Down & Under Pt6i – The washed up blues

A tiny piece of finger is lying on the chopping board amongst the tomatoes.

It belongs to me.

I’ve been on the job approximately 12 minutes and the fact that I was given a proper chef’s outfit duped me into believing I could slice and dice as speedily as the bona fide chef working opposite me. That was a close shave. The clothes it would seem, do not, in this case, maketh the man. I thought my blunder had gone un-noticed until Charlie, the true pro, leans forward and says:

“Fold your fingers under your knuckles, like this…or you’ll do yourself a permanent injury.”

Wise words indeed and not a moment too soon as a dozen more boxes of tomatoes are duly delivered. It’s a hot hot day and we’re out in the country, catering for a music festival where washed-up Australian stars from the 70s & 80s prove that they’ve still got it, and in some cases, quite the opposite. The bands veer from noise – Angel – to tuneful – Ross Wilson – and cover most of the ground in between. I’ll probably get hate mail for saying this, but the Australian music scene from this period was like a sort of bubble traveling roughly 5 years behind their European and American counterparts. Don’t get me wrong, there was some great stuff but sometimes it sounds like radio waves from the rest of the planet took a few years to get here. The crowd out in the field look like they spent a few years getting here too and have set themselves up for the afternoon with picnic rugs, Eskis – ice boxes – and full strength sun block. It’s not the sort of day you’d choose to be cooped up in a metal box with ovens going full blast, and yet that’s exactly where we are, preparing lamb souvlaki, chicken schnitzel and other such fast food dressed up in fancy foreign names.

Twice in the last five minutes, delivery boys have run in and said “Chef, where do you want this?” and “Chef, how long til’ the lamb’s ready” and I haven’t reacted, thinking they were talking to someone else. Like a method actor I need to believe in my role, so under my breath I repeat over and over: I am a chef. I am a chef. I am a chef. I doubt Brando had the same problem.

Cody has yellow bovine teeth. Enough for at least three people. He could eat through trees at the weekend if he ever needed some extra cash. He’s as wide as an oven, has forearms that twitch like trapped baby seals and has a jaw borrowed from an Mayan statue. I suspect that Cody is in fact a Transformer toy: slide his jaw out, swivel the arms round, rotate his mid-section and he becomes a fork-lift truck. He scares the pants off me, and the huge, dripping-blood, rose tattoo on his neck is pure overkill. In the name of balance and irony it should be a puppy.

“What you do?” He asks.

“I do lamb.” Say I.

“Do lamb faster.” Says he.

“Where are you from Cody?”

“No talk. Just get on with lamb.”

Well…I tried, and at least he doesn’t insult me or clip me round the ear. He must have missed that class at catering college. For this is the norm in kitchens, you’ve seen it on TV with the celebrity chefs and believe me they’re not making it up for the cameras, this is how they usually operate: relentlessly, at full volume as though they’re in an armaments factory supplying frontline troops.

It’s a frantic, sweaty, discourteous world that encourages a macho demeanor fully adopted by the women working there. If you take your – legally required – break, you’re a wimp. If you need food, you’re weak. Should you show signs of flagging through the punishing fourteen hours standing in a kitchen shift, then you’re in the wrong profession. I wanted the uniform with chef written on it; well now I’ve got it along with everything else that goes with it. I begin to wonder how some of the kitchen pros put up with it, so I make a mental note to ask one later once we’re back on the road.

Meanwhile, Cody, with his x-ray transformer vision has seen through my knife sharpening ploy.

“You time waste. You warned.”

“We need more lamb, we’re running out.” I offer as an excuse.

“We run out, we cook you.”

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