Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)

Chapter One

It's funny how we get to be where we end up

While it certainly was a long time ago and given my age this old memory of mine may have dimmed somewhat. I believe she was probably mid-twenties with long straight brown hair, an absolute vision, indeed she looked a lot like Sandy Shaw, Sandie was a big pop star back in the day who went on to win the Eurovision song contest with Puppet on a String. Sandy Shaw was certainly my top of the pops so to have a teacher that looked just like her and drove a red soft top MG midget to boot, heaven, she even walked round class with no shoes on, just like Sandie, back then for a 14 year old boy interested in cars (and girls) she was a dream come true. I’m not very good on dates as will become evident throughout but I guess it was about 1965/6 and she was the domestic science teacher at Camden Square secondary modern school in Seaham Co. Durham. Sadly, her name now eludes me but when people ask me how I came to be a chef then she is pretty much the main reason and what better reason could a young boy have?

There were three of us and once again I don't remember the names of my 2 compatriots either, but we all decided that endlessly scraping away at a piece of mild steel with a file with no teeth in our weekly metal work class was no fun at all and that our time would be far more enjoyable if we joined the Sandie Shaw look alike and the girls of our age and took up domestic science instead. Not because we wanted to be chefs, indeed I don’t even think I knew what a chef was back then, they certainly were never heard of and not the celebrities they are today. I had certainly never even been to a restaurant never mind thinking of working in one. Before you say or think it certainly was not because we were gay either as I'm sure many around us must have thought, at least not me anyway! No, it was simply to get away from metalwork and be with the girls instead.

Try getting your head around this though, this is 1966/7 I’m talking about, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones may well have been heralding in new times, the world’s first heart transplant took place and Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, announced that Britain was to apply for membership of the EU or the EEC as it was then known, and we all know where that led us. Billy Elliott was still nearly 20 years away, Enlightened times they may have been around the world but in a small mining and fishing town on the coast of Northeast of England enlightened they were not and three 14-year-old boys wanting to take domestic science! Unheard of! Brave, stupid or just gay? We had to be one of the three.

We went to see the headmaster who, to his credit had no hesitation in agreeing, and so we joined Sandies class. At the time my father’s comment on this was – well you might as well take up bloody knitting as well. I am pleased to say though that was not an opinion he stuck to for long nor something I ever tried but more about that later.

A year later I left school and went on to catering college, into a world I never even knew existed till then and one I’ve now been in for well in excess of 50 years, man and boy as they say! The other two that came into domestic science with me didn’t stay the course, they dropped out very soon after and I have no idea at all what they went on to do.

The rest as they say is history but what a roller coaster ride it has been. highs and lows around the world, would I change it? I'll let you know later.


The first 2 years

There are many, well some at least, of my generation that made it big on telly but in reality we were all a bit too premature, it was more like the generation or two after me that made it properly big on the box and while I did have a couple of brief appearances over the years I think I was really a bit ahead of my time, he said modestly, but mostly I was not cut out for TV, indeed it may well be that I had a face more suited to radio as I have always preferred to appear on the radio than the telly, if I
only knew then what I know now – but then I guess we can all say that can’t we, hindsight, a marvellous gift! Had the same things happened to me as they did but say 10 years later it could all have been so very very different. If only!

It wasn’t until my wife and I went to work in Hamburg in 1974 that my eyes eventually opened and I woke up and smelt the coffee as the say now that I realised food was actually quite interesting. Up until that point it was a job and really not much more. Not 100% true but pretty close. 

Going into my last year at school I had absolutely no idea of what I was going to do when I left, it had never entered my head, and somehow I stayed with Domestic Science but our school did not do this as an exam subject so I was sent to another school about a mile away one day per week for my last year where they did do it as a CSE exam subject. thing was I very rarely went; I think it was a Thursday afternoon - a full afternoon with only the one lesson. I went for the first few weeks then only every once in a while, thereafter and just had the afternoon off for the majority of the year. Not that I missed much I'm sure as other than learning how to iron I don't recall doing anything else in that class and that school where I knew no one and of course the school was always the sworn enemy of my regular school where all my friends were so even if I had gone along regularly I don't imagine my life would have been very easy! One boy in a class of girls and from another rival school too, not exactly a recipe for success or a happy life! I wonder if this is why I'm such a grumpy bastard these days?

Attend or not didn't really matter much in the end anyway as it happens. Come end of the year and exam time I did not turn up for mine in Domestic Science - no point really, they asked me at my school how I got on and what mark I got and I told them I was pretty much top of the class, made up a mark and told them I had passed with flying colours which was recorded by my school and appeared on my end of year report as the truth! No one it seemed ever checked! After that I just sort of fell into going to college to train to be a chef, I can’t be any more precise than that as I do not remember any career’s advice or even going to the college to find out about it, I just left school and ended up on a chefs course at Framwell Gate Tech in Durham, now known as New College Durham. 

It turned out that it was a brand new course and I was in its very first class, a professional chefs course no less, with a brand new lecturer that had never taught before, Harry (again sorry but I can not remember his name, just another in the long list), he was probably late thirties I think, he had just come off from the liners, no not a cruise ship, I don’t think they existed back then. He worked on big ocean-going liners probably like the Queen Elizabeth, the Canberra or the Queen Mary, he was a
proper chef. Immaculately dressed, full uniform, all starched, tall linen toque (chef’s hat for those not in the know), neckerchief, polished shoes, long apron and cloth dangling from it, and as a result our first lessons were all about the uniform, we all became very proud to dress properly, not something that is seen very often these days more’s the pity. Yes, Harry was the consummate professional.

That first year, getting to know a bunch of new people from such diverse lives to any I had ever met before was great, we all seemed to gel well, and we quickly became a pretty tight knit group. There were only 10 of us I think on the course and please forgive me if there were more that I don’t recall, we were evenly split between 5 girls and 5 boys, Angela, Dot, Patricia, Marianne, Brenda, Les, Robert, Ian – 2 of us and another guy whose name (once again) escapes me. He sadly didn’t make it to the end of the course as he sadly died, he used to come to college on a scooter, they were all the rage back then, but he had an accident on it in which he died, and we never saw him again. Then we were 9.

All of us were new to catering, none of us had any background in it in anyway, none of us knew anyone in the industry, our parents were not publicans or chefs or ran restaurants or even worked in any from what I recall, what brought us together into this strange profession was and is a mystery to me.

It was therefore all new to us, we had no idea what to expect so for the college which really was not ready for this course that was good news. I say not ready because the equipment we had in the training kitchen was no better than what any of us had at home. All the stoves were domestic 4 ring cookers, nothing like what was to be found in commercial kitchens around the world. It was not until the 2 nd year that we were actually able to work with and on proper commercial equipment and what a difference it made to what we could produce! Obviously thy were never going to spend massive amounts of money on expensive heavy duty commercial equipment on a brand-new unproven course but once it was realised that the course was going to be a success then the money was spent and we had actual solid top stoves to cook on, so different!

Our first year was the City & Guilds 147 course in professional cookery, one of the dishes we each had to make was 2 portions of a classical Filet de Sole a la Florentine, bed of spinach topped with poached fillets of sole, garnished with Pommes Dauphinoise, coated with sauce mornay and glazed. All portions for silver service as no one practiced plate service all food service back then was silver served. Unfortunately I was a little slower than most in getting my equipment out of the store and was left with having to serve up my fish on a sliver platter big enough for 8 portions and definitely too big for 2, not only that but the grill on the domestic stove I was using meant that the silver I had was so big I could only get about 1/3 rd of it under the grill, would not fit under it so glazing the dish was impossible as only parts of it could physically fit under the flames. I still passed with distinction though!

After being fairly conscientious students in year one and all doing well in our exams year 2 was a very different story.

The 2nd year was just a big skive!

Year two was very much spent either on the river in Durham, in the pub, normally playing darts - badly or working, very little time seemed to be spent in a classroom.

A few of us managed to get a job at a local hotel, busy bar and restaurant, busy on functions and mental on a Sunday Lunch. Sometimes I found myself in the kitchen and if not there then either as the chef on the buffet or as a banqueting waiter on a large function. As a waiter it was okay but mainly not hard work, in the kitchen it was intense and the food was just food, as chef on the buffet now that was the place to be as money could be earned, I shall not however say how as it may be

My dad always woke me up every weekday morning at 6am for me to get up and out to catch the 6.30 am bus at the top of our street to catch another bus to take me through to Durham and then another up to the college getting me there for about 8.45am time enough to meet up with everyone lese in the student’s union before classes started. We would be out for just after 4 and be making our way to work starting as soon as we arrived which would have been around 5.30pm. work was a long way from home and no way of getting there as public transport had finished well before I go toff work. This meant that I got dropped home by the staff taxi, this was mainly laid on for the waitresses, especially the casual ones that live at various locations dotted around the region. This was a big old Ford Zephyr I think it was one of the cars the police used to use in the likes of Z cars (for those of you old enough to remember that programme). Problem was there were always more people to be taken home than seats in the car. As I was always the last one dropped off and the waitresses all sat on each other’s knees this meant that unless I rode in the boot until at least 4 of the girls disembarked or I didn’t make it home. I use the term “girls” loosely as most of them were either old enough to be my mother, some could have easily been my grandmothers! So, with normally up to 8 “girls” in the car along with the driver and me in the boot we never did get pulled over, imagine the outcry if this happened today!

The upshot of this though was that I rarely saw home before 12.30 to 1am, sometimes later but I was still up the next day ready to catch the 6.30 bus. 

Prior to starting at the hotel the college had found us all work experience jobs in or around Durham, my first one was a small but okay 3-star hotel owned by one of the breweries in the student area of the city of Durham, I wasn’t there more than a few weeks but it was an odd place with an decidedly odd chef. He was an older gentleman with a waxed moustache, a moustache that he would actually wax while stirring soups stocks and sauces on the stove, God only knows what then fell into those pots!

My next placement was at the old Dryburn hospital in their kitchens, this too never really suited but I did manage to come full circle many years later. My third job was at the old Roker Hotel in Sunderland, took a long time for me to get there each day as was so far from home and from Durham and totally impractical so I only did a couple of shifts. 

One of the other guys got a job at another hotel close to where he lived but part of the same group that I and most of us ended up working for. One morning he strolled into the students union and threw a large money bag at us. He’d robbed them the night before and this bag of money was what he managed to get away with! To be fair there wasn’t that much there but even so he’d done it, he had pre warned us that he was going to some weeks earlier, but no one believed him. 

I recall, it must have been toward the end of year 2, that we did 2 things, one was to stage an open day/exhibition of our work one day for our parents and the other was to enter into a local Culinary competition in Newcastle. I remember wanting to poach and decorate a whole salmon for the open day, the college would not however spend the only on a salmon, so I was given a cod instead and told to paint it pink! I also made a raised pie, this, because there was no money for it, was filled with sawdust not meat, but it looked great. Ian, Payne I think it was, he went on a competed in a live class at the competition – omelette’s, one plain, one filled, and one folded I think, and he won! Now I think about it he may not have been called Payne, but I do remember his father was a prison warder at the local borstal I think.

One of my greatest regrets of the years is that I never kept in touch with any of those I was at college with, Robert and I did for a while, Dot and I did for a short while too but not for long. What happened to them all I have no idea apart from Angela who went on to be an actress, you would definitely would have seen her on TV as she appeared in a few mainstream television programmes and one really well known one and in an iconic scene too. Robert was my best man when Jane and I married, ended up throwing himself under and underground train and surviving that albeit he lost an arm. Sadly, he went on to bad things and I have no idea what eventually befell him.

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