I recently heard an interview with Tom Kerridge and he was speaking about the kitchen lifestyle and brigade mentality. He described it as “a bit like a pirate ship!” This is not the first time we’ve heard this comparison. The late, great Anthony Bourdain made reference to this all too often. This got me thinking about why do I like being a chef? What’s the appeal? It certainly isn’t the money or the hours. The Pirate ship term gives an air of “we’re all in this together”, “We stand shoulder to shoulder, brothers and sisters, no soldier left behind.” We present an image of strength and unity, when in reality the opposite can sometimes be true. Most chefs rarely show their true selves to their colleagues. We can present a façade of calm and knowing. We talk the talk. We hope that they don’t spot our weakness or our fears. Most of us are more like the children on the Willy Wonka boat as it hares through that psychedelic, kaleidoscope scene (The original movie of course). We are on a journey, but are not sure where it’s going, or whether we will have our sanity at the end. It took me many years to realise that opening up and being honest to myself was the way forward.
Back in 1991 (Fade to flashback of young Brian, rocking an impeccable flat-top haircut and bum-fluff moustache) I spent my first summer off school working in a local library. Yes, a library. I was the guy typing up the labels for the spines of the books and putting the security stickers in the CDs and high value books. Some may call this the ultimate in rock and roll life. Life was good. I was earning relatively good money for a 16 year old. Enough to buy a few good shirts from Top Man and sweets whenever I wanted. As the summer break was coming to an end and my former school friends were heading to sixth from and college, my parents turned to me and in their best passive aggressive tone asked what my plan was? Easily translated as “Are you planning on being sticker-boy for the rest of your life?”
At this point I started to panic. What could I do? My GCSE grades were mediocre at best and I was starting to realise that being an international footballer/model/actor was not on the cards either. I liked food. I was a teenager, I was always hungry. If only there was some sort of career which involved food? Then, right on cue, my uncle Michael turned up at our house in a white lotus. Like a big black fairy godmother******! That’s how I remember it anyway. He was a chef. He was travelling the world and always having adventures…..SOLD!
Within days I had enrolled on the local college course. City & Guilds 706.1 +2. I had no real Idea of what being a chef was. As a family we had never really eaten at restaurants. My only reference point was my Uncle. At this time he was a Sous Chef at the Dorchester in London. He had given me a little advice and pointers, but I was in. Over the next few weeks my glistening new, heavy cotton chef uniform arrived. My starter knife kit and the copies of Practical Cookery, Theory of catering and of course, The La Repertoire de Cuisine. In the run up to the start of college I was watching everything on TV to do with food. Gary Rhodes was all over the telly. Marco Pierre White was always in the newspapers. These were chefs! I wanted to be like them. I wanted to make food like them. I wanted to live their lives.
Day one at college was when I was to meet my first band of pirates. A mix of likeminded individuals who shared a similar passion. We did not have direction yet, but we had a poetic purpose. We wanted to be chefs. We wanted to be good chefs. We were also hormonal teenagers.
The college years were intertwined with overindulgence, excess and cooking. This was the first taste of the work hard, play hard mentality which would glaze our industry years. After college, came the full time working years and working with the real dogs. Men and women who had sailed the metaphorical Seas. The hardcore chefs who have not been to bed yet. The chefs who never call in sick. The caffeine addicted, camel smoking cliché. These people worked harder and played harder. I was in for the ride. Some old school friends would pop up during my life timeline, but they would not be able to keep up. Their 9 to 5 week would only raise a sneer from this chef. “You work 36 hours a week?!.... that’s what I do in a weekend!” This person was not worthy. Where are my chef pals? I was putting in 60 to 70 hour weeks and not batting an eyelid. I wasn’t burning the candle at both ends, I was setting fire to the box of candles and dripping the wax on my bare naked chest.
This lifestyle turned me into a demon. Alcohol and girls were my vice. In the kitchen I could be an angry, sarcastic bastard. Trying to impress the new girl on the bar. My charm and wit were no way near the size of my ego.
Here’s where it get’s soppy. I met a girl. She was the one who was not impressed by my cooking, my attitude or my crap jokes. She just chatted with me every now and then. She saw me in those moments when my dickhead ego is still asleep and she saw the real me. No show-boat. No ulterior motive. The real me. And I let her see it. That’s where I was. That’s when I met my wife…..And that’s when I was reminded of who I was (Deep eh?). Those early years together were by no means perfect. I wrestled with my inner dickhead, but I knew she was the person I needed in my life. So I had to make it work.
Don’t worry that’s the romance part done. Look, what I guess I’m saying is that I was far from a saint. But that is truly the innocence of youth. We think we are indestructible, untouchable and invulnerable to the world. As chefs we can get caught up in our own majesty and believe our own bullshit. Here I am, twentysomething years later, looking back on a career which has been good. I never won rosettes or Michelin stars, but I have fed a million stomachs for sure. I feel I have been through the industry and I have seen the light and the dark side. They are both equally beautiful. They have made me the man I am today. In the same way that Gareth Southgate missed that penalty in 1996 has made him the inspirational manager of the England football team today. His previous fall has made him stronger. I have seen what this industry can do to people. The negative and the positive. The friendships I made which are still strong today. Chefs tend to have a good understanding of who their real friends are. The friends who try to arrange meet ups for a Monday or Tuesday evening, not a Friday night. The friends who stick their heads in the kitchen to yell “Hi!” but leave, not wanting conversation, just wanted you to know they were there.
The darkest part of the industry is the saying goodbye. Too many fallen soldiers. Men and women who have been violated to the edge of existence. Mentally and physically abused into submission. Some are never seen again. Some reappear with a new facia. New armour to protect them from poisonous arrows of bureaucracy. They are the lucky ones. Many chefs are battling with mental health issues. Maybe that chef you spoke with today has issues which you cannot see. If there is one thing a chef is good at, it’s making something crappy, look good. Food and life. Add garnish, send it!
This career has given me so much. I love being a chef and I love how it’s made me the person I am today. I am far from perfect and my shit is definitely not together. I still drink too much and my demons are always just sitting in the corner of the room, waiting for the moment to strike. I use my blogs as therapy. I know I sometimes overshare, but I can only write what I know. So you get this drivel.
I really cant remember what my original point was? Did I cover it? I was trying to be positive and I didn’t really want to go down the Mental Health route. So many blogs out there who can offer better advice than I. My point is that This life as a chef has given me lots of opportunity to improve as a person. I am not defined by the kitchen I stand in. I am a dad and a husband. I am a son and a brother. I am family and your mate. I am all those things before I am a chef. I am still a chef but I refuse to be a cliché or a stereotype. I am Brian. That chef bloke who writes blogs no one reads. Seems legit.