December 10 2011
It’s Friday morning. The end of the week is coming, which is nice, but that means we have Friday and Saturday still to come – our busiest days by far.
I get in to work by 10, and go straight to the kitchen to see the prawns I nabbed yesterday. They are gorgeous. I take 20 minutes with Alberto to figure out what to do with them. We’ll peel half to serve raw with a little rosemary oil, the rest offer grilled with gremolata and a squeeze of lemon. I take a walk through the kitchen. It is groaning with food. We are busy, busy, busy today (130 covers expected at lunch, including the private room – and 230 at dinner, again including a party – this is pretty much maximum capacity or beyond) and the basement kitchen – where we do all our bulk preparation and cooking – is hard to move in for all the food. I’ll need to come back later.
I pop in to the office and race through my monthly review of our hygiene, cleaning and food handling procedures for November – this doesn’t take too long, as I am up to date with my weekly reviews. I revise the ordering forms to include all the goodies I tasted with Natoora yesterday, and write some notes for my kitchen staff meeting later today.
By midday I’m in my whites and walk back into the kitchen. “Guys,” bellows Alberto, “guys!” Everyone turns to look. Pointing at me, he shouts, “There’s a new guy in the kitchen today – make him work…” I laugh. I offer my services upstairs (the ground-floor, open kitchen, where we cook all the food for the main restaurant) as lunch really is exceptionally rammed but Alberto asks me to help the kitchen porters (KPs) get the basement area into order – it is still stuffed to the rafters with un- and half-prepared food. I go down. I love it down there – I love to handle raw ingredients, and also to cook in quantity. We have four KPs on today – one more than normal – as well as two prep chefs and one chef cooking for the private room. Still they are way behind. Great! That’s more for me to do – this will be fun…
I’m downstairs for just two and a half hours in which time I peel four kilos of raw prawns for service, prepare and cook 15kg of cime di rapa, despatch about 200 langoustines, and peel, seed, wedge and roast two dozen delica pumpkins. All the time I’m showing the KPs new things – how to label certain foods, a quick way to halve baby tomatoes, how to cook X beautifully, how to prepare an artichoke, and how to do it all faster. I look at my hands. My left hand is mummified in a second skin – a thick, vivid yellow layer that looks like a leper’s mitt doused in iodine. I have become Cinderella’s anti-hero, man turned pumpkin. I rub my hands in soap and hot water. No effect whatsoever. I scrub with a nailbrush. Nada. I try a scourer, which works a bit, before remembering a trick shown me once by a mechanic. I make a paste of washing up liquid and sugar, and rub with this. It is like soft sandpaper, and works a treat. I now have the hands of a teenager.
2:30 and I leave the kitchen in a good state. The steel surfaces are bare, and glistening clean. A new batch of cotechino (a semi-cured boiling sausage we are almost unique in making ourselves) is hanging in its right place. The food we prepared all looks delicious, and equally important is labelled with date made, use-by, its description (‘chicken tights’, anyone?), and in the right fridge. I check on Alberto, who had a great service – inordinately busy but cooperative, enjoyable and energising – and decide I have time to go to the gym.
Today I work on my shoulders, and do so to the soundtrack of the finest house known to man. I used to be a DJ. Tattoo Woman (Cerrone), Coma Cat (Tensnake), Son of Raw (Dennis Ferrer), Blackwater (Carl Kennedy), Nico’s song (Louie Vega) all do me proud and are better than a personal trainer. I am lost in my own world, and push until my arms fall off. When Frankie Knuckles’ mix of Blind comes on I have to stop – music just can’t get any better and it’s time to quit while I’m ahead. I need to get back to work anyhow.
At 4pm I have called a meeting with all 28 of my kitchen staff – chefs and KPs. It is important. I need to talk to them about two things. One is to say that we’ll be really busy, and it would be all-too-easy to leave jobs half-done or the kitchen disorganised and stock poorly rotated, but with good communication and professionalism we can avoid any such eventuality. The second is that we have two weeks to go ‘til Christmas and that we’ll be really, really, really busy. By blocking off the first three weeks of December to staff holidays, recruiting early and convincing outgoing staff to stay until the 24th we have more bodies around than usual, but it will still be hard work. Everyone will be pushed to the limit, but I tell them that it will be fun – a frenzied cook-a-thon – if everyone works together as a team, and looks after their fellow man. To ask for help when they need it, to offer help when they think it might be needed. I feel like I’m talking to the troops before they go to battle, and for some reason my mind turns to the Charge of the Light Brigade. I hope my leadership yields better results.
Any questions? Everyone is keen to know what they can order for their Christmas meals. The answer – pretty much anything, collection for staff food and wine orders is on the 23rd, order sheet going up on Monday, they’ll need to pay on the day of collection. It’s a nice perk – the best ingredients in the world at trade prices. Everyone’s happy. We serve staff lunch. Dinner service begins.
Tonight I’m working on the “floor” side of the pass, and Daniele (sous-chef) on the other. This will be fun. He’s as lovely as he is talented. The first (of three) sittings goes smoothly, like a dream. It is usually the hardest, as everyone’s off to the theatre or cinema and comes at the same time, needs to leave at the same time too – whereas the kitchen can only cook or plate so many dishes at once. Somehow today, through careful planning of the reservations book, good management by Richard (on the floor) and Daniele, and a healthy dose of good luck this one’s easy. By 7:15 everyone’s fed and happy, the floor staff reset tables in a frenzy and the kitchen restocks their fridges.
The second sitting today is harder – tables arrive incomplete, and the missing persons to each party seem to arrive in carefully orchestrated unison. Shit. The waiters rush from table to table taking orders. The kitchen printer goes mad and spews out an endless ribbon. The chefs go crazy and cook like there’s no tomorrow. The food looks amazing. The customers look pleased. The staff look knackered. In the midst of it all I am asked to inscribe five Bocca cookbooks to the five ladies at one table, which I enjoy doing but struggle to find the time to do. My mum is in this sitting too, and I only have time to speak to her once, as she arrives. This three-minute encounter is a delight, though. Yesterday I arranged for Franco to deliver her a box of those marvellous oranges, artichokes, chicories and radicchios to her at home between 3-5pm today. I also asked her to stay home during that time to receive a “parcel” I needed to have delivered somewhere Victor wouldn’t see it – obviously a Christmas pressie for him. So she was in to receive her surprise goodie bag of all her favourite things, which remind her of her childhood in Italy. She thanks me with tears in her eyes.
“But they were for Victor,” I say.
She nearly faints.
I have scored!