Deserted. Roads stretching out to nothingness. I’m so far out of town, the next stop is the spirit world. I walk past a drive through florist and an auto repair shop sporting an aptly worded ‘spare body parts’ sign. I eye every drain cover and overhanging tree branch with suspicion. You never know, maybe they’re trying to drum up business.
Just before the cemetery sits “Australia’s most affordable retirement home.” This place is Limbo, a waiting room. Two days earlier I’d dropped into the recruitment office and Nigel had looked me up and down.
“You’re looking suitably dour. I’ve got just the job for you.”
And the job is here, at Melbourne’s memorial home and cemetery capital; preparing food for wakes in the impeccably clean, manicured lawn, plastic architecture, not a leaf out of place setting that is Fawkner. The back door opens and Belinda greets me with a grin which fades once she hears my accent.
“Is that a fuckin’ Pommy accent? I hate the fuckin’ Pommy accent, it’s just so fuckin’…Pommy.”
With this truly awesome command of the English language I’m shown the kitchen and introduced to fellow chef Rudy; all smiles and Maori tattoos. He tells me his uncle was in the Jane Campion film “The piano” but I half suspect every Maori tribe member of making this claim.
“Can you make chicken curry?” He asks.
Can I make chicken curry? Do martians have antennae…
“Rogan josh, Jalfrezi, Thai, Balti?”
“No, just chicken curry.” He says.
Turns out the ingredients available don’t really allow for much variation from the bog standard variety. I find some three day old coriander in the cold room and set to work. Bradley, the kitchen hand hasn’t turned up so it’s me and Rudy on a train to nowhere – unabashed Supertramp reference.
The place is as quiet as you’d expect and appears well run and clean. Personally I think the sugar pots in the shape of urns are in bad taste but maybe that’s just me and they’ll be all the rage in Ikea next week. The agency booked me to run this kitchen. It would have been my first gig as Head Chef but this becomes untenable early on as it’s clear that Rudy is a kitchen natural. That, plus the fact that he’s six foot – high and wide – determines hierarchy fairly quickly. He’s a consummate pro who handles a knife as though he juggles with it in his sleep. The pans glide from one gas ring to another with a touch of his thick, finger-bun digits and the flames adjust magically like he’s a Cordon bleu Gandalf. He’s also good enough not to comment on my comparatively clumsy kitchen manner. The path from me to Rudy is measured in kitchen hours and dogged perseverance to his art. His salt and pepper chicken wings with mint and soy are light and crispy, his pan fried calamari salad with bok choy, a mouthwatering treat and he even manages to serve up chips and gravy to one diner in a thoroughly classy way with no turn up of his nose. I follow Rudy carefully sensing a true pro at work.
There are two wakes to cater for today but for now Rudy and I make meals for the customers – live ones – in the funeral home café. There’s so little happening out in this suburb that the locals come here for lunch. I’m sorely tempted to add a tag line to the chalkboard menu: A taste of the afterlife.
Belinda reappears with a plate of sandwiches and points theatrically at the neat white bread triangles upon which perches a cockroach. They really are trying to drum up custom. The beastie seems out of place given that everything else around here is impeccable.
“Must be a plant.” I say.
“Nah…” says Belinda. “…it’s definitely a fucking cockroach.”