I worked first at a dinner theatre that during any given week would serve up to 2,000 customers. The kitchen staff consisted on weekends of myself, two sleep deprived, overworked cooks, and 30 to 40 teenagers, chatting on cell phones and snapping each other with rubber gloves. Managing this circus was the executive chef Oli, a lecherous forgetful cat in his late 50s.
ME (middle of the dinner rush, covered in food) – Oli, where is the rest of the duck?
OLI (staring blankly into space) – Ha? Duck? (His eye is caught as a very pretty girl of obviously high-school age walks past.) Too young…too young…
Later I labored valiantly in the tiny, sweltering kitchen of a fast food joint with gourmet pretensions.
ME- So, this tortilla con carne, that’s like a taco right?
PRETENTIOUS HEAD CHEF- No, no. This is a crispy, hand-milled corn tortilla filled with spiced beef, cheese and vegetables.
ME- Yeah… So it’s a taco right?
Finally, I had assembled sandwiches for the elderly in a retirement home.
ME (addressing a roomful of golden oldies quietly gumming their open-faced sandwiches) – So how are they?
Utter silence but for the sound of chewing. One old gent begins to fall out of his chair in impossibly slow motion…
ME- Pretty damn good, eh?
These jobs were fine, but badly paid. I had come to the conclusion that I had proven myself a more than capable cook’s assistant. In fact, I had begun to view myself as a rising star in the culinary field, worthy of my own kitchen, despite my lack of education, experience, know-how etc. I saw an ad asking for a head chef in a newly opened bistro downtown. I answered it.
The restaurant’s aim was to be a sort of international café. A place where natives and transplants could get together, drink coffee, eat babaganoush, listen to Manu Chao and appreciate the fuck out of each other. Sounded okey dokey to me. I sat down with the owner of the establishment and the other chef. I was charming and confident. I played down my inexperience and talked up my foreignness. I said I could offer the restaurant a taste of my homeland. A taste of New Jersey. They bought it and I was hired.
The next day the other cook ran down the menu with me, everything according to the latest trends in faux-ethnic cooking: hummus, coconut milk soups, lots of sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and vinegar glazes. Yup, I said, I could rock with all this, no problem at all. I was given a shiny white chef’s jacket and left to my own devices in what was now my kitchen. I checked my reflection in the mirror and turned up the kitchen stereo.
The rest of that day went perfectly, not very many customers, just enough to keep me busy and moving. I doted over each plate. They were works of art. I began to think seriously of having my own cooking show on Stöð 2. I’d call it “Eat This”. I’d soon be wealthy and famous but nowhere near as annoying as that Jamie Oliver bastard.
The next day I popped the Dead Boys in the stereo, donned my whites and lit a cigarette. I sat down on the steps behind my kitchen and thought about my bright future as a celebrity chef. On the stereo Stiv was singing “I’ll be a pharaoh soon, rule from some golden tomb” – that sounded about right. The order machine just then clicked to life. Table of four, each with two dishes, each different. Well, fuck it, I thought. I can handle that. I turned the stereo up and got to work. As I worked the grill I heard the machine print out another order, a table of 8. “Then I’ll be ten feet tall and you’ll be nothing at all”, I sang along as I ran to the walk-in fridge for more hummus. Empty. Fuck. More tickets printed out. Waiters came in to politely inquire about their tables. I smiled and said it wouldn´t be a moment. They looked at me with doubt as I resorted to crushing chick peas with my fist for falafel. More tickets printed. I had all burners lit on the stove, the deep fryer bubbling and the grill smoking like a locomotive. Damnit, if I was going to be a celebrity chef I had to make it through this evening’s dinner rush. Just as I was about to send off five fish-of-the-day plates, the gas ran out. I sprinted to the back of the building wielding a wrench to switch tanks as the stereo screamed, “Dead boys, too sick to wanna cry”. I ran back to find the deep-fryer oil over flowing onto the floor. I skated around the serving table like it was the Icecapades. The head waiter appeared, silently as always, and asked me in a slick waiterly fashion if I had ever impersonated a chef before or was this something I was just trying out. I told him in a very un-waiterlike fashion to get the fuck out of my kitchen. More tickets printed out of the machine. I threw plates around in a blur. I was burned and I was bleeding, I could see my cooking show receding in the distance. “Dead boys, dead boys…” I was sweating and close to incoherent as I rushed to send the last of the orders. I dropped a vindaloo onto a waitress’ shoes; I scalded myself with a pot of egg-drop soup. I prayed to God for deliverance or a quick death as I fixed plates of gnocchi and cream sauce. I felt heat on my back. I looked over my shoulder to find two pans of lamb kebab throwing fire three feet in the air. Something snapped in my head. I took off my apron and walked toward the door. Stiv sang “Down in flames, down in flaaaames.” I took off my chef’s jacket as in a dream, ignoring the ticket machine, the shouts of waiters. I opened the heavy door leading to the parking lot… the air was cool and still, I could still hear the stereo…” Down in flames, down in flames”. I slammed the door with a thud.
Hours later I had a chat with the owner. Obviously the kitchen and me were not to be. But how did I feel about tending bar? I rubbed my scorched and scarred hands. I said good. I feel very good about tending bar.
…Next edition, Worst Bartender in Reykjavík.