For our food and drink month, freelance writer and professional journalist Paul Phillips recounts his dalliances in the food and hospitality industry, as he bites off a little more than he can chew…
‘How hard can it be?’ If ever there was a phrase destined to deliver a heaping helping of hubris…
My family treated me to dinner at a two star Michelin restaurant for my birthday. There were nine sumptuous courses served with wines to match, all in a private dining room. We even had our own butler. At the end of the meal we were invited to visit the kitchen. It was much smaller than anyone expected and staffed by a team of what seemed to be unfeasibly young chefs. They showed us how they prepared one of the courses, ‘Slick’ doesn’t describe it. Some of us (alright, me) may have thought ‘that looks easy enough.’
On another occasion I was seated at the chef’s table in the kitchen of another fine restaurant. We were right opposite the pass. Eight of us were having the eight course tasting menu. The main restaurant had 60 other diners in it. At no stage did anyone at our table see the chefs rush about or appear to do very much at all. Everything was calm and, of course, highly professional. The owner showed us around the kitchen at the end of the evening. The key to the operation was preparation. Obvious, really.
At the other end of the scale, I was once left speechless by a waitress when I complained that the steaks our table had been served were unacceptable. Gristly, overcooked and lukewarm, I seem to recall. Instead of apologising and high tailing it into the kitchen, the waitress thanked me. “I’m eating here at the weekend, so I won’t have the steak, thanks for that,” she said.
I like to cook but I’m as far from being a chef as a bus driver is from a Formula One racer. There was a lovely line on the BBC’s Mash Report – ‘Man’s signature dish is revealed to be his ONLY dish.’ I’m a bit more advanced than that. I actually had a small barbecue business for a while, catering for corporate events, the odd wedding and such like. It wasn’t just burgers, thank you very much. I did a mean Lebanese chicken kebab dish, slow-cooked this and that as well as various non-meat options. Quite often I’d have to cater for food intolerances. I don’t think I poisoned anyone.
One night in the local pub I was chatting with two friends who rated themselves as ‘good’ cooks and had similar fine dining experiences to me. We chatted about recipes and one of us suggested – over the fourth or fifth pint – that we should get together and put on an evening meal event for our mutual mates. We’d just need to find a venue. At this point, the landlord interjected. His pub had a dining room. You can see where this is going, can’t you?
We were loaned the kitchen and the dining room for a Saturday evening. It would be a charity event; every penny of profit would go to a to a local children’s hospice. I just know we were all thinking; ‘how hard can it be?’ And we know where that leads, don’t we?
Despite our bravado, we decided to make our task as simple as possible. There would be ‘just’ 36 covers. The menu we settled on involved a choice from three starters, three main courses and a couple of desserts. To simplify it further, we would get the diners to order their meals when they booked. Not only that, but the tables would be booked at 15-minute intervals, starting at 7pm.
We organised ourselves to cover the food buying, the advanced cooking (the starters and desserts were all prepared the day before the event) and we even recruited some waiting staff. Here we invite another hubris-laden phrase to join us; ‘What could possibly go wrong?’
On the day we casually gathered in the pub and set about our preparation (the ‘key’ to our success, remember.) Tables were laid and the kitchen organised for our various roles. One of was looking after the meat and fish, another the veg, the other the pass. But we all mucked in with prep and with a good hour to go before our first customers arrived we were very pleased with ourselves indeed.
Just before 7pm the first diners arrived. They were seated at their table. Drinks were served. A waitress told us that ‘table 1 was ready.’ They’d already ordered their food so our well-oiled machine clicked into gear. Out went the starters and we began putting together the main courses. At 7.05, table 2 wandered in. They were 10 minutes early but we’re across this. Not a problem. We were – quite literally – cooking on gas. Until we weren’t.
The grills, hob and oven were powered by bottled gas. Of course, one of us had checked that the bottle was full enough, hadn’t we? Ummm… A replacement had to be dragged from an outside shed and connected, but it was a minor hitch because we were so organised, of course.
Two tables of diners were hopefully happily noshing away. We waited for our 7.30pm booking. And waited. The 7.45pm table arrived early so we just swapped our order lists. Simple. The 8.00pm lot were enjoying their pre-dinner drinks a little too much and had to be persuaded to their table. At 8.15pm the 7.15pm booking turned up, which meant we now had three tables all needing to be served at once.
Things began to become a little ragged, not helped by one table – probably the lot who overstayed their time in the bar – having no idea what they had ordered and asking the waitress for something different. While one of us negotiated that little issue, the guy on the grill managed to burn the fish he was cooking and had to start all over again. The problem was the meat dishes were ready and the veg all good to go. Oaths may have been expressed.
Our remaining tables had clearly adopted the attitude that time was merely an abstract concept. Our carefully laid plan to have bookings spaced out crashed and burned. Everything became a bit of a blur. Keeping track of which table needed serving and when was hard enough; confusion reigned and orders were mixed up. We were getting hot, bothered and a little fractious in the kitchen and it seemed like our task would never end.
Somehow it did though, even if our last table didn’t get served until 10.30pm. The three of us walked out of the kitchen to be greeted with warm applause. We had actually raised quite a bit for the charity. We’d also learned a hard lesson.
Never, ever, say out loud ‘how hard can it be?’ when you don’t really know what you’re doing. That little hubris monster is eyeing you up. He’ll have his way with you soon enough.
Paul Phillips has been a journalist for over 40 years, had senior editorial roles with the BBC and Sky News and worked in many parts of the world as a consultant and skills trainer. Paul is also a university lecturer specialising in broadcast journalism and TV production.