Saturday, December 09, 2006

Catering for life

Cooking for 40 is different. It doesn’t sound that many -- not much bigger, I imagine, than many family meals that will be thrown out with nothing but a single 60cm appliance to hand in the next two weeks. But we weren’t using white goods; we were surrounded by a Precambrian range spanning the length and height of an entire wall; silver fridges both tall and squat fixed with white, laminated signs dictating what passes though; yards of assorted stainless steel surfaces dulled by the slips of a hundred brain-dead commis; and the background stench of used vegetable oil, detergent and aluminum.

This was a real kitchen, albeit one that hadn’t properly been used since is was installed two decades ago. In fact, the only action it seemed to have been getting until us pair of cowboys turned up was the frying of a few greasy breakfasts on the – wait for it – four-ringed electric cooker standing next to the 6-ringed Beast.

The place wasn’t clean either. But as soon as we slapped our four large shallow cardboard boxes - overflowing with fresh herbs, bright purple cabbages and Tupperware tubs of veal stock and rose sauce - onto the metal tables, it felt right. We were in our fucking elements. The music was pumping, the weather bright, and the day ahead holding nothing but the prep and cooking a one-off five course meal for my sister’s wedding guests in 36 hours’ time.

There is no better way for the dreamy amateur in the kitchen to find out whether or not he or she could enjoy a life in catering. Even though I knew the people who would be eating it, I became totally detached from the food. It just felt like matter that had to be shifted from A to B, cleaned, processed, stored, cooked, served.

We were working with the best ingredients money can buy -- 2kg of wild smoked salmon, 7kg of prime diced venison haunch, live lobsters straight from their sea cages, herbs, cream and two outstanding stocks – and still, somewhere just beyond the 1kilo mark, they ceased to trigger any thought processes. The worst was the veg, and the vacuous task of fumbling 120 turned carrots and peeling to a uniform radius the same number of slippery, eye-watering shallots.

It took the whole day to put it together, but by the time we left we had two huge trays of potato and parsnip dauphinoise in the chiller along with two huge tubs of venison stew (say “stew” but it was, in fact, chunks of tender meat in a proper sauce of red wine, veal stock, game stock and a little redcurrant jelly); a huge pan of veg stock (more of a nage, packed as it was with lemon, fresh herbs and the redundant layers of shallot), another of thick ham-hock and lentil soup (for the post-meal masses); and some proto peti fours in the form of some creamy hand-rolled truffles and a few small trays of fresh orange jellies. We left happy after 12 long hours, my freshly sliced thumb from having taken my eye off the blade of the mandolin throbbing and my thumbnails red, swollen and probably infected from digging them through shallots, and fuelled ourselves with a big plate of basic spag boll back at the wedding HQ. Pasta never tasted this good.

The craic was good, although with themes including unconsenting anal sex with Gordon Ramsay at knifepoint, I guess you had to be there. By the time it came to service, however, I had all but stopped caring about the food, which was a mistake because a few unnecessary errors crept in in those vital few minutes. And the thought of eating it was a million miles away. But the audience was bowled over.

And so it should have been, faced as it was with a mouthwatering amuse of lobster-stuffed mango raviolis served on two spinach leaves and garnished with iced red pepper skin, followed by an outrageously aromatic celeriac soup with smoked salmon&creme fraiche and garnished with parsley oil and a small herb salad, venison in rich game sauce with a perfect square of creamy potatoes and spoons of red cabbage, shredded and braised with red wine, star anise and apple, and savoy, tossed in wholegrain mustard and cream, all finished with a boule of brown-bread ice cream served atop a small slab of warm, gooey oaty biscuit surrounded by a deep crimson rose sauce, and dusted off with coffee, truffles (the jellies didn’t work out) and a 12 year-old Jura, which we were just in time to pour having changed out of our whites.

It was the first drink I had had in 9 months, and it felt right to toast my friend the real genius behind the meal. And to my surprise it felt like it was only the day before when I had last had a whisky. It was horrible. I was looking at half-empty wine bottles in an unnerving light for the rest of the evening, but have never been surer that I still have some way to go, if ever, before I can drink properly.

And I have learned a few things about deluded fantasies too. I don’t want to work in a kitchen. The job is hard, hot and repetitive. Service is unrelenting. And this is with a single set menu prepared mostly a day in advance. And just as in the home, people seem to gravitate towards the kitchen and hover around it like confused parents, trying to endow themselves with a sense of purpose in the face of utter disinterest or even contempt. Because being in the kitchen fuels the ego. People are relying on your mysterious ability to prepare things they don’t understand and your territory is clearly defined. Kitchens are also the stationary hubs of small-scale establishments. And this wedding needed a lot of sticking together.

Since my return I have bee eying food more mechanically than usual, feeding the pair of us with random suppers of bacon&chili penne; potato, spinach and mackerel soup; mushroom risotto;

pot roasted pheasant with truffle and walnut stuffing; herring in oatmeal with a watercress, spinach and rocket salad; a “stampot” wank-style, comprising crushed roast potatoes with bacon, savoy cabbage and a thick mustard sauce; and tonight, another pair of herring, slashed and grilled and eaten with bread, lemon and salad. And yesterday I walked into the old tranny café at the end of my street and asked how much they wanted for it. What the fuck am I thinking?

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