Is Catering Nourishing Work? – This year marks my 20th year in the food game and I find myself in a reflective state of mind. These musings are a pleasant distraction from the job I should be doing which is planning a corporate team building cookery day, where 20 managers will prepare a meal and cater for 200 of their staff. It’s a long way from where I started my food career working in kitchens and doing vegetarian catering in Lewes and Brighton.
I fell into catering, as many do, quite by chance. In 1990, age 18, I moved to the UK from South Africa and went straight into the family business in Hatton Gardens. I trained to be a diamond polisher under my brother and father and studied at Birkbeck College at night. I was lonely, discombobulated and unhappy. After five claustrophobic years in London I made the decision to move to Brighton and study full time at the University of Sussex. It was the best decision I could have made – seaside living, a social life, parties and protests suited me down to the ground.
Is Catering Nourishing Work?
At the end of the first year with my resources low, I needed a job. The options for summer work were somewhat limited and I did not fancy litter picking on the beach. Walking through Brighton’s South Laines with my somewhat sparse CV in my bag, I noticed a small hand written sign in the window of a well known vegetarian restaurant saying kitchen staff needed. Now I’ve always loved food and like many started cooking young, making cakes and easy meals with my mum and doing a braai with my dad. For me food equated to love, family and fun but i’d be lying if I said I was a good cook. What I lacked in skills, I certainly made up for in chutzpah, a yiddish word which loosely means bold audacity or tenacity – my family and Hatton Gardens taught me that big time. I strutted into the restaurant and showing not the least hesitation declared to the manager that I was just what he needed and could start work the next day. He offered me a trial shift and I turned up in the morning ready to rock.
The kitchen of this restaurant was in a cavernous basement, divided into 3 rooms. At 8 am, the kitchen was already unpleasantly hot with intense strip lighting making up for the total lack of natural light. The smell was not what I expected from a kitchen, an unpleasant melange of old cooking fat, boiled cabbage and cleaning fluids. The head chef, a corpulent rouge nosed woman with the sallow complexion characteristic of people who prefer liquid fuel to food, wasted no time in telling me what a disgrace I was for turning up without chef’s whites. The fire in her eyes and unmistakable smell of strong liquor suggested she was on the wrong side of a long night of excess. I apologised for being a disgrace and followed her to the back room veg prep area where sacks of carrots, onions, cabbage and beetroot awaited me. My job for the day was to help one of the junior chef’s prepare the salads for the day and the dressings and dips for the week. She explained what she wanted me to do, reiterated what a waste of space I was and left me to it. After a long morning’s peeling, chopping and getting intimate with an industrial food processor, I’d worked my way through 150kg of vegetables and the biggest pile of parsley i’d ever seen. Head chef came over to check my work and declared it “not bad” and if I could finish the day shift without chopping my finger off could have the job – riding by the seat of my pants was evidently not a bad strategy.
I spent a very long 3 months in that kitchen, entirely on veg prep and only once was I allowed to cook something in the main kitchen. It was without doubt a formative experience but in no way a nourishing or creative one. This particular establishment was being run explicitly to make money and there was very little love or joy in the kitchen. What I did learn was how to use a knife, organize a cold store and crunch a prep list. I also learnt that being a cog in the brutal machinery of catering was not for me. Over the last 20 years I’ve developed my unique niche and honed and transposed my skills. While I do very little actual catering these days, I still love cooking and feeding people and I know intimately that by nourishing others I nourish myself.
Robin Van Creveld