I’m just staggering up to the kitchen compound when the voice of head chef Bob rises above all else. Even the jets.
“I’ll tear his fucking head off when I see him!”
Oh christ what have I done now. I mentally go through the last things I prepared.
Did I poison someone? Leave one of my body parts in the salmon soufflé? Bring the name of the kitchen professional into disrepute through some, as yet unimagined, act of food vandalism?
Turns out it wasn’t my head he was after, but one of the Malaysian kitchen hands who had – wait for it – put the salad back on the wrong shelf.
I spend my short nights dreaming of food preparation until my waking and sleeping hours blur into one interminable kitchen nightmare. I am a walking train wreck. I always wondered where my physical limit was and now I know: it’s six consecutive twelve hour days in a kitchen without adequate breaks, food or sleep. Call me a wimp, go on just try it. I’ll find you and…fall over.
Thinking fondly of my three hours sleep last night brings to mind Bret and his Thatcher fixation – she always claimed to need only three hours sleep a night. How did she run a country on three hours sleep and I can’t even face up to modest catering tasks? I muddle my way through the morning, doing God knows what in a daze; dropping things, getting shouted at, burning things and getting shouted at. Next up, I’m slicing steaks for “French revolution beef”, which, it turns out, is merely rarer, bloodier beef than Australians are used to. I’m perched on an upturned bread crate to rest my legs but this innovation doesn’t last one minute before Bob is in my face and his little moustache is practically spinning with fury.
“Fucking put that away! No sitting down on the job. We’re going to get fucked in the arse soon and I can’t carry slack bastards.”
I’m beginning to feel like I’m in a military academy. Not that I’d know first hand what that’s like, but I’ve seen Full metal jacket. I’ve got the Dad’s army box set. Maybe it’s the French revolution beef I’m preparing, maybe it’s the fatigue, but I suddenly come over all Jean Valjean and think, no, enough’s enough. I put my knife down and say to Bob…
“What difference does it make if I’m sitting down or not? Most of the work in here could be done sitting down. I’m only sitting down because we don’t get our breaks, because we don’t get food and because I had three hours sleep last night.”
His moustache stops quivering and he returns to his stroganoff without so much as a word and I think: wow! that was easy, a little self assertion, a bit of trade union speak and the balance of power is restored. I thought that was the last of it but ten minutes later, as if by magic, a rotund, beardy supervisor appears and asks to hear my official complaint about how things are done round here. So I repeat my concerns over the long hours with too few breaks, the lack of food etc. He nods and for a moment I really think I’m being listened to.
“Well I suggest you do like the rest of us. Grow a pair of balls and suck it up!”
Ah yes…I see.
“Come on, follow me. I’ve got another job for you.”
I start to roll my knives up in the pouch but he says.
“Leave ’em. You won’t need ’em.”
He leads me across the compound and along the way regales me with his personal kitchen dogma.
“It’s cunts like you make us look bad. Caffeine and cigarettes are all a real man needs.”
Five minutes later I’m a dish pig in a fast food outlet but I’m to keep my white hat and chef’s jacket. The other dish pigs are staring at me wondering what I could possibly have done to get this particular brand of humiliation. So I tell them and they laugh. Then they laugh some more. In fact they think it’s hilarious. Laughter: something I hadn’t heard for 6 days.
This new kitchen is greasy and unbelievably hot but the people are cool. Once the beardy supervisor’s gone, the manager comes over, introduces himself, asks if I’d like to eat something, whether I’ve had a break or not and to be honest it all sounds a bit like a trick question. But no. Half an hour later I’m fed, rested and getting down to a dish pig’s lot: nine hours of washing up. I chat to everyone, ask what they all do when they’re not doing this, and after a couple of hours my faith in human nature is partially restored. Amazing how it only takes a couple of arseholes to ruin everyone’s week.