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Hell Is…A Kitchen

2009 November 3
by Zoe Strimpel

Last week I interviewed chef Marcus Wareing in his kitchen at the Berkeley Hotel. It was spacious, clean, quiet, cool and dotted with women. Like many top-flight restaurants in London, Wareing has a chef’s table, ie a table diners can reserve that is actually in the kitchen, from which they can sally forth and have a go at sizzling some prawns or slicing some foie gras. That is how un-infernal his kitchen is. Nobody paying hundreds to eat Michelin-starred food wants to sit in a hell-hole, after all.

This morning I visited a kitchen in which nobody would want to spend more time than was strictly necessary.  And I’m pretty sure this was closer to what most kitchens are like than the Marcus Wareings of the world. Indeed, it was a well-known restaurant, prided for its meat, and attracts a wealthy business crowd who- to be fair- drink so much through lunch they probably don’t notice too much on the plate.

But it was awful: small, an underground warren of steel, full of blackened pots and pans, raging hot carbon-coated ovens with massive misshapen trays of bones cooking for stock before being flung  under a counter on the floor (the trays were on the floor, not the bones), sweating away. The walls were black – lined with extractors that didn’t seem to work as it was roasting and lunch service hadn’t even started. The floors were a dingy red linoleum and dirty; dishes were piled in the sinks, and four sullen men skulked around doing prep, while the chef – a nice guy who admitted to dreaming of working in a windowy office with city views – occasionally gave orders. Chef told me he works in this place that would not be considered fit for a dog (literally) from 8:30AM to 11pm- pretty normal hours for a cook I guess. In the cramped space the four of them  turn out 70 lunches or more per day, plus takeaways and food ordered at any time throughout the day. While making sausages with me (the purpose of my visit) and chatting, he was pulling burger patties out of a small meat fridge, grilling steak, stirring a monstrous cauldron of stock, adding honey to vegetables, checking bones.

My view at work is the mouth of a tunnel. Sometimes it gets a little hot in the office. My main tool is a computer. Having spent half an hour in a proper London kitchen, I’m seeing it all as an extraordinary luxury.

One Response leave one →
  1. Paternal unit permalink
    November 4, 2009

    Do you think that pleasanter kitchen environments are more likely to produce better food? Or can a top ranked restaurant produce manna from Dante’s inferno?

    Why do people slave that way? Do they aspire to breaking loose and becoming a Wareing who cooks himself to near death? Or do they have no alternatives once they slot into the restaurant biz?

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