Sunday Tribune February 10th, 2008
RTE’s documentary Pressure Cooker aired on Monday night provided an interesting portrait of Dylan McGrath, the enfant terrible of Irish gastronomy. It was instructive to observe the chef return to his West Belfast working class origins, then journey to London where pain still registered across his face when confronted with the appalling environment in which he learnt his trade. This is a man forged in truly tough circumstances.
I had already enjoyed my own direct insight a year and a half ago. After a summer of leisurely cooking and continental gastronomic sampling I naively decided to embark on a career as a chef. Already, I had uncovered the mystery of preparing gnocchi, and could make fresh pasta in my sleep. Cookery books were my reading staple.
At thirty, undoubtedly I was too old for the profession, and an over-fondness for student life did not suggest that manual labour would offer fulfilment, but I blithely reckoned I could handle the work, and that dreams were to be followed.
Unfortunately, I had no experience. It hardly seemed possible that I could get a job. The positions advertised all sought two or three years experience, but, undeterred, I applied for one post which seemed to hold out hope for the uninitiated. The advertisement inquired “Are you a foodie?” What is your signature dish?” “What months are figs in season?” “Why do you think you would be suited to this job?” I felt I handled these questions with scholarly aplomb. For the record my signature dish was ‘gnocchi with wild garlic’ (I have to admit, this was somewhat disingenuous as I had never prepared the two together but I felt they would make a delicious combination).
To my surprise the next day I received a phone call. My age was not well received, while in response to the question “have you any experience?” I was a little economical with the truth, exaggerating a few days work in London as an impoverished dishwasher where I had risen to the level of blow-torching peppers. I was told in no uncertain terms that it would be bloody hard work but I told him that I was prepared for that. Unbelievably, I was asked to come in the following Tuesday.
I was greeted by Dylan’s glowering stare, a mixture of intimidation and compassion: “So you want to work in my restaurant? We are trying to create the best restaurant in Ireland and we work fucking hard. Where’s your uniform?”
“… Uniform” – my first major blunder, I was already a laughing stock. Any chef worth their salt knew that a chef brought a uniform to work, but unfortunately my solution was lacking in the saline department. I had at least taken the precaution of bringing one of my mother’s best knives, but this appeared faintly ridiculous beside the arsenal of metal that the other chefs were slashing about with.
Immediately, I was issued with instructions. “Get some shallots and start chopping.” Now, the shallots that I was accustomed to were small, similar to garlic, rather than the larger restaurant variety: I could not locate the shallots. Humiliation was amplified as I used the borrowed knife in decidedly amateurish fashion; wielding it in jazz like rhythm compared to the refined motion of the practised chef.
A short lesson later and I was chopping in a slightly more professional manner, but beside me the other chefs were working like dervishes and this was at eight in the morning. There was no idle banter, no music, no Morning Ireland, no crumpled copies of the Metro lying around, just the whirl of knives and the endeavour of the thousands of task that were going on within the tiny confines of the kitchen of Mint restaurant.
“Get some chervil?” I knew of chervil, I had probably used it in the odd Jamie Oliver recipe but inside the walk-in fridge I had no idea what precisely it looked like beside all the other, unpackaged herbs. It is remarkable how one can sweat in a fridge.
All morning I tried as anyone does on their first day to make a good impression. But despite this, Dylan displayed the charm of an S.S. officer – “Move, move, move”, I was told besides far more salacious exhortation. By midday I couldn’t wait for lunch break, with all this great food I was looking forward to a hearty meal and perhaps a peak at a crumpled Metro, but it never came, the work just went on and on; human dynamos at work. I kept my head down, peeling what was put in front of me, and frantically running around on the orders of the chefs. At last, I was taken outside for a pep talk.
He had strangely kind eyes for such a fierce character that suggested a soul of depth and creativity struggling to emerge. “You have the right attitude, but you aren’t working fast enough – you have to work faster.” “Yes chef” I replied – It was remarkable how quickly I adjusted to the military discipline of the regime. “Chef” was unlike any boss that I had experienced, his authority was more like that of an Oriental ruler of yore; his word was law. When he passed by, you heaved harder at your task.
The first lunch showed that the morning of monotonous hard work was a mere prelude to the real pain. Service! As the newly installed kitchen slave, I was at the beck and call of all the chefs who ordered me from fridge, to freezer, and then to dry stores. I had lost my hunger now, the sight and smell of so much food at various degrees of preparation turned my stomach. In any case how could I eat, I had tasks to complete otherwise the mighty ruler would shriek at me. Of course, worse was still to come the next day when I experienced my first dinner service.
By the end of the day my back was aching. I had never really known before what back-breaking work meant. For relief, I lied down flat on the asphalt outside my house, the cool ground easing the burning agony.
As the week went by the chefs around me began to greet me with more than a contemptuous grunt. This might have owed something to the fact that I was becoming a veteran. Most new chefs didn’t last the day. Only a chef who really wanted to learn from a master could possibly endure the invective levelled at them. Also, as the week wore on, I was asked to work longer hours as my body adjusted to the bowed back and repetitive chopping, though each night I would still return home to lie on the cold asphalt. But I could hardly complain, given that Dylan and the other chefs worked harder than me. They all arrived before eight in the morning and only finished late at night.
There were many terrible moments during that week. Worst of all was the pain of squeezing the razor sharp legs of crayfish for the slightest morsels of flesh contained within. My fingers pricked with a thousand cuts; all for the filling of a few pieces of ravioli that were doubtless gobbled down in a few seconds.
By the end of the week, I had come to realise that I could derive no satisfaction from work of this monotonous cruelty. I felt a certain macho pride that Dylan urged me to stay when I announced I was leaving, but this kind of acceptance came at too great a price. I had fallen out of love with food.
I have never before seen such feats of strength and endurance as I witnessed in this kitchen. A lasting image is of two chefs hauling a giant stock pot, like ants scurrying along with burdens three times their weight.
But those who I felt most sympathy, and indeed respect, for were the kitchen porters. Dylan, wisely, tended to avoid haranguing these prized assets who had to perform the truly horrible tasks of a restaurant. These smiling Mauritians and stern Chinese, whose hands seemed de-sensitized to heat, could grasp saucepans that would make me yelp with pain.
There is no doubt that Dylan McGrath is an artist, and predictably ruthless in the pursuit of his creations, but unlike the work of a painter or a writer, the chef-artiste relies on the collaboration of his team. Dylan expects the same inhuman level of commitment from his staff that he imposes on himself, and this kind of work can only destroy a person.
The food Dylan McGrath concocts is a visual extravaganza, Jack Yeats on a plate, and he provides an almost intoxicating array of tastes, but I could never bring myself to enter Mint’s front door, even if my wallet permitted. Like some magnificent edifice created by cruel labour, a meal there could only conjure the brutality of its creation.