But, really, this place is the dimestore diamond of Chelsea. It’s understated, in the best way possible; especially when all you get around are 12£ lattes (remind me to tell you the story of that Russian café we retreated to, defeated by the winter rain).
There is the back-garden, and the teal chairs and aluminium tables, there are the oreo-filled brownies, and cookies too. There is a counter that will make you hungry even when you’re not. And, yes, there is the Greek iced coffee, one of the many-good-reasons to spend lazy summer afternoons at the terrace.
I received an email. Of a young pastry chef – L. – who was feeling like she didn’t belong to kitchens. We emailed back and forth. To me, there is nothing more magical than getting to do what I blindly love, and couldn’t even dream of a better place to be than in a too-hot, too-fast, too-stressful kitchen.
But it’s only fair to also talk about the other side.
When a daily job relies on boundary-less passion this much, the fine thread that keeps us going, that stretches far beyond strength we didn’t even know we had, can break.
Yes, we’ve all – one day – lost focus. And this is what I told L.: it’s ok. Because deep-inside, you can’t help but have this unreal lovestruck feeling hitting you every morning as you enter the kitchen.
I didn’t write this with the intention to discourage anyone or to bash any restaurant I’ve been lucky enough to work at (in fact, it’s all been just a dream; and if you don’t feel like it is, then maybe, your restaurant is not the one for you, it won’t mean you don’t belong to kitchens, not just to this one); but more as an encouragement. From me to you: shit happens, more often than not. And yet, I can still see you smile when you think you’re not.
Also, please excuse my French – ahem – naughty words. Just consider it a warm-up to the world you’ll soon be breathing.
At times, you’ll wonder why the fuck you’re doing this.
It will be a morning.
You’re setting up your section. Just like any other day. You slept for three hours. Just like any other day. You go in the veg/dairy/you-name-it-fridge and it’s world war seven in there. Just like any other day. You can’t overlook anything. Call it perfectionism, OCD, or care. And really, you don’t have the time. You never have the time, but you make it. Fridge is spotless again. Your never-ending mise-en-place list gets longer. Just like any other day. You have to call every supplier for second deliveries, as a d*ck put through the orders the night before. Just like any other day. Your chef casually rolls in. Just like any other day.
Except it’s not any other day.
Somehow you can’t take it anymore. You will cry. You will swear. You will become bitter.
And you will hate it.
For a second.
Because then, when the check machine starts its merry-go-round, you’re trapped. Willingly or not, desserts are gonna have to leave this pass.
And yes, some merry-go-rounds are scarier, harder, faster than others, but close your eyes and hold tight.
Sometimes, you will feel like it’s unfair. How you’re the first one in and the last out. And no-one seems to give a damn. How you’re the only one to clean the oven or the dry stores. Or worst, doing the stocktake or HACCP.
And really, you can take anything. The fights, the bollockings, the one-too-many joke.
But injustice? No.
And really, you have no choice but keep it quiet. Some things will never be different.
All the time, you will be tired. In fact, you don’t even want to do the maths. But I’ll do it for you.
You wake up at five thirty. Or at least, the first of your many alarms will go off.
You’re at the restaurant by seven. Get changed. Ironed jacket, ironed apron. Need I mention the trousers? One torchon hanging from your hips and another one neatly folded behind your back.
At ten past seven, you’re in the kitchen. A quick look at your mise-en-place list. First delivery comes in and disappears in an army of plastic crates hidden in the fridge. Coffee gets made. And also seems to disappear in a storm.
There is the prep. And the problems. Freezer stopped working. Or perhaps it’s the fridge, or the mixer. Five trays of bread-rolls got burnt. The dairy hasn’t arrived yet and it’s ten. Shit happens. More often than not.
Service happens too. It wakes you up. Makes you feel alive. Makes you connect as a team. As a family. Kitchen is cleaned down. Ready for another service.
You send the last desserts. It’s already half-past midnight.
Hot soapy water, more paper roll than you should use. Sanitiser. Then the floor. You scrub, you squeegee, you mop, you dry. Your turn the lights off. Together.
You get changed. Except this time, forget the iron. Jeans need washing and that t-shirt is more than just wrinkled.
You’re home by late one if you’re lucky. More two.
You stick whites in the machine. Laundry powder. Softener. 60°C. You shower and fall asleep with wet hair. It’s two thirty and your alarm goes off in three hours.
Have a good night.
At least, you have days off to look forward to. Except, you can forget about those too. Someone calls in sick. Someone walks out. Someone is on holidays. Someone, you, need to wake up.
Once a month, you’ll get paid. Don’t make a mistake. No, don’t. Never calculate your hourly wage. Under legal. Not that you care really. Because sooner or later you’ll find the answer to the question that’s been haunting you all day.
Why the fuck are you doing this? You can’t stay away. You learn. You grow up. Perhaps too fast. You love what you do.
I tend to sugar-coat almonds. Not words. You will feel broken. Once in a while. Kitchens are raw. Concentrates of life lessons.
Of course, there is this side. There will always be this side.
But just like there is a hidden world behind puddles, there is also one behind stainless steel. And it’s wonderful, and addictive, and you’ll never get enough of it.
I didn’t take enough pictures. At least not with my favourite camera. In fact, I think I had forgotten how to see the beauty in the unexpected. Some things can’t be forgotten, they say.
I rode my bike through a rainbow of sunsets. Most often than not, with a baguette and a bottle of wine cosily snuggled into the wicker basket. We cooked and ate and drank and laughed. Nothing could ever make me change my mind about her – my grand-mère. I love her. So. So. Much.
I walked in the desert streets of London. At night. Possibly crying. It seems to be a classic. I walked through the very same streets, same early hours of the morning, except there was snow. And people. A lot of them. Getting home that night was on the fun side. If only it weren’t for the following one hour of sleep.
I didn’t sleep a lot. For the record. Perhaps a broken one.
I ate out a lot. For the record. Perhaps a broken one. In fact, definitely a broken one. There was a rhubarb Eton mess, and a demerara sugar soda bread. And figs and basil combined.
I fell in love.
And witnessed the April snow. Two things I can never get enough of.
I left London under a sky made on Union Jacks and the pre-requisite Pimms and lemonade. We had mint tea too. And dim sum. Oh and a rhubarb tart from Yauatcha. I guess, I could add rhubarb to the list of things I can never get enough of.
And then came the south of France. And really, there is no better season down there than late spring. We slept on a canal boat, and drank wine until fireflies stopped their dance. We watched the sun se from that rock we love. And ate sushi, because that’s what we do. We sat at a café terrace and ordered tomato juice. All day long. I wrote a book. And I still do. Because I’m scared as I’ve never been before.
We sat on pebbles. Many times. With a picnic. And the sea. Or the river.
I held Lukie into my arms. And when I saw her again, months later, nothing had changed.
I came back to London and had my desserts on a menu. It was grand.
It took me eight month to realise that – indeed – some things are best left unsaid.
I learnt how to make Greek coffee. And mornings turned magical.
I watched Ben cook at a market stall. And later, I was lucky enough to watch him do his thing on a daily basis. It was magical-er.
I made bread. For what felt like the first time. Yes, because this time, it wasn’t at home. One of them had red wine inside, and I think people liked it. Thank you Ben. For everything.
I drank eggnog lattes. Enough to make it a proper December.
I’ve kissed him. Under mistletoe, under a bridge, under a wool blanket. He tied a golden ribbon in my hair. And his hat had a fluffy pom-pom. We made quite a pair. We walked onto clouds made of dead leaves. And pretended it wasn’t cold. No, not at all.
He made me hot chocolates. With a dash of bourbon. And I made cakes. With mulled wine.
I made mince pies too. And I packed them into a box and sent them away. It felt scary. I had named them: wild turkey in a pear tree.
We opened our eyes to a bigger-than-life snow globe. It’s London by night. And it’s wonderful.
I arrived in France just in time for Christmas. There was a tree. And my parents. And my sister. And foie-gras. And no electricity. But, we had champagne.
It’s probably to late for that. But I’ll close my eyes and make a wish. For 2013. And perhaps, more realistically, for February.
The not-so-official February wish-list.
1. See more of this. 2. Carry my camera in my so-not-Mary-Poppins bag. And get on with the shoulder pain. 3. The watercolours we paint together. 4. Make a foie-gras brioche feuilletée. With duck fat instead of butter, it goes without saying. 5. Feeling so exhausted I can’t stand. Falling asleep in seconds. Dreading the five am alarm. 6. The cosiness of a freshly-made bed. And the hot water-bottle that goes along. 7. Never-ending dinner parties turned late-morning chats. 8. Reading more of this. 9. And this too. 10. Make a rhubarb something – anything really.
I know wishes shouldn’t be said outloud, but well, what are your let’s-not-call-them-wishes-then for the month ahead?