All For One and One For The Dumplings
Stop immediately what you are doing! I am dressing the finely julienned string beans, ready to plate them alongside the prawn ceviche and I freeze. Is this for me, I wonder, turning my head around, hands dripping with the spicy, sweet lemony dressing, the chilies burning my scratched hands. Nope, not for me, I sigh. The chef is at the back, in the prep area, shouting at the apprentice. My apprentice. Dear God. I quickly place the beans on the plate, scattering some crushed smoked almonds and slices of red pepper and call “service-table 32”, immediately rushing at the back. I find my apprentice ready to cry, as the chef keeps shouting, that he is too slow, and that he should immediately stop working on the filling for the prawn dumplings and start doing something else. You are to finish this at night, after service is over and everyone has cleaned up the kitchen and left! He leaves and although I want to console my apprentice I rush back to serve another salad to the hungry customers.
A few hours later service has indeed ended. As we are busy cleaning up, another cook and myself place ruthless bets, with a primitive indulgence, on whether the chef will stick to his threat, leaving G. alone to finish the dumplings. I feel like I am living at the roman times, betting on who will live or die in the arena.
It is 2am and the chef is busy whisking a smooth béchamel sauce as I approach him. Chef, we’re finished, can we help G. (set apprentice) finish the filling and fold the dumplings, I ask. No, he replies firmly. Can he come in earlier tomorrow to finish the dumplings? No.
I’ve seem to have won the bet, although I feel like I am about to witness someone being eaten by the lions. Can we all come in half an hour earlier tomorrow and finish them? No. Can we at least keep him company while he is folding the (I wanna say “fucking”) dumplings? No, comes the answer and I can feel him getting annoyed. He was too slow, he needs to be faster, I want him to stay here and fold the dumplings alone until he bursts in tears, roars the chef. He will then learn to be faster. The chef does have a point in the boy being slow, yet the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime, does it, dear reader?
The boys from the other stations go upstairs to change clothes, while the chef disappears outside, interacting with (I hope) well-fed customers. I help G. finish the filling, finding myself annoyed at him because he didn’t finely chop the ingredients as he should have, which also feels kinda wrong. The boy has only been in a professional kitchen for a few weeks. As I finely chop the entire filling, adding salt to make it tastier, I keep glancing at the door, waiting for the chef to appear and scold me. Bring a tray and the wrappers, I say to G., being in two minds on whether to just leave him there alone or actually help him. As I stand next to him, I take one of the wrappers, place the filling inside and start folding it, happy to realise that despite having accessed very primitive parts of myself while working in the kitchen, I still remain human.
The other boys come back downstairs, in their jeans and t-shirts. What the hell are you guys doing? Let’s go for a beer, surely you can continue tomorrow.
Oh for the love of God, S., the more senior cook says. And with his refreshing screw-everything attitude, grabs one of the wrappers and stands next to me. Two other cooks join in, jeans and all, and as we all stand there, folding dumplings, I am in awe at this magical sense of camaraderie I’m feeling. You can see some of the cooks feeling slightly scared at the prospect of the chef coming in and finding us there. It is difficult to put down in words how real the threat of the chef coming feels, especially if you’ve spent hours and hours on end experiencing his dragon-like authority. With all the shouts and threats and the intensity still within us, this moment is truly magical. For in no other work environment that I’ve experienced would someone risk getting shouted at or reprimanded, losing valuable time from relaxing or sleep, having worked for the past 10 hours, just to selflessly help an apprentice, who now seems both embarrassed and grateful.
I actually want the chef to come in and see that no matter what, he has managed to create something corporate organisations aimlessly try, with pointless team building exercises and corporate retreats. To create a team. These are very strange relationships which are formed within the kitchen. Maybe it is because working together in such an intense atmosphere feels like being in a jungle, which in itself culminates unbreakable bonds. Or maybe the rawness of the people who choose or end up in this line of work makes them purer in heart than any suited up corporate executive.
As we all sip cold beers after work, a strange group of men and myself, sitting on the side of the road, laughing and loudly talking about the events of the shift which finally ended, with plenty of wonderfully folded dumplings, I am feeling calm and happy. No matter how ruthless it can get behind the “Staff Only” doors, we are all part of a pack in this kitchen jungle.