inedible food), have been sleeping on average four to five hours a night for the past two years, spend my days running up and down many flights of stairs, and never see the sun anymore. Strangely enough though, I enjoy being this new me.
Never in my life have I felt so strong. Yesterday, despite the exhaustion of a day's work on no food or no sleep, I sauntered up the long escalator in London Bridge taking the steps two by two and wasn't even out of breath when I reached the top. I can run now, for quite long distances, and faster than ever before, and most importantly, I can now lift things as heavy as myself.
But still, my reflection always comes as a shock, and I stare at it like I've never seen it before.