This week I had lunch with a fat man called Boris. A few years ago I’d done a bit of freelance writing for a food mag and Boris was the editor-at-large (a title that owed more to his size than salary). He was now a publisher.
For some reason, whether it was the wine and brandy or just a misguided belief in my cooking and writing abilities, he said he wanted to commission me to write a book about training to be a chef, and that I should buy an old banger and drive along the west coast of the US, working in fish restaurants in San Francisco and food trucks in LA et al and writing about my experiences along the way.
“California’s one of the food capitals of the world,” he said breathlessly, dripping shallot vinegar over another oyster and tilting his head back and swallowing with a rather disturbing look on his face.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and his piggy eyes scanned our fruit de mers for more morsels. There were just a few sorry-looking whelks and winkles nestled in the melting ice on his side of the table. His trotter reached over and grabbed the crab I was saving.
“Do you mind old bean?”
I shook my head and he snatched the greasy nutcrackers and got to work on a large brown claw. There were white spindles of crab and lobster meat in his beard.
“It’ll be brilliant. There are thousands out there who want to be chefs, but are too afraid to do it.”
“Or too sane,” I muttered
But Boris wasn’t listening. He was off somewhere in one of his happy, gluttononous dreams, fondly remembering times his 20-stone bulk danced nimbly around the stove. He stopped suddenly and his narrow eyes glittered.
“Arm-chair chefs! That’s it! It’s for the ARM-CHAIR CHEFS! It’ll be like those travel guides for people who are far too scared to actually hack their own way through the jungle, but are more than happy to read about someone else doing it!
“There are masses of foodies out there, obsessed with what goes on in a kitchen – how the professionals really do it – the tricks of the trade! They’d like nothing more than to snuggle up in front of the fire, with the cat on their lap and a big mug of tea steaming away next to them, reading about the honest gruel of kitchen labour…”
He ordered another brandy.
“You’ll have to keep a diary though – write everything down. The funny anecdotes and stuff…”
“Yeah, but what’s the angle?” I said hesitantly. I was already thinking about the heat and long hours, and how I’d be throwing myself back into the furnace again.
But I couldn’t deny it; the excitement was growing inside me. I especially loved the idea of working in a few of the food trucks that had sparked a culinary revolution in the US.
The names alone had a magic to them – Dim Sum Charlie’s, Cochon Volant Flying Pig BBQ, the Rolling Sushi Van. There would even be a bit of fresh air to be had. It would be like working for that film location catering firm, and I’d loved that.
Boris was still talking…
“It’s brilliant! Take a year off, scootle down the west coast in an old jalopy and learn the trade. I just wish I could do it myself, but what with the mortgage and the bloody kids…I can’t be on the breadline again, you know that. But you’re alright – you haven’t got any!”
“I’m a bit rusty…” I said.
“You’ll be alright – just bring the kitchen to life for all those arm-chair chefs out there. Just the basics on what you need to learn to become a professional cook. Improve your dinner parties no end!
“You know…knife skills, different vegetable cuts, knowing the difference between brunoise and julienne. Prepping meat, veg and fish, knowing how to portion and store food, stock control, that sort of thing.”
He took another swig of wine and topped himself up. I still wasn’t sure if the lunch was on him.
“Garnishes – making dishes look nice. Making pastry and dough, what to look for when buying food from the market. Has the fish got bright eyes and red gills? If not, why not!”
“It’s all got to be there, you know! Fill it with cooking techniques, recipes, and pad out the rest with anecdotes. You know the stuff – you’re good at it. And you’ve got the passion for it!”
The last was his trump card, and we both knew it. He had the same romantic view of the kitchen I had. He’d worked as a chef for ten years in London and LA before he got too tired and took an easy job sitting behind a desk all day, writing about food, and making occasional forays to the pass.
He wrote restaurant reviews from the kitchen – that way, he always said, you could try everything going out, not just what you ordered, and got a fairer view of the menu. And, of course, he could stuff himself with more food that way.
I’d often wondered whether there was any real difference between a foodie and a glutton. People will tell you foodies care more about the provenance and quality of the food they eat, but gluttons will just eat anything.
I’m not so sure. I’ve eaten many a mucky, late-night kebab or Chicken Geoff with a top chef or manager whose seasonal, animal-barcoded, locally-sourced menu reads like a hymn sheet to River Cottage. But to be fair, it’s what you savour after a night cooking or serving quality restaurant food.
Boris broke open another claw and began reminiscing about his days working in kitchens in California and as a private chef for Hollywood stars.
“I burnt everything old bean. Everything!”
His eyes glittered with passion, too much wine, and the wetness of longing regret as he told me about the smoke and the heat, the shameful, napkin-concealed ortolan feasts, and the thousands of pounds of caviar, lobster and foie gras he’d shoved down his throat.
“But first we’ll have to get your knife skills up to speed again. Can’t have you rocketing off to California, cutting off fingers! Otherwise it’ll be a very short book indeed!”
And that was it. Boris said he’d make a few phone calls to a few kitchens and I was left with the bill. I sat there for an hour wondering about the possibilities while the waiters brushed breadcrumbs from the tables around me.
Occasionally, one of the chefs would stand in the doorway, puffing out blue smoke and getting a rare glimpse of sunshine. I wanted to be that chef, basking in those precious few moments.
I didn’t want to just write about it, and stand on the sidelines reviewing restaurants. I wanted to cook for a living. But at least this way I’d be able to do both.
And maybe I’d get inspired enough to start up my own food truck when I returned to the UK? Then I thought of the name. It was even better than the Shrimp Pimp Truck (motto: shrimpin’ ain’t easy, but it sho is fun!) And that was a name that wasn’t easily trumped.
The possibilities were endless, and for the first time in a long time I felt like I was truly on the right road.