Chef Yes Chef (54 years and still Counting)


Chapter Two
 

The big bad world of work

Okay I had worked in a few places while at college but that was not the real world of work was it, not sure if I knew that at the time mind you but I guess it dawned on me quite quickly. Two of us, myself and Robert, applied to British Transport Hotels for a job. At that time BT Hotels were considered to be probably the best training anyone could get in catering anywhere in this country and rightly so. They owned and operated some of the very best hotels from one end of the UK to the other. Big named places such as Gleneagles, Turnberry, Adelphi in Liverpool, the Welcombe at Stratford, the Old Course Hotel at St. Andrews, the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh, Central Hotel Glasgow, station hotels in almost every city or large town across the country. Iconic venues many of which are still operating today although none of them owned by BTH anymore. I was sent a return train ticket to London to attend an interview at St Pancras chambers adjacent to St Pancras Station. How exciting was that I had never been anywhere very far on a train, never been to London and even more exciting, never been anywhere like this by myself! There, interview and back in a day. Some feat back in 1969!

I got a job though, The Station Hotel Dumfries – really ? yep that little Scottish town in the Borders not only had a station (it still does by the way) but it also had a Station Hotel (it too is still there and still operating). Robert – I have no idea how he managed it but he got a job at Gleneagles! Oh how different things might have been!

 

The Station Hotel just as it looked back when I started there in 1969

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

So towards the end of July 1969 I turned up at The Station Hotel in Dumfries to start my first full time job as a commis chef. The head chef Jean Paul I think although I do not (again) recall his surname, was a really nice guy, been there for years it seemed. We had a Sous Chef – Jimmy Thomson from Cumnock in Ayrshire, wee Jimmy – hard as bloody nails and always looking for a fight and yes we had some together against others and occasionally against each other! They were wild days. Whiskey flowed as too did the beer. If you lined up 12 different brands of blended whiskies (we could not afford the good stuff) I could tell you which was which in a blind tasting, If we went into a bar and there was a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label behind the bar we would not leave till we had finished it between us, no matter how much was in the bottle when we went in it was always empty when we left! These days even a slight whiff of the stuff makes me ill. We had a scouse as a chef de partie I think, Bob or Robert, he was married to a Spanish or Portuguese girl, his father he told us was a head chef on the QE2 – no idea if it was true but he was a prat I know that.

There was a KP, an old Irish fella that used to take his false teeth out and using a big scrubbing brush, the sort you would normally use on a floor, he would clean his teeth in the pot wash sink. The head Chef however was good but would not let me touch a piece of meat with a knife for months, I don’t think he thought much of boys straight from college. He had a wicked sense of humour, he used to catch wasps, dip them in flour, shut someone in his office and send the wasp in under the door, it couldn’t fly but would crawl around leaving a white trail everywhere it went, he would convince the poor bugger he had locked in the office with said wasp that it was a ghost wasp come to get them. Some folks are easily frightened or fooled. The kitchen staff almost fooled me once, they sent me up to the manager’s office to get the kitchen key, I was just about to knock on his door but realised just in time that the kitchen had no door to lock!

It was a live in position and for the first few months there I shared a room with the night porter, it was fine as when I was in bed he was at work and vice versa so our paths crossed only rarely. A few months in and I got to share a room with two other chefs so you can imagine we did not sleep much! The accommodation was above the ticket office of the station which was opposite the hotel and it was fun both living and working there. Between us we bought a set of weights and we all did push ups, squat and lifts and whatever else we could, I got to the point where I was bench pressing 200lbs, impressed?

I recall someone coming to the back door with a salmon he had caught on the river Nith which runs through Dumfries, it was a lovely fairly small river absolutely teaming with salmon back in 1970 not so these days as I found out much later in life. Someone and I do not remember who it was was scaling the salmon in the pot wash sink. Now when you do this you run the back of a knife over the scales towards the head while holding the tail. Do not use the sharp side of the blade use the back flat unsharpened side instead and scrape off the scales, not easy they go everywhere, it’s a messy job. Even messier when you use the cutting edge of the blade and not the back and slice the top third off your index finger of your left hand because you were not using the BACK Of the knife as taught! No not my finger. The guy was rushed off to hospital and a little while later the chef found the end of the guys finger in the sink. No one thought to take it with them, too late by then though. Anyway the chef being the chef pulled a small frying pan down, popped some butter in it and sauteed off the finger, said it tasted like pork, shame to waste it!

After about 18 months there I was getting fed up and looked for a move. I was offered a commis’s job at The Station Hotel in Sheffield and jumped at the chance. And so began the next chapter that dramatically changed my life – for the better.

I had been off for a week’s holiday and came back to work in Sheffield, once again I was living in, right up in the attic rooms at the top of the building. I went down to the canteen, and there she was!

Jane, The Housekeeper

 

There I was looking like a right scruffy git in a dirty looking green linen jacket which I had had for years and I know I had fallen into the river Wear in Durham while wearing it at least twice so pretty it was not. There she was sitting in the staff canteen of the Victoria Hotel in Sheffield all by herself.

I had just arrived back in Sheffield after a short holiday, I think I had been back home for a few days, Jane had just started work a few days earlier I think, obviously starting while I was away. The rest as they say is history. This must have been about early September 1970 or 71 and now in 2022 it means that our anniversary of meeting is 51 years almost to the day as write, no hang on a minute, Jane has just told me it was July not September but hey after 51 years what difference does a few days make?

Other than both being at the same place at the same time I don’t remember having anything in common, she was from Mansfield Woodhouse in Notts in the middle of the country and me from Seaham on the coast in the North-East, how we palled up in the beginning I guess must have been mutual boredom, I must ask her sometime.

Jane worked as an assistant housekeeper having studied this at High Peak College in Buxton so she was upstairs and I was below stairs, we both lived in the hotel and our paths never really crossed while at work as a result.

Sheffield was simply somewhere to go to from Dumfries for me and for Jane the first rung on the ladder of work. It was an indifferent sort of place, typical of a medium sized hotel in almost every single city/large town throughout the UK. It had its characters as they all do, a flavour of some follows:

Len, The Head Chef: an older gentleman of about 50ish I would say, small and petit with the tallest chefs hat I had ever seen, he would have stood about 5’4 in a decent pair of shoes, with his hat on he was at least 6’4 I kid you not! His Sous chef was about 6’ and weighed in at about 350 pounds! What a contrast. The chef had a couple of amazing skills and these are about all I remember about him 1) almost every banquet we ever did seemed to start with a soup of some sort made from making a roux then finishing it off with tins of Maggie powdered soup, this stretched out the bought soup powder and brought the food cost down considerably. 2) the main course of every banquet was roast sirloin of beef, an expensive cut even then. No one but the Chef was allowed to carve the beef which was always carved by hand while hot and arranged straight onto the slivers (no plate service back then!), 

He would get a minimum of 75 portions from a sirloin of beef, honest to God he did. I know, I know it was almost see through but as a result he had the best GP figures in the whole of the British Transport Hotels Group. 3) when it was not Roast Beef it was Chicken Chasseur and he liked to serve a heart shaped crouton with each portion. These he made himself, again no one else was allowed to, he would use long white loaves, these would have been about 15 inches long and about 4 inches or so square, Len always managed to get 150 heart shaped croutons out of each loaf – unbelievable!

Jimmy, Kitchen Porter: Jimmy was a real character, a tall wiry strong as an ox Jamaican who claimed he was a professional boxer before coming to England. He used to make a brew for the whole kitchen in a tall two handled pan which he then stood in the bain-marie to keep arm and we just helped ourselves. It took me years to wean myself off this concoction, so addictive did it become. It was so strong the ladle would stand up in it all by itself!

Willie, Breakfast Chef: A really old boy, I say this as you must remember I was in my late teens at the time, the Breakfast chef would have been late 60’s if he was a day, now I too am that old and more I feel like a really old boy! He worked upstairs in the finishing kitchen just off the restaurant, it was hot, I mean really HOT!. So hot that he would take off his jacket on a busy service, then take off his wet vest which he would lay out on the hot plate to dry it out as it would be wet through, as service went on he would drain the poached eggs and the likes on his vest before plating them! If only the customers knew! There was a one armed bandit in the corridor outside the staff canteen, the breakfast chef used to play this every day and win everyday, found out he used to cheat by shoving a bent coat hanger up it and releasing the cash!

Mary, Plate Wash: the hotel used to employ slow learners, institutionalised people in these back of house roles. Mary, during the day, would also play the one armed bandit, never win, and the BC would empty it each morning before she came in! Every now and then she had a habit of running down the length of the staff corridor, it was a long corridor, with her skirt over her head, I have no idea why.

When we got a bit bored in the kitchen we would play cricket – in the kitchen. It, like the corridor I just mentioned, was long, the soup for the large parties was made in tall copper pans, perfect to use as a wicket, it was stirred with the longest wooden spoon I had ever seen, perfect for a bat, bread rolls from the night before made great cricket balls and our Jamaican Pot Washer was a great teacher of cricket as well as how to box!

Neither Jane nor I were there long. I got a job in Eastbourne at the Cavendish Hotel on the seafront and Jane got one at the Imperial Hotel just off the seafront and next door to the Cavendish so off we went – together. My new wage at the Cavendish was to be £20 per week, live in, I had never dreamed I could possibly earn this much money I was about to be rich!

 

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