I WAS FIFTEEN when I stood inside my first restaurant kitchen. My mother, who had replaced the red dirt of Mount Isa for the red lights of a different town, had organised this, my first full-time job. I had no comprehension of what was required or of the implications for my future there.
Oliver's Seafood Restaurant makes no dining lists of substance; it has no stars, hats or write-ups. Like most restaurants of its kind, Oliver's has closed and re-opened half a dozen times under different names and with different culinary dreams.
Dreams drive hospitality. While some people like to think of it as a component of the service industry whose responsibility it is to address the needs of the body, for those on the inside it is a weird and sometimes wonderful dreamscape of ungodly hours, ridiculous pressures, unkind owners, absurd customers, torture, humiliation and occasional moments of brilliance. The obscure thrill of putting it all together on the night, of getting all the sections of a busy kitchen firing, is like no other I know.
Glenn, my first head chef, was fresh out of cooking school and had an unabashed passion for red cordial laced with methylated spirits. On the rocks. He had a ginger handlebar moustache that never quite worked and a temperament I would come to understand as a particular type. He was a busy, nervy bundle of energy and somehow, despite his jitteriness, easy to get on with. Glenn figured that if life had sent you inside his kitchen, you were pretty much fucked and there was no reason to make things worse. He possessed a capacity for kindness, a capacity that evaporated every lunch and dinner. The weight of being vaguely kind outside service hours demanded his inner anger be given free reign as the orders rolled in. Hell hath no fury like a stressed-out, angry head chef in a busy, no-good restaurant. Forget fine-dining celebrity head chefs – in the out-of-the-way suburban business-lunch trattoria or city-fringe motel diner, hell has a name: Chef.
AS I STOOD in front of my first open cool room, I couldn't move. My senses were assaulted by an unreasonable number of smells. It's an odour which recurred over the next twenty-five years in inexplicable ways: as if this cool room were really all possible cool rooms, its stored ingredients – its sauces, produce, pastes, meats, condiments, cheeses, seafood and mould – melded into one archetypal olfactory sensation. I've since cooked in Middle-Eastern and Asian restaurants, and while the food tastes and smells different, the cool rooms all smell like Oliver's Seafood Restaurant.
‘Shut the cool room, faggot,' said Glenn in his semi-kind, before-service voice.
I slid the door shut and turned back to the kitchen. Glenn, wearing a gee-whiz-kiddo stare, asked, ‘Where's the butter, fag?'
This thing about being a faggot: it's offensive, a puerile and ridiculous turn of phrase, but in Glenn's world everyone and everything was a faggot.
‘Sorry, chef. I forgot.'
‘Jesus fucking Christ, fag,' Chef Glenn mumbled as he barged past me into the cool room, ripped the butter from the shelf and slammed the door so hard the bell rang. The bell on the outside of every cool room door is there to attract attention if someone gets locked inside, which happens a lot more than it should.
‘But-ter,' Glenn droned, as though he had a speech impediment, as if I didn't know what butter was.
Standing there in my first restaurant kitchen, suffering beneath the gaze of my first kitchen humiliation, a pubescent fifteen-year-old kid who had just left his eighth worse-than-average school having failed half his subjects, I felt like a fool. I was a kid with parents in the throes of a divorce, with no idea of what I was doing or how I should be feeling, what constituted being an outright moron or apprentice of the year. I was not alone. Many people like me find employment, and a life, inside their version of Oliver's.
‘You're a moron,' said Chef Glenn, testing me.
‘Yes, chef,' I mumbled.
‘Yes, chef,' I yelled vigorously.
Chef Glenn stared at me, nodding, semi-impressed.
I couldn't help but smile as the waiter ripped the first couple of lunch orders from his order book.
BEYOND THE COOL room, the second archetypal smell of the kitchen is that of a just-blown-out bamboo skewer. Chefs all over the world light skewers off pilot lights or a gas burner to light the burner they need at that moment. Then they shake off the flame, or blow it out, or snub it in the wok station water, and the smell...I don't know what it is; I just know it's the same everywhere and means the day has started and it's time to get to work. Everyone knows the six boxes of matches and two lighters that were neatly placed in their service-is-coming-get-ready-positions are out the back in the storeroom with the empty beer bottles, wine glasses and ashtrays. They're shoved under dirty aprons or empty cardboard boxes and they'll be retrieved in time, by the apprentice, before service and well before the owner or restaurant manager turns up.
It's not that every service ends in a celebration; it's just that at the end of every service, two things happen: chefs get changed out of their kitchen whites and, in the process of this changing, this metamorphosis back into street attire, the service that has just gone unravels in their minds and in their conversation. And if it has been a massive service, if you've just been slammed, you'll be having a drink and chatting, laughing, taking the piss and generally talking it up, and this moment of bonhomie has been known to extend beyond the mechanics of getting changed. There's a tipping point, perhaps as simple as agreeing to the second drink, that signals to everyone: get the fuck out now if you have to...and if you don't, you'll be going to bed with the words Where the fuck are the matches, faggot? ringing in your ears.
My first pay cheque stretched far enough to buy a carton of beer and some fancy Italian deli food which I thought I knew about. Of course I got outrageously drunk and danced and vomited and drank some more – on a beach in Townsville, home of Oliver's. I have a vague yet pressing sense the night ended in tears: childish, transitional tears about the confusion and hopelessness of my past life which necessarily involved my parents and siblings. Alcohol seemed to bring me undone in this fashion each time I drank. I remember older, wiser heads patting me on the back, ruffling my hair, telling me that it'd all work out: that I'd be fine; I'd see.
Yet what I came to see was that despite working like an adult, taking on responsibilities and more hours than was reasonable or sane, I was a kid who couldn't come to terms with what had gone before. I was both a child and a teenager, and my family crisis informed who I was, and was probably the reason I drank so much so young. Hospitality for me is and has always been a transitional space: kitchens come and go; people slide in and out of a chef's life ‘until the next gig'. My capacity to leave, to not stick it out, to come undone and move on, was a fitting continuation of a pattern from childhood.
WHEN MY PARENTS divorced, it was my mother who left my father. This fact, about who leaves, is perhaps the most telling signifier at the end of every relationship. Many couples like to say that it was mutual, that each of the parties came out of it with their pride and self-respect intact, but anyone old enough to have fallen in love knows that's bullshit. Someone gets done over and someone does the doing over. So, as the song goes, my mother, after having six children and not missing a Sunday mass in sixteen years, well, we were told that she'd been bold with Harry, Mark and John...and before the song closed out, she found herself working in brothels around Kings Cross.
The thing about being a prostitute is that for most people, it's a fantasy life, something only ever imagined, read about or seen on television. But, backstage at least, it's like most other jobs. There are the usual dramas, boring bits, good days and bad; but there aren't a whole lot of people you can talk to about what happened at work. Unless you're my mother and you don't care what other people think and you never pause to reflect on how your actions might affect other members of your family. No, if you're my mother, you tell anyone who'll listen about what Bob did to Jane and she did to him and they did to her. My mother had no capacity to wonder about how her actions might affect others; this fault line in her personality ran deep, and grew wider and longer, as if she hoped one day she might wake up and find she'd split in two. Only she never did, and it was left to me to work out what it meant to have a mother who worked as a prostitute.
As such, my early years in the kitchen were a kind of double life. It wasn't that I felt that I needed some mystery, some other secret world to feel good about myself or keep people guessing – I wanted nothing more than to be able to focus, draw my attention to what was happening in front of me – it's just that this other world, the world of my unconscious, my childhood dreams and memories, seemed to wash over everything, creating a haze through which I would attempt to pull myself together in order to survive financially and, with any luck, learn something about what it meant to be a chef.
CHEF GLENN MOVED on from Oliver's, gaining employment as a senior chef de partie at a resort in Cairns. He was very happy about this; the idea of joining a large brigade seemed to bring his aggression levels down to a level more commensurate with his talent. He could hide out in a big resort kitchen. There was a two-week respite from his service temper-tantrums before Chef Ivan arrived.
Chef Ivan was a good chef – unlike Chef Glenn, who had absolutely no idea what he was doing. Chef Ivan had sailed from Tasmania for the tropics, and hit the kitchen with gusto. He threw all of Chef Glenn's preparations in the bin and started again, working overnight to re-stock the cool room with the mise en placeof a new and much better menu.
Chef Ivan actually cooked. He combined ingredients in ways beyond Steak Dianne and Vegetables, and when I arrived at work early one morning and opened the cool room I was amazed at the sight of buckets of yellow, green and red food: broths and soups, curries and sauces. And although the cool room still smelled the same, the food tasted better. I stuck my fingers into everything, pulling out globs of yellow, coconutty seafood, tomato soup, green curry.
Things were on the up at Oliver's. I was living with a large, gracious Maori family not far from work and I was looking forward to learning something about cooking. Then my mother rang.
Since leaving me and her two youngest children, ‘She' – as the family called her – had gone to Sydney and hooked up with an ambitious young café owner. Apparently there was an opportunity there for a first-year apprentice chef and, out of the blue, She thought of me. And the thing about being an apprentice chef, which I didn't understand then, is that any employer will give you a start if you show enthusiasm – apprentices are basically slave labour.
When She rang I was still a hopeful teenager who wanted life to work out. I could still think the best of people and remembered my mother as a mother and not a sexualised, super-thin person with desires and ambitions. I was pleased she rang, proud that she had thought of me, that she wanted her son to help out. And I was more eager than I should have been to show her how productive I could be.
AS I STOOD in front of the second commercial cool room of my apprenticeship, the familiarity of the smell imbued me with confidence. I know this game, I said to myself. I can do this. And as I dived into the cool air, I was a little surprised, a little underwhelmed with the produce that lined the shelves. There was a sense of the room being disorganised and basic, more a large refrigerator used to store bulk produce than a repository for a restaurant kitchen's preparations. And that was because The Pantry was more a deli-cum-café than restaurant, more a place where people eat everyday than a restaurant with table service and a three-course menu. The experience of working there – which again turned out to be for a short time – left me with a conviction about what I didn't want in my life. I didn't want to work in a business-lunch, tourist-friendly take-away joint (however good the Reuben sandwiches were), and I never again wanted to work with my mother in the same kitchen.
My mother was becoming something of a disappointment to me. In no time flat she married the owner and the whole new-head-chef, new-dad thing wore wafer thin. So I found myself stopping off at the pub on my way to work, on the way home from work and during the day for a quick fix. I was on a pack and a half of Winfield Reds a day and I missed the crew from Oliver's. But I never thought of going back. There have only been a couple of kitchens out of a couple of dozen where I've gone back after a sustained break.
What The Pantry taught me was how to burn bridges rather than piss around and pretend everything was going to work out in the end. Quitting a job by becoming a reckless alcoholic or addict became a routine I would repeat many times when the pressure, or the crew, or the owners, or the girls – and the girls were the worst of it – got too much to bear.
Step One: Turn up to work half an hour late and smelling of beer three or four days in a row. It doesn't matter how highly the owners thought of you, they've already done the sums on what it's going to cost to show you the door and generally they have the cash ready in their pockets.
Step Two: On day four or five, come in an hour and a half late and you'll find them shaking their heads in disappointment. Of course they have to let you go and of course you're disappointed, surprised, you thought things were going really well – you were just getting into a routine. And this news of a routine where you come in late and drunk every morning has them reaching into their pockets, which is always the trick, pushing the scene until they show you the money rather than just talk about it.
Step Three: Go to the pub and get laid with the only waitress you haven't bedded yet. In the morning, after you've said your goodbyes to Betty, tally up the mental list of joints you know are advertising for a chef or apprentice or cook and then, when you've narrowed the list down to two shops, go to the pub. It's going to be a new pub, a whole new scene closer to the restaurant you think you want to work at. Here you can scope out the new joint, watch the suits roll in for lunch and figure out how busy the place is.
THE OBSERVANT READER will note that this is not a recipe for success, a guide to rising through the ranks of a fine-dining scene: these steps are survival techniques for the early years of hospitality, a means to paying the rent, keeping beer on the table and ensuring a regular supply of sexual partners who share, a least for a few hours a day, the joys of such an existence. And it is only ever a plan for the stage of life known as the pre-serious-relationship phase. Not all chefs understand this, and it's a shame: their partners or pets deserve better. The serious-relationship partners are generally good people, often at a critical child-bearing age, and it's the chef, who has become accustomed to life as a barfly and lowbrow kitchen scum, who doesn't realise that such a life is only suitable for the single person. It is not a road to nowhere: young drunken chefs do after all mature into older drunken chefs.
It wasn't long after I left The Pantry that She took the café owner for a good portion of his net worth – and, frankly, he deserved everything he got. Some proprietors aren't worthy of the money they make. By parking themselves in a busy tourist spot where every day new and unsuspecting customers stumble through the door, exchange rates buzzing too slowly through their weary brains, the proprietors are able to cash in. You don't get many repeat customers.
The next time I saw my mother, we caught up on family gossip over a Medium Big Mac Meal in the bar of a brothel in Bondi Junction.
The Bondi Hotel is a landmark beachfront building in Sydney's east. It seemed more of an institution twenty years ago than it does today, somehow less try-hard and more gracious. When I started work there, it was like walking into a dreamscape. The place didn't just smell of beer and cigarettes: the odours were ghosts which held the joint together. It had nooks and crannies, rickety staircases that led nowhere, bathrooms which weren't used anymore, at least not for what they were designed for, and a drug-dealing scene that was the envy of all the other pubs in the area. We had a twenty-four-hour licence and, come public holidays and long weekends, the hotel never closed. Christmas was a blast. This was before pokies ruined everything great about public bars. People played pool and talked, drank beer and took the piss. They also fought and argued, ate and fell asleep.
In the late 1980s, the hotel was a haven for Kiwis fresh from New Zealand, Pacific Islanders and leather-clad bikers. The three main bars were run by these sometimes warring, but generally peaceful, factions. The Kiwis had the public bar, the Pacific Islanders had the poolroom and back bar, and bikers had the front bar. They controlled the sale of drugs and were responsible for their own security. Staff turnover was high. Not everyone was into three-in-the-morning knife fights, glassed-in-faces and syringe-clogged urinals. For me, it was heaven.
The kitchen was busy and the food was basic. This was not fine dining, nor a weight-watchers' club; there were some very large people about who had a penchant for slabs of beef with buckets of vegetables and sauce. Food costs were out the window. This was about keeping the blood-sugar levels of very imposing men at a level whereby they were friendly to me. I was a kid from Queensland who was happy to maintain the status quo. They let me know what they liked and how they liked it, and I did my best to provide. It was a simple arrangement, and I'm pleased to say I got to call some of these people friends. I moved on to another kitchen, of course.
THOSE SLABS OF beef at the Bondi Hotel bring me to a recipe, or more accurately a method of cooking.
Any tender cut of beef.
Let's be clear about this: steak is beef. It is not pork or lamb or chicken or duck or fish. Steak comes from beef cows and the best for eating are Angus. Far too many chefs and backyard cooks think they know far too much about beef and, quite simply, they don't. Cooking beef is one of the most underrated skills a chef can acquire. How hard can it be? Let me tell you, cooking beefsteaks – particularly the thick, fat eye fillet or tenderloin – how the customer orders it is an underappreciated skill. Every steak is different. There is no such thing as a perfectly timed steak, and I know plenty of restaurants buy portion-controlled tender cuts to try to get around the difficulty of inconsistent amounts of meat, but trust me, these aren't worth the premium.
Cooking steak is a feel thing; you've got to develop a sense of touch around the flesh of animals that becomes fine-tuned, accustomed to degrees of cooking. A good chef knows when a fillet steak is medium-well or medium-rare or just on medium, and they know because they have developed a sense of touch. By squeezing a steak while it cooks, a chef can assess the stage it's at. There's no quick and easy way to get to the point of consistently ‘knowing'; you just have to develop the skill.
One of the best ways of teaching a chef how to cook a steak is to put it on the menu as a sliced dish. For instance, the dish might read: Sliced Angus Tenderloin with Yam Puree and Shitake Mushroom Jus. Now, the reason the tenderloin is sliced is because the chef, which in this case is me, is training an apprentice to cook steak. I want Cam, or Marty or Rani or whoever it is in the next joint, to gain confidence in their ability to cook steaks by seeing and analysing the inside of every one they prepare. So, after they've seasoned the lump of beef with salt flakes and white pepper, and seared all the surfaces of the steak in a cast-iron pan, the fillet goes onto a clean tray and into the oven.
Here's the other thing: every oven is different. It doesn't matter if Chef Pete puts it in for two minutes and Chef Jane says three-and-a-half and Sous-Chef Donny goes six; every steak and every oven is different, and the only way to get a steak medium-rare, as the customer ordered it, is to be able to pinch the steak between your thumb and forefinger and know whether it needs a while longer in the oven or it's done. And done means it's ready to be rested. The steak needs to be transferred to your protein tray in a place where it is going to stop, or very quickly slow, cooking. It needs to be rested so that the blood will congeal or drain from the piece of meat before it gets plated.
Before I let the apprentice slice the fillet, generally into three thick pieces at a nice angle, we look at the steak, we touch the steak, we talk about the steak and watch the blood soak into the tea towel sitting on the protein tray. We slice the fillet and all agree that this is a perfectly cooked medium-rare fillet of beef, and we discuss what it felt like when it came out of the oven, whose arse cheek or breast or bicep or thumb it most recalls.
We do this because it's important to try and remember that touch. The steak is hot when it comes out of the oven and it always looks more cooked than it is, because we've seared it until the flesh has caramelised in the cast-iron pan, but the touch: cooking steak to order is all about the touch. Whatever else I learned in hospitality, however long it took me to sort my life out, I learned how to cook steak properly, and how touch was everything.