December 12 2011
Last night the third sitting went well in the end, like clockwork, and I finished just after midnight. Home before 1am, I was still loaded with adrenaline and unable to sleep without some distraction. An hour in front of the telly did the trick, and I was in bed at 2am.
Now it is 9am on Saturday and unusually I have beaten my alarm, which was set optimistically for 10. Victor has already left for work – how he managed to not wake me I have no idea – and I have woken in a bit of a daze. I stumble down to the kitchen and have a whore’s breakfast: a cigarette and a can of Diet Coke. Most nutritionists recommend it. I feed the dog. I go back upstairs and run myself a very deep and very hot bath. The water is heaven, and caresses my tired head and aching muscles. I make a little castle with the bubbles, and run more hot water in. At a certain point, I solve the conundrum of the century – what to get Victor for Christmas. Brilliant!
I spend a bit of time around the house this morning, and especially give the dog some love as he’ll be alone for longer than I’d like. Taking the bus in to work (a scenic route through Parliament Square, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square), I notice that Nelson’s Column is being engulfed from below by a heaving sea of red. I get off a stop early to take a look and find the square filled with thousands of Santas. Young ones. Old ones. Thin ones. Fat ones. Blue ones. Pirate ones. They have their own Santa Samba band, and are pelting “elves” (anyone not in a Santa suit) with Brussels sprouts. The spirit of fun is palpable. London is just brilliant!
I make it to work and head first to the Bocca di Lupo kitchen. The baby chard and Tema artichokes I tasted a few days ago have arrived. I put the chard straight on the menu – the artichokes will need some work first and I teach someone how to prepare them properly. We do a box together, and I leave him to do the other two alone, which should take about an hour. Then it’s across to Gelupo. Alec has done some work on our packaging/shipping processes, which we review together. Hampers are flying out of the door, and we have just enough time to assemble them, just enough goodies to fill them with. We are holding a wine-tasting event in the shop today. All the staff are excited and grinning broadly – it’s great to be busy, and part of something special.
Just before 3pm I go to the gym. As I’m changing, I realise I have forgotten something important. What am I getting Victor for Christmas again? My brain is like a sieve, and I kick myself, as I will continue to do throughout the day until giving up altogether. The horse is dead, and flogging it depressing.
I can’t leave the gym. I’ve done my duty, showered and changed, but the door is wedged shut from the outside by that heaving red mass of Santas, bouncing and twisting to their Samba beat. They must be following me. They are fun to watch, but I have places to be, things to do, and inch the door open to make my escape. I body-surf through the crowd on a cloud of pom-poms and tinsel until I am unceremoniously dropped at its periphery on Brewer Street. Time to get back to work.
Bruno, my sommelier, who was running the wine-tasting at Gelupo, has to finish at 5pm to get ready for dinner service at Bocca, but we still have customers hoping to try our little selection of Italy’s most esoteric and delicious. I take over for half an hour – I love talking about wine almost as much as drinking it.
It’s 5.30pm and the kitchen is open at Bocca di Lupo. I am here to help. The artichokes still aren’t finished – too many other jobs got in the way, so I help with the last. I add my pair of hands to the private function downstairs, which is for a group of people off to the theatre and must go quickly and smoothly. At 6.30pm the dish-washing area is under siege – it is worked by a single kitchen porter and is inundated with pots, pans, containers, cutlery, crockery and glassware from the first sitting upstairs and the function below. I jump in.
The other KPs are aghast that their boss is doing such a menial task, but I remind them that they too have important things to do. The two of us sweat it out, back-to-back for 40 minutes until the worst is over, the floor dry and the plates clean. This intervention may have been the most important job I’ve done all week. Not only have I avoided a crisis upstairs (if the dishes aren’t done on time we can’t reset the tables fast enough, which has knock-on problems for the rest of the night), but I have reminded the KPs that they are not the bottom of a hierarchy, rather the roots of the restaurant, and as important and valuable as my managers. We have strengthened our bond.
I check with the kitchen upstairs, who are fine, and the floor staff, who are doing great too. We are selling lots of beef tonight and might run out, so I trot back downstairs and butcher half a cow. I also arrange the artichokes in a pan, upside-down, with their stalks pointing skywards like Santa hats. I put them on to braise with white wine, lemon, garlic and oil. Half an hour or so later they’re meltingly tender and full of the flavour of their own juices. I add parsley and mint and pack them away, ready to go on the menu tomorrow. I check upstairs. Still fine – looking bloody marvellous in fact – so I go back down and help clean and organise the kitchen.
At 9pm Alberto is about to finish so we go to the office together to write tomorrow’s menu. There are a quite a few changes to make – Sunday specials (scottadito – grilled “finger-burning” lamb chops; chicken scaloppine; bollito misto) as well as a few amendments to the main menu. Partridge has to come off as we’ve sold out, as must spaghettini with lobster, mussels and ginger (lobster sold out too). We put on a replacement seafood pasta (prawns, mussels and langoustines) as well as those lovely artichokes.
We head upstairs – Alberto to have a glass of wine at the fireplace, I to keep the wheels turning. Our credit card machines have all gone offline and I check their internet connection, the wireless network they live on and everything seems fine. I twiddle and tweak until they work again. The last sitting approaches, and looks dangerous – the restaurant is full and there are no orders in the kitchen, which means that a lot are likely to come at once. From 10pm until 11:20pm I stay there helping whichever of the chefs has the most to do at any moment. I fry a lot of squid and tiny red prawns from the deepest waters of the Med, carve any number of steaks, and finish and plate up risotto after risotto. It is fun, the energy is good. When the rush is over, I look up to see Alberto still there. He should be long gone. What was he doing?
He’s been standing, watching, and feeling so, so proud of this place and our team. It turns out we’ve done our record number of customers – but, more importantly, we’ve done an amazing job. A great restaurant is an engine for happiness. It is a place where people come to be together, to enjoy and to celebrate life with each other. For its staff it is a family, a home, a challenge and a future. By some miracle, Bocca di Lupo is indeed a great restaurant and, talking about it, we are moved to tears with pride, especially at the job our staff are doing, how far they’ve come, how much we achieve every day.
I convince Alberto to stay for one last drink. I take two of those massive Riedel balloon glasses we use for the finest wines and half-fill them with ice. It takes a quarter bottle of Campari and the best part of a bottle of prosecco as well as the tiniest dash of soda to fill them ridiculously full of the most ridiculously refreshing spritz. We drink slowly, and savour the atmosphere. Ready to leave, I order two massive jugs of the same elixir, one for kitchen and one for floor, to be served when they finish as token of thanks and congratulation.
I’m home at 1am again, not too bad, and find Victor still awake. We have hardly seen each other the past two days but thankfully he’s having trouble getting to sleep. Great – I have someone to tell all about my wonderful day…
This week I have been cook, but also manager, potwasher and host; wine buyer, sommelier and drinker; butcher, baker, patissier and saucier; electrician, plumber, builder, and engineer; director, financier, strategist and consultant; therapist, bitch, saint and friend. Above all I have been happy, and made others feel the same way.
I haven’t cooked as much as I’d have liked but there’s plenty of time for that in the weeks to come. And I haven’t seen as much of Victor as I’d have liked – but that’s what today is for.
I have a bath, and attempt to recreate the exact conditions under which I thought of his Christmas present yesterday. The bath is fantastic, but the idea fails to reappear. We play with the dog, discuss upcoming holiday plans, plan a big meal we’re cooking for 28 of our friends in a week, and laze. We are good at lazing on Sundays.
We leave the house at 2:30pm, a little late for the 3pm arrival we are expected to make in Whitechapel for a Sunday roast. It’s Sunday after all, and doesn’t matter if we’re a little late. Our friends are a young couple, much in love, and it is our first visit to their new home together. The afternoon passes and is lovely, convivial and relaxed. We have brought four decks of cards and play the most addictive game I know – Posso, which is long and competitive and shouty and fun. It is obscure, and has too many rules to write here. You’ll find them in the back of my Bocca cookbook.
We get home at midnight and open a bottle of wine just in case we weren’t drunk enough already. We sit at the kitchen table. The dog starts off by chewing the carpet to shreds, then crying and pawing manically at a phantom ball he’s convinced is wedged under the dresser. We discuss whether to get him a sister (a litter is due in a few weeks), and decide (a) that we should and (b) that she should be called Trouble II. Or Lola. We talk about work and life and how great both have become. I’m not exactly sure when we go to bed, but do so in the knowledge that it’s been a good week, and the sleep that is coming will be deep and well deserved.