What is a Chef?

The kitchen is a small rectangular off-shoot to a larger area that is taken up by a large workstation designated for the pastry chefs, large pots and pans, a wash-up area, shelving, a dry foods storage area, a sink for food preparation, a large freezer and other fixtures that make even the largest part of the kitchen appear small. The main cooking area is claustrophobic yet brutally efficient in its layout that ensures no energy or movement is wasted and this trait is reflected in the mannerisms and attitudes of the chefs. The room is flanked on three sides by workstations and equipment; in the far corner underneath the only window in the kitchen is a sink; alongside which is the solid-top stove, a chargrill, a six-burner stove, a set of deep fat fryers, and Rational oven. Above the cooking range runs a shelf for hot holding food during service, as does a salamander grill that never gets used. Opposite the six-burner is where starters are prepared and plated, the hot plate and pass is opposite the solid-top, in the corner is the sous vide water bath, along the far wall is the mise en place, an organised section of two litre tubs containing prepared ingredients, sauces and herbs ready for service. In the centre of the room is another workstation that is overloaded with chopping boards, knives, trays and resting meat.

The chefs are all too young to care about the long working hours, all of them wear short sleeved chef whites with the sleeves rolled up even higher. The conversation quickly moves between being terse, sometimes obscene, sometimes nonsensical. Aprons are of various levels of cleanliness and exposed arms are decorated with tattoos of various taste. The head chef Connor is twenty-four years old and, in spite of his age, is arguably the most talented and natural chef I have worked under. He stands just under average height at five foot nine, is stocky in frame and with square features and body that makes it look like he were designed on graph paper. His tightly curled red hair matches his temperament, his square hands are oversized and give the perception that he is incapable of doing anything delicate let alone cook and present food to the highest of standards. His arms are heavily tattooed with images of questionable class; a Mexican Day of the Dead skull wearing a chefs hat, a stylised owl perched upon a honing steel, a rose, a large I.O. Shen chefs knife, and the phrase “chefs life.” He is not classically trained, rather he started as a kitchen assistant washing up so he could buy weed, which he still uses regularly to unwind after work, before soon finding himself working his way up the culinary ladder until he was working in Michelin-starred kitchens, in grand hotels and under a celebrity chef and big name of French cookery.

Unfortunately, maybe due to being in a position of authority at a young age or maybe due to having a chip on his shoulder, Connor inherited the ugliest trait of classic French cookery – the belief that a chef has to be an arsehole. As a person as single-minded in his ambitions and ego, for Connor, anyone that wasn’t as stressed or without a fierce look in their eye simply wasn’t working as hard as him and therefore deserving of his temper. The mythos is passed down the generations until it becomes a fabric of our society – not as an ideal but as a code of honour. Chefs will yell at those who are subordinate to them and words are used that wouldn’t be used outside the confines of a kitchen, until discipline becomes a part of your personality and you too may eventually have subordinates to belittle. Marco Pierre White exists within us all. White Heat doesn’t hold a place in our hearts as a cookbook but as an instruction manual on the mental fortitude required for being a chef and the attitude you are privileged to if you can make the grade. Celebrity chef as real chef, chefs as commodities, cooking as performance; and it is a good performance that sucks you into a dark and aggressive place with a blood and guts attitude to food that will not accept anything other than your unwavering commitment to the cause. Fall for the performance and you may end up as part of professional cookery’s military complex and believe cooking to be the most important work imaginable.

Young chefs like Connor fall into the regime easier than they should and without the thought or graciousness to consider an alternative. A warped passion sends actors over the edge and justifies any amorality that may have entered their character – as long as you’re the best you can have free reign to treat others however you want. But of course our militarism does the job, the consolation being you learn how to do something with your hands and heart. You learn the details of comradeship too: you know that when the shit hits the fan, which it will do no matter how well planned the operation, you can all dig deep into the bowels of your passion and pull out a service from nowhere, that’s when you’re thankful a bunch of mean bastards can pull together and get stuff done.

For most people, television defines their experience of a chef. We’ve all seen it and we’ve all brought into it: the swearing, the violence, the flared tempers; as if brutalism were the most natural and beautiful way for a human being to act. The problem being it makes good television and the kitchens virulent culture of violence feeds off itself and reassures itself that its ways are just and never stops to think that maybe people don’t like being bullied. Our professionalism to food outweighs our professionalism to people; brushed aside with ultimate stress and complete dedication to quality of food and flavour, nothing else comes into the equation. Our military code allows us to cook, to plate up and deal with anything that comes up against you. It can teach you anything but empathy.

What do Chefs Eat? II Recipe: Caponata

Vegetarians and vegans are often the much-maligned forces that harass the conscious, well-being, patience and knowledge of a chef and in retribution for their malignance, the vegetarian option is the necessary footnote to a menu – given little thought or care, it must merely exist. There is a reason why risotto features so heavily as the vegetarian option at many restaurants – it requires no thought beyond deciding on a variant that is suitable to what the season may offer, is adaptable throughout the year and can easily disguise the more nefarious acts of a chef with little conscience towards their customers who may use butter, cream, parmesan or chicken stock to flavour it.

Dan was such a chef who justified his immorality in the most abstract of ways that defied all logical reasoning, so much so that I’m positive that while making his nonsensical claims he could barely believe his own bullshit. “Whatta ‘bout the water cycle? Water’s been through me, you, fuckin’ dinosaurs.” His deluded point being that water has gone through him and many others, through animals, through rivers and oceans, through fish, through some more animals; drunk, digested, pissed out by humans, animals and dinosaurs; used and re-used through a continuous cycle and because water has been through people and animals, then drinking water cannot be vegan. I assure you his argument did not make sense to me either.

I believe one major issue about vegetarianism in Britain is that we do not have a strong history of vegetarian cookery. British cookery is synonymous with the term “meat and two veg” putting vegetables in their place as something to accompany protein and not much more. Indeed, the definition between a side dish and a vegetarian dish is still something that is blurred. In summer months the words ‘med veg’ will spring up across restaurant menus showing the excellence of vegetables grown and used so regularly in Mediterranean cuisine, their warmer climate better suited for the aubergines, tomatoes, onions, courgettes and peppers that typically fall under the term ‘med veg,’ whereas our cooler and less predictable weather is better for root vegetables – delicious but with none of the glamour. The same could be said for Asian cuisines but for impoverished reasons rather than climate, where the bastardisation of soy beans into tofu and tempeh are for the necessity of getting protein from a diet that cannot afford meat rather than for enjoyment or taste.

Rather ironically the first Vegetarian Society was founded in Britain in 1847 but for the wrong reasons – their motives being neither gastronomic nor for animal welfare but religious instead. The Bible Christian Church were one of the main forming members of the society and believed in a meat-free diet as a form of asceticism because there really is no room for fun in a dogmatic religion. Thankfully things are different today and the vegetarian society has moved on from the misery of religious asceticism to the more pressing concerns of animal welfare in the face of mass production. Only an imbecile could not agree that we demand too much meat and therefore too many animals are produced solely to be slaughtered, butchered, processed and lined up in plastic shrink-wrap along supermarket aisles across the country. Maybe we could all refrain from meat at times or at least educate ourselves on meat production and demand high welfare of our animals rather than view them as a raw material for mass production. Demand for lesser cuts too and more varied breeds so we do not just receive ‘commercial’ breeds that are designed for higher yields instead of flavour. Maybe just more respect for the animals we kill.

Caponata

This is one of those summer med veg dishes that is neither side dish nor main but is excellent nonetheless. It is Sicilian and similar to ratatouille but with a sweet and sour punch. Evenly dice vegetables including aubergine, red onion, peppers, celery, courgette and preferably ripe summer tomatoes. Heat a pan large enough to accommodate all of the vegetables and fry gently in vegetable oil until soft and everything is well-acquainted with one another. Add a dash of red wine vinegar for sharpness, season well and a pinch of sugar for balance. Stir in olives, capers, pine nuts and raisins and simmer gently until all the ingredients are quite happy. Check for seasoning and then add fresh herbs, mint works well as does parsley which has the unique characteristic of bringing everything together in so many dishes. A quick, delicious, vegetarian dish that can be enjoyed in the sun overlooking the Mediterranean Sea or in your back garden.

A Day in a Michelin Starred Kitchen

I am, for all intents and purposes, a fraud. I have always had this feeling deep in my gut and I am always waiting for someone to wrench it out of me and force a confession; that I don’t know what I’m doing, that everyone is more skilled and talented than me, even the commis chef, and that it is only a matter of time until the game is up, I’m found out and my true face revealed. It came as quite a surprise when after sending over my hesitant CV, that I were later offered a trial shift at a Michelin starred restaurant and the most highly decorated and known restaurant in the county. It must have been a mistake, they must be idiots or just plain desperate to even consider letting a fraudster into their tight operation of fine dining. The only consolation is it would offer an end for me, a sacrificial moment where I plunge myself into my own downfall and can be over with the charade of being a chef. It should be known that from the point organising my trial shift to the day of the trial, I were shitting myself. I could feel my nerves work their way up my oesophagus with the burning, wretched sensation of when you are about to vomit. I could be nerves fill up my tear ducts and I could feel them in my sweat glands as they would seep out of my pores and leave a trail behind me. I wake up on the day of my trial and my anxieties are already awake, they didn’t get any sleep, they were waiting throughout the night, dreading the hours that passed and how my end drew nearer. Soon enough and there’s no time left to worry, I wish I still had the time to worry.

I am approached by a young chef in the reception, he’s too rushed to be polite and probably too unaccustomed to being outside of a kitchen. He shows me around the kitchen in a way that suggests that he has better things to do than show my fraudster arse around their inner sanctity. I’m handed over to another young chef called Irish, presumably given that name due to the impenetrable wall of language that spews out of his mouth. He gives me a tray of girolle mushrooms, gives me an order only he can comprehend and I get to work; trimming and peeling the stalks of one hundred girolles, as the natural world is far too ugly and deformed to exist when working in these standards. I work in between two young chefs already making themselves busy, one is only eighteen and only on his fifth shift working here. His boyish looks are a world apart from the grizzled faces around him, he still has a brace and a thin amount of hair across his top lip – he hasn’t even learnt how to shave yet but is learning the ways and world of cooking at the highest level. He is picking through individual leaves of chervil, measuring their beauty as if they were lined up for a pageant and deciding which ones are worthy to be put on a plate. He then does the same with leaves of thyme, sea purslane and parsley. No leaf too bruised, too misshaped or of too dissimilar sizes. Fine dining doesn’t give a damn about equality, it only wants perfection.

You learn about discipline, I don’t know how much you learn about cooking. How many stalks of spinach do you have to remove before you are afforded being allowed to learn something you actually wanted to learn? It’s all just a series of mundane tasks one after another, designed solely to test your resolve and see how enthusiastically you can move on to the next boring task without complaining. Perseverance is the necessary trait, that and not thinking twice about working sixty or seventy hours a week with the minimal amount of time to eat or sleep; if you are single-minded enough to not consider a life outside of a kitchen, then you may just have a chance to move onto something more interesting than cleaning shrimps. A lot don’t make it, places like this churn through chefs like they do ingredients that don’t meet their standards. I know I’m not like one of these young chefs, I’d like to think I’ve gathered enough sanity over the years to not exert all of my energy into making someone else successful. Fraudster or not, you’re a grunt, taking your orders no matter how grim and standing to attention when you are ready for the next one – if you have the willpower to ask for the next one. Like any grunt I am a patriot to my fellow professionals and the work they do but if I really wanted to join the military, I would have joined the military.

What do Chefs Eat? Recipe: Pan-fried Coley, Potato Salad, Cucumber and Fennel

It is no surprise that chefs are on a high car insurance premium; we all drive a little too fast, a little too aggressively, all a little too desperate to get home during our split shift, hoping against hope not to hit traffic so we can spend a few precious extra minutes at home before leaving for work again in the evening. Breaking hard and late, too close to the car in front, hoping that my front bumper will telepathically communicate with their rear bumper that they need to get out of the way. Not to mention we drink after an evening service before driving home, just as aggressively and just as desperately. If you ever see someone dressed in a way unbefitting on their surroundings, with the smell of food lingering around them like an annoying bug that can’t be swatted away, then chances are they were cooking your food just a few moments ago. All good cooking requires good timing, which is why finishing lunch service, cleaning up and getting home early is essential. You have to cook and eat earlier than a pensioner at an early-bird special before getting your sorry arse back to work and be ready for the evening service. You’d think that would be easy for a chef but we also fall into the pitfalls of convenience food and the irrefutable crap of Pot Noodles and pre-packaged sandwiches.

Fortunately, cooking well doesn’t require an exorbitant about of time and instead relies on a bit of common sense, and an understanding of simplicity. You don’t need expensive equipment; just a few good pots and pans, a chopping board, a sharp knife, and a willingness to actually cook well in the first place. First and foremost it is important to buy ingredients and cook food you like to eat. Some of these things will not be suitable for the quick turnaround needed, a good rule of thumb I set myself is, if it takes longer than an hour — don’t bother. As much as I love slow cooked casseroles with neck of lamb or other lesser cuts, it is not possible during a split shift. Anything complicated that I may have been working on mere hours ago is useless to me. No confit, nothing cured, no heavily reduced sauces, and nothing braised; the cookery techniques needed for such dishes become useless to me as I leave the restaurant and are driving home, as if recipes and knowledge are spewed out behind me with the car fumes.

I’d like to think that good food can be created by anyone, not just chefs and hot requiring you to work fifty hours a week to understand its concepts. In this series I am challenging myself to stop living of a diet of cheese on toast and cook and eat better than a chef at home really should.

Pan-Fried Coley, Potato Salad, Cucumber and Fennel

As an island we are pathetic when it comes to eating fish. We are surrounded by water and dissected by rivers, yet we eat only a few species, typically in guise of the national dish of fish’n’chips. Haddock in the North and cod in the South, while other excellent varieties are exported to countries that have a better appreciation of seafood and aren’t blessed with a close proximity to the sea. Coley is better value and almost indistinguishable from cod when cooked but is rarely seen and cod’s uglier relative, hake, is largely exported to Spain despite being predominately caught in the North Sea. Freshwater fish such as eel and pike are essentially non-existent in modern British cuisine despite having a history of being eaten here dating back to the Romans. I believe our own squeamishness is to blame — we demand the same variety of fish, filleted and de-boned, and that is what we are supplied. There is little point putting eel on a menu as very few would order it. Unfortunately for seafood, many varieties of fish have the bad manners of containing bones that are unpleasant when found with a mouthful of food, yet a poor reason not to eat fish alone. Bones are natural part of eating an animal, we are happy to eat a supreme of chicken with the wing bone still attached, but for some reason, fish bones must be avoided at all costs. Fish also has the unfortunate ability to fit on a plate whole, head and all. People seem to have become unable to eat anything that is looking back at them so blinded are we to the processed and packaged prime cuts that we are accustomed to. I wonder if people would be but off eating beef if the head were served alongside every sirloin steak.

Firstly, season the fish, preferably about half an hour before cooking. Not only does it improve the flavour but it firms up the texture which is needed especially for flaky fish like cod, coley or hake.

Here the cucumber and fennel is salted to extract excess water and to slightly nullify the harsh aniseed flavour of raw fennel, then squeezed and dressed with vinegar and sugar. Peel the cucumber and fennel using a peeler into ribbons. Mix with a small amount of salt and leave for about half an hour before squeezing as much liquid as possible from the ribbons and toss with vinegar, sugar and pepper. The idea is that the acidity and freshness from the cucumber and fennel will cut through the richness of the fish and potato salad.

For the potato salad, boil new potatoes in well-salted water till tender. Drain and peel them if you have the patience and cut into manageable pieces. I do not have the inclination to make a mayonnaise based dressing in the brief time I have, so use bottled if you wish. Dress the potatoes with the mayonnaise while still hot and add seasoning, sliced spring onion and chives and eat lukewarm.

Coat the fillet of coley in seasoned flour and add to a medium hot pan with a touch of oil and plenty of golden foaming butter which will form a crust when it makes contact with the flour, holding in delicious flavours, prevent the fish from drying out and give a wonderful crusted texture. Served preferably outside, in the sun, with white wine.

Eating Sardinia

Maria was everything you could ask for, the perfect endorsement for the entire Mediterranean basin — slim, beautiful and sun-kissed enough to make pale Brits abroad appear all the more pale and conscious of it. Welcome to Sardinia.

We’d already been on Sardinian soil for over two hours. Initially struck by the heat and stench of cigarette smoke as we stepped out of the airport terminus and then stuck in the traffic of small dented cars, accessorised with duct tape and drivers lazily smoking. It’s late summer and the heat has yet to die down. Cattle graze underneath the shade of a single pine tree, the backdrop is more mountainous than I imagined. A giant granite ridge arching out of the Mediterranean sea. The island is ruled by the land rather than the sea and was long invaded by Carthaginians, Moors and Romans for it to ever be safe to settle on the coast. In the mountains during traditional festivals, the locals wear wooden masks carved into the faces of sheep and cattle, painted black, and shaggy woollen vests. Sardinia has nothing to do with sardines.

We eventually meet Maria late afternoon who, in her denim shorts that made you forget everything about home, guided us around our villa at Porto Raffael. Other villas are carved into the hillside: ancient granite torn by thousands of years of coastal winds — blasted and distorted into rising curves of stone that seabirds nest in. Across the water lies La Madellena where Admiral Horatio Nelson based his fleet during the Napoleonic Wars; the battleships now long gone and replaced by sailing boats, ferries and expensive yachts. We will look out at this view for many hours, eating fat marinated olives and drinking the local beer called Ichnusa. There’s something about foreign beer that makes it taste better than anything you have at home when drunk in the sun and without a care to occupy your head.

Before every meal your given pane carasau: thin crisps of twice baked bread with a history as ancient as the island itself and originally baked for the isle’s shepherds to survive on when living in the mountains for months at a time. We dine early by Italian standards, early enough for us to practically have the restaurants to ourselves. I order a dish of gnocchetti; a curved pasta with deep grooves traditional to Sardinia that roughly translates to “fat little calves.” The pasta is served in a simple tomato sauce with sausage meat and flavoured with rosemary, which grows wildly on the steep and dry hills. It is rich and satisfying, like a meal your mother may cook you and brings back feelings of belonging and care.

Another night in a seedy restaurant with small tables cramped too tightly together and another pasta dish, this time linguine with clams and bottarga. Bottarga is the salted roe of a flathead mullet and is grated into the sauce like you would parmesan for seasoning. It gives great depth to simple ingredients and mediocre cooking. The clams are everything and everywhere and I find myself ordering them wherever we go. Hideously expensive in Britain and refreshingly abundant here, they are sweet and delicious and cooked with almost everything; with bottarga, with olives and olive oil, with courgettes, with another Sardinian pasta called fregola, and served with whole deep-fried dogfish with lemon halves. If I picked up anything from Sardinia it is a love of clams and a great disappointment that I do not eat them at home.

The meal starts with bread and it ends with a drink. Ichnusa makes its way throughout the meal, beer being more heavily drunk here than wine and is available at every bar, restaurant and café. There is a bad tendency to finish the meal with a shot of Mirto, a liqueur made from the myrtle plant that grows freely across the island. It is a sickly, black colour that scrapes across your tastebuds and strips them of any good taste previously there, inevitably spoiling the good grace of the chef and the excellence of their produce. Once you learn your lesson and decline the offer of Mirto, the meal can have a fitting ending. A negroni is the optimum: bitter gin, Campari, vermouth and orange. Bitterness is undervalued as a flavour but Italy understands its worth; oranges and lemons, Campari and delicate leaves of radicchio and endive lightly dressed in olive oil — it’s a bitterness that sharpens the senses. The deep colour of the negroni echoes the colour of the setting sun, the heat becomes muted and my mind focuses on the beauty of simple ingredients put together well, which is surely the very backbone of all good cooking. Back at home, I spend too much of my time dreaming of eating Sardinia.

To Feed a Hunger, Restaurant Review: Jive, Norwich

We met online. It’s certainly the most convenient way to when you work nearly fifty hours a week on a consistent basis; two days off, split shifts, nine till sometime past three then a quarter past five till late — sometimes very late. That doesn’t leave much time to find someone the ‘normal’ way, it doesn’t leave much energy to wake up on those two days off let alone be charming to someone who, with some hope, may find me interesting. Francesca and I laid eyes on each other awkwardly at a bar I used to frequent when I was a student, a typically irreverent place for a student bar that, despite the eclecticism of its customers, I now feel out of place at. As someone who spends most of their time within the confines of a kitchen, places that essentially act as sovereign states with their own social traditions, being socially inept outside of them is as natural as sharpening a knife. Maybe I am socially inept because I work in kitchens, or maybe I work in kitchens because I am socially inept.

The gin quenched our nerves and we spoke sporadically. I was attracted to how she listed Joseph Conrad as one of her favourite authors and her ambitions to become an airline pilot — I do not know how any man could not be attracted to that. I thought of how she also sought the confines of a workplace, a life outside of the normality of standard working hours, relationships or any sanity in taking an easier route. She told me she feared living without doing something she loved and we sat comfortably within each others silence as the night grew and conversation slowed. Time soon passed from the cold November air of our first encounter and we approached a dating milestone of eating out at a restaurant. Naturally, I bore the responsibility of choosing the restaurant we would dine at. As a chef, such decisions are usually mine to make as the belief my knowledge and experience supplants the opinion and tastes of my fellow diners.

I took her to a restaurant called Jive on Exchange Street, Norwich – a graveyard to many failed restaurants. Places get designed, fitted, branded and open before soon closing; then they get redesigned, refitted, rebranded and reopened for only the same to happen again. There is currently some consistency in good restaurants and cafés along the street to jointly stave off the threat of closure. The restaurant, or kitchen and bar as they’ve called it, perhaps to suggest a departure from the traditional understandings of a restaurant, sits in the grave of a former bistro that was known for its fish cookery and was decorated like a grandmothers living room. Now the black door is decorated with illustrations of luchador masks and it’s obvious this reincarnation from its former life has been drastic. The wooden stairs that lead up from the street are studded with copper pennies and we walk up towards the music.

The inside is barren, like grandma’s living room was gutted by fire, stripped out and new tables and chairs brought in without ceremony or respect for the dead. Bare walls, bare floorboards and bare brick; concrete and wood, metal and leather, glass and paper. The only decoration is a piece of wrought iron welded into the shape of a cactus. We’re shown to our table by the window and look down onto the rain-slicked street before ordering cocktails of tequila and mescal, even though we no longer need alcohol to quench any nerves, and Francesca is presented with a strange drink of hideous sapphire blue. The menu is printed on a large piece of paper that takes up most of the table which I instinctively dislike but the items printed on them are reassuring. There is obvious pedigree behind the words. The waiter could only understandably be described as ‘hipster’ and suggests a taco of beef skirt steak and roasted bone marrow, whereas Francesca chooses tacos of buttermilk chicken and the vegetarian option of butternut squash. By then we were happy with each others company and conversation and, drinking our cocktails, content in our new relationship, safe in the fact that nothing else much mattered.

Our waiter returned and placed our meals down. The bone lay across my plate, halved and roasted, almost malevolent in its pure nakedness. It’s all there on the plate, animal, vegetable and mineral. Grain, meat, blood and bone — the very idea and evolution of human consumption. There’s primal delight in bone marrow, sweet and gelatinous that gives depth to the steak, the onions, the chilli and the corn taco. Not a delight from any gastronomic pretentiousness or intellectualism but pure hunger and greed for eating because I know this is the kind of thing the chef wants you to order. It was the simple joy of eating, and eating with someone, that seems most important. We didn’t bother with dessert, as far as I am concerned South America isn’t known for its puddings so I typically save such treats for when eating European cuisines. We pay and leave and I feel the inevitable satisfaction of being fed, as if a meal with a beautiful girl is all it takes to impatiently extinguish the stresses and strains of my working lifestyle and set the world right. We walk down Exchange Street, past the other restaurants and the ghosts of other restaurants too and she looks at me as if she were a drawing by Schiele. I’ve felt hunger for many things and for once feel relieved of many of them.

A Note on Pork and Recipe: Marinated Pork Chop, Lentil Tabouleh and Cauliflower

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from to pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1945

Winston Churchill once said something about dogs looking up to us, cats looking down on us, but pigs treat us as equals. I’m not sure if that raises the pigs prestige to ours or lowers us to theirs. Rather unfairly the word ‘pig’ has some rather dirty connotations because pigs are, well, dirty. Just add the word ‘pig’ onto the end of a sentence and you’ve got yourself an insult.

For all intents and purposes, we know what pigs are. A pig is an animal from the Suidae family and includes both domestic and wild pig, such as the boar and warthog, and are characterised by their even-toed hooves with all modern species originating from Old World Africa and Eurasia. Pigs have long been associated with the worst aspects of humanity. George Orwell transformed them into representations of Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky and Vyacheslav Molotov; that’s unfair on the pig, they didn’t choose to be communists. After committing the murder of Sharon Tate, the Manson family wrote the word ‘Pig’ in her blood on the door to her house in reference to The Beatles song ‘Piggies;’ again, that’s unfair on the pig to linked to the most evil aspects of humanity. In Lord of the Flies, William Golding had the marooned children worship the titular totem, a boars head on a stick and literal translation of the Hebrew word ‘Beelzebub’ – the devil itself.

Despite our attempts to belittle our Suid companion, they undeniably make for good eating, for those of us who eat meat and don’t follow any strict religious doctrine that is. The forbidden eating of pork is largely a Semitic issue. As omnivores that will eat anything without hesitation pigs were used in pre-sewage eras as communal waste disposal. A resourceful way to rid city and town streets of waste and excrement but, regardless of this reciprocal nature between human and animal, the pig was deemed unclean and not even worthy of religious sacrifice let alone consumption. In ancient Egypt, Set; the god of desert, storms, violence and disorder was often associated with pigs and depicted with the head of a pig like animal. After being defeated by the noble Horus, Set became vilified and swineherds banned from entering temples and from being eaten. Today, Jews and Muslims still view the consumption of pork as ultimate taboo. Judaism and Islam may not agree on much and have fought many a war but at least their disgust of the poor old pig can unite them.

In Europe, pork is essentially an institution. Given their resourceful eating habits and being easy to rear, pigs were ideal for small-holders and peasants throughout the Middle Ages. The pig would eat any waste provided to it and when properly fattened by winter, would be slaughtered and its meat preserved to sustain poor families through the hardships of winter and almost inevitable famine. Bristles, ear, trotters, skin, bones and blood – nothing would go to waste. People have been preserving meat for centuries, before the advent of refrigeration it was essential. The ancient Egyptians would cover meat in salt before burying it in the sand to preserve which worked will for meat, fish and the remains of nobility. Charcuterie is where the pig reigns supreme. Although any meat can go through the process of being cured, smoked or dried, it is most commonly associated with pork. In Britain; bacon, sausage and black pudding all feature on a traditional English breakfast. Bacon in particular is a British phenomenon. Many a Brit abroad will lament the lack of quality smoked bacon that we are accustomed to. Strange given that a large portion is imported from Denmark, a nation who themselves don’t eat bacon and only export it. American bacon differs from British bacon in that it is taken from the belly of the pig and has a much higher fat content and is what we would call streaky bacon, whereas British back bacon is taken from the loin and contains a small amount of belly. Canadian bacon is an entirely different matter and not worth mentioning in the same breath. Cured and glazed hams have been worth of any gathering throughout history. Maybe pigs treat us as equal because they have given both rich and poor meat worth eating for so long. Not bad for an animal that eats muck and is attributed to the worst of humankind.

Recipe

Given the  Middle Eastern spices of this marinade lamb would traditionally be used but religions loss is my gain. For the marinade blitz one red bell pepper, one red chilli, two cloves of garlic, a small handful fresh mint leaves, one teaspoon ground coriander, one teaspoon ground cumin, olive oil and salt and pepper together until you get a paste. Cover the pork chops and leave to marinade for at least two hours. For the tabouleh cook the lentils until tender and drain. Combine with chopped mint, one teaspoon ground cinnamon, one teaspoon ground all-spice, salt and pepper, olive oil and feta cheese. Heat the oven to 200°C. Heat a frying pan with a little oil, break the cauliflower into florets and fry until nicely coloured then add ground cumin, ground coriander and ground cinnamon before adding white wine, stock or just water till cooked. Finish with some chopped coriander or possibly some nuts or dried fruit for added interest. Meanwhile render out the fat of the pork chop in a hot pan and then fry on both sides until caramelised and golden before finish cooking in the oven to your liking – about five to ten minutes. The enemy of cooking white meat is dryness due to the lack of fat running through it so a little under is fine. Forget the old tales of undercooked pork, farmed pigs aren’t fed on a diet of human waste and remains so any old health risks regarding pork are neglected.

The Prestige of Cooking

I’ve never come to terms with the idea that being a chef is worthy of any attention, let alone glamour. Television is to blame, its maddening love of kitchens and those who work in them infects television screens like an invasive bacteria, spitting out and feeding into a belief that being a chef is about something as simple as cooking. It engulfs everyone and we’re all complicit in the charade, the pull of cooking so beguiling that we end up watching just about anyone, from amateurs who cook to amateurs who bake, celebrity chefs in studios, nutritionists who tell you what to eat and those who tell you what to eat on a budget; it even extends beyond television, mothers, lovers, blokes around barbecues, beer in hand, with no clue of what they are doing. Then there are the catering students, fresh from college, pretending to know something about cooking and caught up in the glamour of owning a set of knives and the fantasy that working in a kitchen will bring stardom. But anyone who knows anything in this trade understands that we’re all guessing, we all know fuck all and we’ll never be the person on the television. All we can hope for is to be one of their grunts and be a small part of their success. I still feel the prestige though. Sometimes that means something when you are stuck in a kitchen all day and when service comes round, knowing people will be catching glimpses of you work through the open pass and thanking you for their meal as they leave.

I think all chefs have their mothers to be thankful for. That’s where it all begins, all of our earliest memories of food stems from our mothers. Mine is learning the family recipe for a sausage and bean casserole that we call ‘cowboy dinner,’ possibly in homage of that scene from Blazing Saddles, and always served with lumpy mashed potatoes. My mother is also the reason I got into kitchens as a career, giving my a job to cook for children at the nursery she managed where I learnt the fundamentals of cooking in bulk and cooking in time.

My awakening to the glamour of cooking came thanks to a chef named Alistair who saw an idiot taking their first step from kitchen porter to kitchen trainee and showed me that standards and talent were possible, even in a bog-standard gastropub. He was the first to show me that, no matter how much your back is against the wall, not every item on the menu needs to go through a microwave and that freshly baked bread is essential for any restaurant with ambition. He lent me battered copies of two books: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Marco Pierre White’s White Heat. As far as chefs are concerned these are the seminal classics of literature. You can forget anything you were taught at high school, a copy of Jane Eyre would only find use to mop up a spillage, but Bourdain is crass enough for us to understand and even brought some sense to the drugs, life and idiocy of kitchens. White Heat is pure sex appeal. Dishevelled chef jacket, total bravado, fire and fury sort of sex appeal. Just look at the photographs — pure sex appeal and outdated recipes. Those books taught me something though. Mainly that is was cool to be in kitchens, to be outside of normal society, to be part of a counterculture (or maybe that should be anti-culture), and once you let yourself get pulled in, there’s no getting out. There’s not much incentive to get out when you start thinking of yourself as one of those crazy guys who cooks and get absorbed in the ideology of its sex appeal. Alistair was also a borderline alcoholic and diabetic, a dangerous combination when alcohol is constantly accessible and eating is something you ironically don’t do whilst at work. You never think about how you are depriving yourself of eating when you first start. While others enjoy the food you have been preparing all day, you’re still working. Your whole body clock gets screwed up and you forget when an acceptable time to eat is. Even on days off I find myself eating lunch at 4 o’clock or simply not eating at all only because it’s what I am now accustomed to. Alistair was a man of excess who drank too much and worked too single-mindedly; balding, a heavy smoker, who only saw cooking his way or no-way at all, he would work surviving on pints of premium lager, Coca-Cola, insulin shots and then nearly entire tubs of ice cream during the inevitable crash in his blood sugar levels. Ultimately he became disappointed that customers didn’t understand his brand of good food and didn’t order his freshly made pappardelle or galantine of chicken and, when the newly opened restaurant turned into a faux pub, he eventually left without notice with myself leaving shortly after.

I always considered Alistair to be the ‘correct’ kind of glamour associated with our trade; who did it for the love of making things from scratch, cooking properly and for feeding people, unlike a previous patron chef I worked for who once appeared on national television. Talking about his brief stint with fame was his speciality — once while we collectively and silently peeled potatoes he told us, “This time last year I was television. Mad innit?” Upon my initial interview he asked whether or not I had watched him, as he did to both front and back of house staff he hired — I lied that I had and got the job. There is a reason why cookery programmes are all pervasive, why television specialises them for every chef, every cuisine and every country that is as simple as the memory of being cooked for by a loved one. Lots of us outsource cooking for convenience, most of us having little time or patience to cook after work, but our leisure is devoted to watching cookery, food we ultimately cannot eat — pointless as food can be. Even cookery programmes have a mother in Julia Child when she first hosted The French Chef in 1963 and proved that cookery could attract the engrossed attention of anyone, even men who were incapable of making a bowl of cereal. To watch cooking is to feel that love of being cooked for again. We have to eat. Hunger bears down on us like a rabid dog that consumes all thoughts and motives until we can appease it. If we can find something else in that hunger then we should. If we can impress someone with something as simple as chopping an onion then we should embrace the communality of cooking so that we become more than just hungry bodies. Something happens when wine is poured and we sit down to eat and to facilitate that is the ultimate prestige.

To Dine Alone, Restaurant Review: Farmyard, Norwich

The day is frigid with the banality of being post-Christmas and pre-New Year. The excitement of one day has passed and the excitement of the other has yet to come. It rains monotonously in a grey, cold drove that depresses the senses and serves as a reminder that the largely universal joviality of the season is nearing an end. Chefs are exempt from the feeling of good will during this time of year. People are far too hungry for that. They eat and eat as if the word ‘excess’ had grown so filthy it was expelled from our language and the very idea of digestion become blasphemous. I no longer like December, not many in this trade do. The month is long, without respite, and the dichotomies between life inside and outside the kitchen pulsate in your head like an egg being boiled. The most noticeable thing is the lack of daylight, how it doesn’t even enter your consciousness, it’s just darkness and the fluorescent lighting of the kitchen. Darkness and heat. The heat never changes. It’s hot enough that the cold doesn’t even feel cold.

That’s why I find myself walking down the rain-slicked pavement of St. Benedicts Street, Norwich. A good place if you like to drink; cocktail bars, gin bars, good bars, inevitably expensive bars, all with large windows that look onto the street and the passers-by. I once worked with a chef who lives on this street, he told me that in the early hours of the morning the street would be populated by heroin addicts, prostitutes and benefit claimants waiting to sign on. “A fuckin’ drugged-up weirdo knocked on my door just to ask if I had a paperclip he could borrow.” Since 2015 the street has played host to a previous Michelin-starred chef. It is also within close proximity of my alma mater and is now an odd concoction between being an upscale gourmandise destination and student bohemia, with all the pessimistic angst and poetry readings to go with it. It’s like the area got halfway through gentrification until it couldn’t work out what to do with all the poor people, addicts and students. Either way, the cheap student labour helps if wealthier people want their food and drink delivered to their table.

Norwich still doesn’t have a Michelin star but I am not on the look out for one. I have been feeding people for too long and feel malnourished in both body and contentedness, so I am out to indulge in a conscious gluttony by visiting a restaurant that came recommended by a colleague. “They’re butcherin’ whole fuckin’ lambs man, guttin’ fish, shit like that,” he said. Not one to pass up eating an animal that was butchered on-site, I tolerate the rain and arrive at a restaurant called Farmyard. It fits the bill of a place located on Benedicts Street; large windows that watch my miserable approach and pink neon lettering above the doorway that contrasts the pallid green frame. I walk in, without a reservation, and as the waitress approaches me, I ask for a table for one. People are always puzzled when you ask to dine alone. There is never a table set-out for just one person; the act of eating, let alone dining out, is so innate with sociability that eating alone disrupts this dynamic and the very conventions of table layout. Superfluous glasses, napkins and cutlery are hurriedly rushed away as if to limit the shame of being alone at a table. When a man dines alone there is a sadness, even pity, to it; a woman dining alone is almost unthinkable and something I have never encountered. I refuse to think like that. To believe that eating alone is a sign of social awkwardness or weakness of character. I enjoy the company of good waiting staff, my own company and most importantly, I am here to eat, not talk.

They use the word ‘bistronomy’ here. French origins with that word of course, like most things culinary, and started by chef Yves Camdeborde back in 1992 when he struck out on his own, leaving the Hôtel de Crillon to start La Régalade. Haute cuisine but with bistro pricing, that is the fundamental idea of bistronomy. Relaxed fine dining without the bullshit pomp and ceremony is what most ambitious restaurants are now becoming in an attempt to democratise good food cooked well. Farmyard has all the aesthetic hallmarks of bistronomy; the modern brutalism of polished concrete flooring and exposed concrete ceiling; Edison bulbs housed in metal, skeleton light shades; a wine rack that improvises as a dividing wall between the bar and restaurant; white brick tiles that frame the open kitchen and provide the restaurant with its theatre; menus are printed on paper, unconcerned with formality and suggesting continuous reinvention, and are reassuringly limited. I am always pleased to see a restrained menu, especially when I am expecting to eat well, as large menus lack focus and almost always mean shortcuts are made in providing so much food. I don’t order for myself. I never feel the need to be confronted with too much choice when eating. If I am invited to a friends to eat I don’t expect to be asked what I want, I expect to be served whatever the host likes to cook and I feel restaurants shouldn’t be so different. I want what the kitchen does best, not what my whims may decide they do best. That is why I enjoy the company of good waiting staff — they ensure a good meal.

I am served by a slender woman with dark features who I imagine to be Spanish, but maybe I only think this because of the way she walks between tables with assured movements like that of a Spanish dancer. She also orders from a reasonably priced set-menu for me with confidence and knowledge, taking into account the bleak weather and my own weathered appearance. First I am brought lamb kebabs predominately spiced with chilli, coriander and cumin served alongside labneh, which is just natural yoghurt that is drained of its excess whey to create a thicker consistency yet retain the sour flavour. The labneh is topped with dukkah, a spice mix made from whole toasted spices including coriander, cumin, sesame seeds and hazelnuts. It is well balanced with the spices not overpowering the lamb and the labneh is cooling in its contrast and the red Merlot that was recommended is strong enough to withstand the spices. To follow I am presented with a chicken breast with celeriac, truffle purée, sprout tops and jus. I am dubious about the purée and, given the pale colour and texture, my guess would be it is actually celeriac purée seasoned with truffle oil but is rich and well made. The sprout tops don’t offer much apart from some greenery and a slight bitterness but the chicken itself is cooked perfectly fine.

I eat contently, guided by the grace of my waitress and the watchful eyes of the chefs as I sit directly in their view. The red wine relaxes me from the stresses of the month and the food comforts my tongue and my hunger. I feel relieved to be out of the kitchen, as if I have been delivered to a site of tranquility, bathed in natural light and sated of my appetite. The competency of the chefs and the spirit of good cooking fills me and I am consumed with the pleasure that food can offer and the knowledge that it can always bring me relief when I need it most.

Alone in the Kitchen

The head chef has already messaged me saying he is running late. That means he spent the previous night stoned and is in no condition to arrive at work on time. Sometimes it pays off to be one of the few chefs who isn’t rolling a joint in the kitchen after all is cleaned and done. It means I am the first to arrive, I open the restaurant doors and make my way past the elegantly laid out tables and towards the kitchen. It is the only time in the next fourteen hours that it will be this cool, this dark and this quiet and it is something I savour no matter how brief. No one has yet been accused of taking it in the arse, discussed the time they hired an escort or started to play terrible music (Bulgarian dubstep anyone?) It is a moment of solace that will soon be destroyed. I bring in the morning’s deliveries and get to work. I don’t even bother getting changed into my chef whites and start working my way through my days prep list and for a short while I am happy to be working. I am happy to be alone in the kitchen.

There is a time though where my being alone becomes loneliness. For to love food is to sacrifice weekends, to sacrifice old friendships, to sacrifice a regular sex life and to sacrifice any potential romance. I can only imagine that finding a partner is difficult enough for those who work a nine to five, I know full well it is even more difficult when working a nine to gone ten in the evening. We are all working too hard, too much and for too long and even more so for those who choose to be in kitchens. Loving food is hell.

“Being stuck around a bunch of guys all day makes any bird look shagable.” Dan’s a scruffy Chef de Partie and sports an unkempt Johnny Bravo quiff who; given his rough posture, round stomach and penchant for laziness, I thought to be a burnt out thirty-something but turned out to be only slightly older than myself. He is also one of those chefs who believes everyone to have an ego apart from himself and only saw the injustices of the job. If he were as talented as he thought then there may have been some truth in what he said. He not only claimed to jerk off three times a day when away from his “too attractive for a guy with his physique” girlfriend, he was also the one who told us about his exploits with escorts. During his first forays into kitchens the combination of long hours, a steady income and believing too much into the rockstar chef image popularised by Marco Pierre-White, Dan soon developed a severe drug habit with cocaine. He would often come into work and be clinging to the walls, wide-eyed and not much use. There is an unspoken rule in kitchens that you can feel free to partake in as much drink and drugs as you can handle just as long as you can still do the work the following morning. Many chefs still live by this code. Now he only goes on the irregular blowout and books himself a hotel room, stocks up on cocaine, hires an escort and does whatever it is a horny, drug-fuelled chef needs to do. I guess Neil Young was right when he sang “rock’n’roll will never die”.

Cameron was an overly opinionated Scot I worked with at country pub a few years back, who trained as a saucier at the Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor during his youth and always brought conversation round to his beloved hometown. Bald and diminutive in build, his enthusiasm for soups, stocks and sauces was only matched by his perpetual criticism of others. He gladly listed his own achievements without ever being prompted to and boasted about past successes at other restaurants; awards won, profits made, how he once cooked for UB40 and how he could carve outdated garnishes out of a bell pepper all with great nonchalance. A father of five and on his third marriage he would indulge me with tales of his adultery committed against previous wives, how he shagged housekeepers in hotel rooms and waitresses in dry stores during his time at the Hilton and also of the heartbreak he felt for never seeing any of his children grow up, always away and too busy at work, never home for birthdays or holidays. He also told me that he left his previous job amicably but I later found out from one of his former colleagues that he was fired due to questionable ability and even more questionable hygiene practices. He was likewise sacked as sous chef due to his insubordination and constant criticism of the head chef. Although I had no issues later taking the position he vacated, I enjoyed his company nonetheless for how he saw through the bullshit of working in a place with too much culinary ambition that wasn’t matched by the clientele and how his response to being addressed as “chef” was simply “don’t call me chef. Call me Cameron, twat, prick, arsehole. Anything but chef.”

Back in the kitchen, as chef whites are peeled off exhausted bodies after another fourteen hour workday, there’s the feeling that a life is starting to slip away, that a little too much has been surrendered in the name of fine dining. There won’t be a weekend for us this week, the only companionship we’ll be getting is found with people you wouldn’t ordinarily acknowledge let alone spend an entire day with. Relationships lose the grace of meaningfulness when you start to consider anyone a friend; a racist, a homophobe, a downright idiot, people who wouldn’t survive in any sane workplace. We may lose touch with any idea of spending a reasonable amount of time with a significant other but ultimately we sacrifice that so someone else can. If you are the kind of person who gets their kicks from smooth purées, leaves delicately dressed in truffle oil, and from words like fondant, butter-baked, and consommé then it is to you that we dedicate our craft. If you happen to enjoy those things with someone you love, someone you will love, or just someone you plan on sleeping with tonight, then at least the labour and the pain from burnt forearms meant something to someone. Even if I’m sleeping alone tonight then hopefully my craft created a memory to those who dined on our food. Loving food is hell, if only it weren’t so damn good.