The Press Gang
13th June 2017
Alexander Johnston’s oil on canvas, The Press Gang, has fascinated me all my life.
Though it’s surrounded by the great Dutch masters in Hulls Ferens Gallery, Frans Hals, De Blieck, Neefs and a posse of other more lauded artists, the image of a startled young man being grabbed by a bunch of sailors held more interest than dower, imagined church interiors and puritanical women with big lacey collars.
Looking at the picture as a child, I always thought how harrowing and terrifying such an ordeal would be, snatched from everyday comforts, friends and family, to face uncertainty in a dangerous, exhausting, degenerating environment. Luckily, in the 21st century wooden warships are merely a plaything of English Heritage and a press gang sounds like some hipster coffee collective.
Yes, in the era of “Liberal Plutocracy” and human rights the horror of being forcibly dragged into service, I thought at least, was over.
That was until March…I suppose I press ganged myself, to go back into the depths of kitchen service.
After a year out (following three years stood at the stove) I felt I had become sluggish, that my creativity was too theoretical and missing the more practical elements that the chef requires.
In addition to this minor culinary self-loathing, I also came to the conclusion that I should practice what I preach.
Although I was only out the kitchen for one year, it’s been a shock to the system. The heat, the noise, the pressure, the hours, the constant assortment of open wounds on your hands and forearms that never seem to heal.
You start to live a kind of alternative reality. The kitchen becomes your world, a dysfunctional family of pirates, cowboys and highwaymen, driven by a selection of French commands, obedience and the rat a-tat-tat of the ticket machine.
18 hours pass as quickly as the sweat that floods down your back and your bed has never felt as good until you have been stood up for all the daylight hours.
I go in at 7am to beat the rush hour. My walk through the center of town is the last few moments of shore leave. In this hour, everything is more verdant, fresher and exciting than the Euston road would usually be. I drag the walk out, my foot crossing the line of the restaurant threshold precisely one minute before my shift starts.
The day begins with packing away orders into the fridges and dry stores, usually with one of the sous chefs. This part is good, its the most relaxed you are going to get in the whole day and anytime spent in the walk in fridge is the equivalent of a mini spar break.
Next comes the “Miz” (mis-en-place, an unnecessarily Gallic word for put-in-place, or preparation). If I am lucky, some kind soul will have left a list for my section outlining everything I will need to complete a service of around 120 covers. If I am unfortunate, I will have to pull out all the carefully labeled tray and containers and do a physical check while cursing the other chefs on the section.
Kitchens, like a ship, are full of odd words, phrases and sayings. My mate Alan always says, “Good prep, bad service…bad prep, great service”. With this “damned if I do” approach running through my head, I crack on like hell for leather with prep.
Squeezing mountains of spinach, roasting squash, picking duck, cubing and brunoising (cubing really small, again another unnecessary French word) all manner of vegetables, making sauces. Given the choice between building a pyramid for an ancient pharaoh or sorting out the hot larder section after a particularly busy dinner service the night before, I’d easily prefer to haul rocks for Ra.
If you are lucky, and quick, by the time the first croak fires out the little black ticket box that beats the rhythm of the service, your section will be ready. Metal trays filled with ice and a patchwork of aluminum containers containing a plethora of, multicolored, scented and flavoured ingredients are ready to jump into action. If that ticket makes a premature appearance in the world however, and your trays are still in a bad state, you can bet any one of your limbs that service is going to be hellish.
It’s just like a race when the first order comes in. You know you have got 2 hours until it will get quiet, so working tactically is essential. As soon as you hear somage (again, another antiquated post Escoffier French word being used in an industry where most chefs are Italian, Spanish or Eastern European) come out, your blocks flying. Clear your ticket rail as fast as possible to buy yourself a couple of minutes for a human pit stop. Chefs drink more water in these precious, snatched moments than the whole of the U.S, fact. Checks come in waves, sometimes 10,11,12 all seemingly at once – other times isolated lone orders that get momentarily lost in the delight of a silent patch.
Become the robot. This is the only advice I can give during service. Forget all you knew of your previous living, breathing, thinking functioning self. For these hours during service, the world has stopped, that is beyond its appetite. One brief flirtation with “free thought” and the gentleman sat at table 61 with a hot duck salad on hold, could end up with a seasonal pea soup and 12 native oysters.
I like this though. I like that nothing, aside from the task in hand, seems to matter in the kitchen.
No one talks about politics, tax, marriage, work, or any grown up stuff. It’s like a lost boys (and increasingly girls, these days) paradise, where international, infantile banter jostles for space in the noise of air conditioning, screams of pain (and sometimes joy) and the constant barking of ancient, meaningless French words.
The work is hard, it’s long and for many down there, relatively pointless, but the feeling you get after service is second to none.
At the end of a double shift, I ‘John Wayne swagger’ down Oxford street, like an old battle flag: a little ripped, torn and burnt, but still fluttering full of victory and elan.
I hope the young fella getting press ganged in Ferens Art gallery, as imaginary as he probably was, felt the same way. I hope he met a load of similar minded desperadoes, got into an occasional bit of swashbuckling, and that when he landed he could have the best 12 hours sleep of his life.
So here’s to life; here’s to being press ganged; and here’s to the kitchen!