written by Richard Sawyer
When I was asked me if I would like to write an article for Expat Life of 1200 words, I had to stop and think for a moment. I asked myself the question “How am I going to compile over 30 years in hotels and restaurants in such a few words” and more importantly, “what exactly would I focus on that would make interesting reading”?
I have to say that the life of a five star chef might sound glamorous these days, especially with how the industry is portrayed on television and with so many cookery shows. However, in reality, the journey is a long, exhausting and sweaty one to say the least. Back in London when I started my first proper job in the capital in 1991, if you were lucky enough to get a junior position in what we call a decent high-end kitchen, a seventeen hour day, every day, was not uncommon. Arriving to work before the sun had risen and going home after midnight was something you just got used to. Never seeing natural day light for days on end, if the kitchen was in the basement and enduring temperatures of over 40 degrees. It was hotter than that in the summer.
Tempers and tantrums, physical violence, flying saucepans, burnt arms, sleep deprivation, fridge meetings, dehydration and a facial complexion that resembled a ghost were just some of the perks of the job.
However, in this crazy industry, it’s all about perfection, consistency and being the best. I guess that’s why we all decide to choose such a career.
Chefs after a while are often left out on invitations to family weddings, birthday parties or popping round to a friend’s house for a Christmas drink because it’s always the same answer …. “No sorry I can’t … I’m working”.
Hence back in those days, we didn’t make good boyfriend material since you spent more time with your kitchen colleagues than family or friends.
On that long road to getting to where you want to be, there are many that come and go and simply just quit. I remember one particular restaurant that we opened in London in 1995.
200 seats .. 55 chefs .. took nearly two years to open serving 600 people a day. I recall chefs in tears and leaving on the first day and over the 3 years that I was there, more than 300 had come and gone through those doors. I wonder where they all ended up … where are they now? Are they still cooking? Maybe they took a normal job and go home each day at 5 o’clock.
So enough of all that there is a flip side to everything. Working as a cook in a fine dining restaurant kitchen does have its rewards funnily enough. These are not financial as we all know but rewards associated with achievement, great teamwork and a bond with fellow human beings like nothing else.
To be able to knock out 400 three course meals every night requires not just physical stamina or the passion and love of food, but a bond between ten to twenty other sweaty ghost like faced people around you. You rely on each other, trust each other, go to hell and back every day with each other and do it all again the next day.
This bond or almost blood like brothership extends to anywhere you end up working and in any kitchen anywhere in the world. I have been fortunate enough to spend 13 years in London, worked in Germany, had my own restaurant in the US and as of now, 9 years in Asia. They say that if you can cook … you can work anywhere.
The people you meet along the way are unforgettable. They are all different individuals doing the same thing for the same cause. So many kitchens these days are multinational and it’s often difficult to hold a conversation in each other’s language. Working in Hong Kong, Macau, Kuala Lumpur and now Bangkok has taught me so much. Not just about the different fantastic cuisines that come from these amazing cities but the people to which they belong to.
You spend hours and hours with others nearly 6 days a week for years. Then, when it’s time to move on, to never see or hear from them again.
As you move up the long ladder and eventually become a head chef or executive chef, you are more than just a cook. Those days seem a long time ago as you take on a new role.
I discovered in my first senior position that you suddenly need to become not just a boss but a father figure, agony aunt, businessman, teacher, IT specialist and a social media guru. How things have changed over the years.
So … the life of a five star chef … we are all five star chefs .. everyone that I have encountered along the way deserves to be recognised as that.
Would I change anything? No not a thing. It’s all I know now and looking back it has been an amazing journey to get here. Looking forward to the next chapter.