Posted by a Contributor in November's Magazine
Devotees of my articles – that’s to say, anyone who happened to stumble upon last month’s column as well as this – may recall that I’ve recently been pondering a change of career. For the past few years, I’ve topped up my colossal freelancer’s income by working as a barman and waiter. In other words, I’ve divided my working time between writing about food and serving it – but never cooking it.
The decision not to cook for a living was an entirely considered one. For me, the pleasure of cooking – and trust me, it really can be a pleasure – is all about invention. Walking into the supermarket with a tenner in my pocket but no plan in my head; spotting some firm-fleshed, bright-eyed mackerel on the fish counter or a half-price duck on the bargain shelf; then scurrying home and rummaging through the fridge and cupboards to work out what will accompany my prized purchase. No shopping lists, no recipes (naturally), no drudgery: just the enjoyable mental workout of creating, the quiet pride of resourcefulness and, of course, the edible reward at the end.
Professional cooking, as I envisaged it, would scratch none of those itches. Making the same things over and over again, to a never-changing prescription, is a joyless process even at home. Add to that the oppressive heat of a restaurant kitchen, the late night hell of cleaning a manky deep fryer and the relentless pressure of a manic Sunday brunch shift, and it’s easy to see why not being a chef felt like a no-brainer. And yet, I would now appear to be a chef.
So what changed? Have I no brains after all? Perhaps not; but at this early stage – two weeks at the time of writing – I feel there’s at least a hint of method in my current madness. First of all, working the opposite side of the kitchen door isn’t always a barrel of fun either. When thirty hungry and impatient people pitch up unannounced on a Tuesday lunch, it’s not just the chef that feels the pressure. The front-of-house staff – who are equally unprepared – have to do just as much running around; the difference is that they’re expected to do it with a diplomatic smile. In that scenario, the sweary sanctuary of the kitchen, brutally hot though it might be, can feel relatively appealing.
Secondly, the feeling has been nagging at me for a while that I ought to put my money where my mouth is; or, more accurately, to put someone else’s money where other people’s mouths are. I can bang on about cooking all I like – and God knows I do – but if nobody ever gets to sample what I make, other than a small cohort of family and friends, how can I really expect a bunch of strangers to take any notice? So it feels like the right time to give my food a wider audience; and if people like the practice, it might give them more reason to listen to the preaching.
Thirdly, and most importantly, I’m doing it on my terms. I’ve taken over a small, one-person kitchen that could easily pass for a domestic one. So my preferred home cooking environment – alone, secluded, and with BBC 6 Music for near-constant company – is maintained, even if the dress code is a little different. Best of all, I’ve been given the go-ahead to develop a no-recipe menu: an ever-changing selection of dishes, based on what’s seasonal, good value and just plain tasty. In other words, it’s a whole lot closer to the way I’ve always cooked (and that’s given me satisfaction and enjoyment for twenty-plus years) than I ever imagined a chef’s job could be.
So far, so Utopian, though I realise it won’t always be thus. In my first fortnight, I’ve already encountered a few of the frustrations that will be only too familiar to any chefs reading this: the customers who order at 7pm then complain about the delay at 7.05; the check that appears two minutes before the kitchen is due to close; the keyboard warrior who wants the world to share his incandescent fury that we don’t serve macaroni cheese any more. Over time, such irritations will persist, and no doubt increase, and so might the fear that’s kept me out of chef’s whites all these years: that cheffing will make me fall out of love with cooking. But at the moment, that’s a risk I’m prepared to run.
If you’ll have me, I’ll continue to offer my food-related thoughts on these pages, though with a slightly broader focus, and perhaps a different title. (‘The Increasingly Deranged Ramblings of a Stressed Out Pseudo-Chef’? Suggestions welcome.) And if you’d like to sample my wares – well, I won’t name my workplace, for fear of crossing the line that divides column writing from free advertising. But suffice to say it’s in the Southside, and it used to have massive animal heads on its walls. If you should happen to find it, it would be lovely to see you.