Chef talk: Kitchen tales and memories…

Kitchen tales? For some light reading and fun as the silly season heads into the new year and what so many of us hope will be new starts, here’s a look back at some times in a kitchen when opening my own restaurant was not even on the radar. 

Like so many, hospitality work was something I did for extra cash – it wasn’t a career. A career was something I was supposed to prepare for at University and then stick to for the rest of my life. 

This short piece of kitchen tales is from “Theatre of War – the art of running a restaurant”, my memoir of crazy times in Queensland with even crazier people. I hope you enjoy: 

“Pete and I became engaged in Mackay, while he worked as a teacher out at the mines, and bar-maiding for a bit, I eventually bowed to family pressure and took up a teaching scholarship I had earlier declined. I chose a teacher’s college in Rockhampton, where Pete had another posting. Janie, my old flat mate, went to Europe, and I stayed in Queensland and married Pete and became a teacher. Teachers’ scholarships in the ‘70s amounted to $21 a week, and had to be supplemented with other jobs. Luckily for me, jobs were plentiful then, particularly in hospitality.

Kitchen hand? Tick. Barmaid? Tick. Chambermaid? (Yes, it’s still a word!) Tick. Assistant manager? Tick. Waitress? Tick. And already married, in my second year at teachers’ college I worked two jobs – 16 hours – every day during my extensive term holidays. Kitchen tales I accumulated big time.

I came home to my husband after my first shift as a morning pantry maid at a hotel in Rockhampton, and tried to lie down. Nope, that didn’t work, my back was bent permanently, I was sure of it.
“You okay?” said Pete, looking concerned.

“Yeah, yeah, just need to …. Just need to lie down, I’ll be right,” I said, not believing a word. I couldn’t straighten up.

Carrying heavy breakfast trays, cleaning rooms and making countless beds with heavy innerspring mattresses had done me in. I started at 6am, finished at 2pm, went home for a rest and food, to return at 6pm ready to kitchen hand for night service until close – usually finishing the cleaning by 1am, but sometimes 2. Then back at 6am to begin all over again.

“The Rocky Palace” as the staff euphemistically called it, was a horrible place to work as well. The chef was a miserable, filthy creature, and his kitchen resembled an apothecary from Hogwart’s rather than a commercial temple of gastronomy.

He looked at me with disdain.
“You? You’re my new kitchen hand?” Chef threw his head back and laughed. But it was more of a scoff. A disappointed grunt, “Huh!”
I straightened up, trying to look taller than my five feet two inches. If I had wings I would’ve spread them. But I felt like a flea on a dog. No matter how much I puffed and strutted, I’d still be small.
But hey? Fleas bite don’t they? And are agile. Can be a pest in fact. I shuffled. Looked down at my new clogs and rubbed one against the back of a leg.
He thumbed with one filthy claw at two bulbous bags of potatoes leaning, waiting, in a corner.
“Over there. Peeled and cut for chips, by 4….. Think you can handle that, squirt?” It was 2pm. Chef sneered, and a couple of miserable, yellow teeth pushed their way over his lips as he grabbed a cigarette from an ashtray, and puffed madly on it until it sparked back into life and he drew in, loud and long.

“Handle that? Squirt? Watch me,” I mumbled as I dragged one bag up to a sink, found a peeler amongst the debris, and began.
So was my introduction to my life in big commercial kitchens. How I survived is still
a mystery even to me, but somehow I took the lessons I learned and managed to open ten restaurants eventually, as owner/chef.
In Rockhampton, on this, my first day, I could smell something vile – like burning bodies on the Ganges. Chef beckoned to me with a grubby claw. He tried to grin, but with yellowed teeth like ancient and weathered tombstones, it was more like a sneer as he said, “Come here and let me give you a lesson”.
I sidled over to a huge steaming pot that he was stirring.
“Poke your head in there. What do you think?”
I peered over.
“Pwoah… Burnt. Badly, by the smell,” I guessed.
“Ah yes, but not ruined!” He chortled, triumphant. “The secret is, not to mix the burnt bottom with the rest of the stew. Stir lightly, then add cream at the end, and they’ll never know,” he made a cockeyed wink at me.
Genius. Not. He was obviously an old hand at rescuing disasters, probably a side effect of the coffee cup he kept filled with cask wine next to him that never seemed to end. And I never saw him fill it up. Magic.

The journey from shitty kitchen jobs to slogging in the pass of my own restaurant was so much shorter than even I could have imagined. And the almost two years with our partners at Churros was a steep learning curve. But we outgrew the place, and so Pete and I moved on and out to the coast.”

It was near the beginning of a long journey for me, and I’m still not even sure where the passion for cooking food for the public came from, but looking back, there are so many kitchen tales that I felt needed to be told. 

Salut! Chrissie 🙂