Gal Travel Stories: Doing the Dishes in County Kerry - Part I
Want to work in food? You can spend thousands of hours, dollars and brain cells going to culinary school, only to discover you'd rather be on THIS side of the swinging door. Or, you can hustle yo'self a gig as a prep chef, a "try before you buy" if you will. Here's my blow-by-blanch account of going from waitressing to commis-cheffing and back to being an appreciative diner. The action takes place in a far, far west corner of a kitchen in Ireland...
One wonders in this place
Why anyone is left in Dublin, or London, or Paris
Where it would be better, one would think
To live in a tent or hut
With this magnificent sea and sky
And to breathe this wonderful air
Which is like wine in one's teeth
John Millington Synge
From the wall at the Barracks History Centre, Cahirsiveen, West Ireland
"Ye fooked oop."
Katherine's Irish eyes weren't smiling.
I stood between Elaine and Meabh, the three of us as raw at this game as the strainer full of chicken livers sweating in the sink.
"With good people out front, we can do double what we did tonight."
Her tiny hands sliced and diced the air. A dancer’s arms, al dente, like spaghetti. If anyone was eating the profits, it certainly wasn't her.
We shuffled our feet and stared at the unswept floor. It was the first week of my new career in the waitressing business, and I was wishing I'd studied harder.
I got the job through one of the six backpackers I rubbed bedheads with in a tiny hostel room in Dublin. I was pausing in my travels, and despite my cushy freelance contract with an Irish advertising agency, I secretly craved for what I was denied as a student: a ‘real’ holiday job. A low-paying, leave-it-behind-at-5pm gig that required brawn rather than brain, and no starchy resume. Without this baptism of fire, I always feared that if someone pulled the plug on the commercial world I’d go down with the ship, still strapped to my swivel chair.
“All work and no play makes a doctor who can write their own meal ticket,” lectured my Chinese father, who forbade his three children from working for ‘peanuts’ when we could be studying to get into medicine. He was adamant that none of us would end up a ‘frustrated minority in the mediocrity of government employment’ – as he had. “And there’ll be no starving artists in this family either.”
Katherine was one of the new wave, post-EU breed of Irish achiever, hard-nosed, determined to crack the golden egg which had never been laid west of Great Britain until now. Rents in Dublin were soaring, the latest Parisian jeans were cladding younger, thinner thighs and ravenous high-technology firms spun the globe to push-pin Ireland as the next place to turn a sod. Mammy and pappy businesses stood to collect from the rainbow that had sprung from the borderless EU, spanned the Irish Sea and touched down in their back gardens.
A year ago Katherine had run off to Italy with her then sous chef, returning months later with stellar aspirations for the restaurant she'd co-founded with Con, her crusty 50-something lover/partner/chef/muse. The magic they worked with a bag of flour, eggs and a pasta machine had drawn salivating foodies from every Irish county. Their eyes were now on the biggest prize of all: a Michelin star in Europe’s most prestigious restaurant guide.
Not for the tips, or the occasional Ralph Fiennes look-alike snacking alone at a corner table; not even for the gourmet leftovers, one of the major, money-saving perks of working in a restaurant.
I wanted to know what it meant to put mind in neutral, body on autopilot, collect fat tips and live the life of the brave and free: novel writing, symphony composing, world-poverty solving. In short, I wanted a year-round, lifelong holiday job.
I could not have been more ignorant or ill-prepared for my first day behind the swinging doors.
Unlike most professions, waitressing requires an extensive menu of all the human skills you were born and bred with, and then some. You need the four arms of Shiva to juggle eight or more plates, and his divine composure if you drop one. You need the mind of a mathematician to compute the permutations of drink, appetizer and entrée choices, and the memory of a savant to deliver them – with the grace of a Geisha. You need kitchen confidence, sideboard savvy, Peace Worker patience, and did you say you hated sales? You have to sell that dessert, as every forkful of tart tatin is icing on your night’s gratuity. You need a side of superhuman skills too, like x-ray vision to spot an empty glass on the corner table upstairs near the toilet. A degree in Operations Research would not go astray, as the following example illustrates:
A large group had booked for 8 p.m. This meant that earlier diners had to be fed and watered promptly so a table would be vacant when the booking arrived. Easy in theory, but when an impatient few slipped by and seated themselves without any of the wait staff noticing, the whole night's scheduling was ‘fooked’. Embarrassingly, the group of eight waited almost an hour in the wings while we anxiously stop-watched people poking at their pecan pies and gazing infuriatingly into their partner’s eyes.
Thus, I learned the importance of the sign 'Please Wait To Be Seated'. It means, 'Don't Fook Up Our System'.
My first two weeks were spent cleaning the newly-renovated restaurant from exhaust fan to egg slicer in preparation for the grand re-opening. For this thankless task I was paid three pounds an hour, almost enough to live in the manner to which I was already accustomed: slightly above camping in my tent. I learned to operate the complicated expresso machine, whooooooooshing it just right to produce a tiny cup of ‘pure bliss’, as Con put it. “Nice head,” he grunted, of my 100th practice cappuccino.
When the doors finally opened for business, I was scheduled for five nights a week, from 5 until 10 p.m., earning six pounds an hour. This was double the going rate, because the unwritten and unorthodox agreement was that the owners kept the tips. I was housed in a furnished, employer-subsidized apartment for 35 pounds a week, which meant I could spend each day on my bicycle exploring the craggy natural beauty for which Southwest Ireland is justly famous.
On my first night I was responsible for the Incredible Bouncing Knife. Just as I began to descend the staircase, a knife slid off my stack of dirty plates to bounce end on end, hitting each and every step before coming to rest at the Katherine’s feet. The cacophony generated by the backflipping knife went on for so long that it drew applause. For an encore I nearly committed one of the seven deadly sins of waitressing - allowing a bowl of soup to slide into the lap of the diner. I solved this problem by putting a napkin between the bowl and plate and suggesting my comrades do same, but was told by the old guard that "we've never had to do that before".
An unnerving experience is having a table go completely quiet while you clear away the plates, all eyes trained on your dish-stacking routine. Americans are the worst. I could see my gratuity shrivel as I stacked seven plates like you would after a home spaghetti swill rather than a blowout at the Ritz, and yikes, did a bit of food flick onto madam’s blouse?
Back at my apartment, my room mate Elaine, showed how it's done: the first plate is slotted under the thumb and pinkie, with subsequent plates stacked on the heel of the hand as you scrape the uneaten remains onto the first plate. Elaine recalled a miscue of her own: stacking a large lump of garlic butter [JSA1] between two plates in front of a diner.
"Squelch?" he inquired.
Elaine’s friends, waiters and silver-service students at the nearby five-star Park Hotel, were eager to teach we of the hot-dog institute their secrets. They said that our two-floor restaurant needed a "floater", someone who moves around the entire restaurant, lending a hand where needed and zeroing in on diners who discover a fly in their framboise. That evening I urged my co-workers to employ this technique in our shift - I concentrated on downstairs, two worked upstairs and a third did the floating. It worked like butter on a burn, but Katherine was not impressed. She made it clear she wanted super-servers, not systems engineers; waitresses with eyes on all sides of the head and X-ray vision to see the floor above.
"Nieve is my star waitress, she knows exactly what's going on at all times," she said.
Nieve was a teacher, and at every opportunity made it clear to the rest of us that she wasn't a waitress at all, but “I’m actually a teacher”. While schlepping towers of dirty plates and empty wine bottles, she looked like a waitress to me. Nieve wore sensible shoes and solid tights and a cashmere twinset with pearly embroidery. I wore the only suitable thing I had in my backpack, a pair of Harley-Davidson boots with engraved silver plaques on each shin, thinly disguised under a see-through black tube skirt that doubled as an upper body mosquito net when hammocking in Honduras. Katherine eyed my uniform and suggested I might like to borrow some of her clothes. I’d already been asked to remove the menacing steel caps from the heels to save the restaurant floor. I declined her offer, not wanting to impose, unaware that I'd set the milk souring.
By the end of my first week, I felt like I’d fallen through the pasta wringer enough times to stand in for Con’s signature lasagne. My head hurt, my feet hurt, and I developed the need to use anti-perspirant for the first time in my life. No symphonies, novels or poverty-solving poetry punctuated my sleep of the dead.
One morning before my shift, I rode towards a place called Currabeg, stopping at a little pier near my apartment to view the chilly waters of Kenmare Bay. I rode several hilly miles before coasting back into town to prepare for my day-off treat: dinner at Con and Katherine’s restaurant. Feeling mischievous, I called up the restaurant and with a scone-in-mouth accent, made a booking for Lady Byron Templeton. Apparently this caused a minor sensation in the kitchen. I reasoned that without this alibi, I would have been stuck at that forgettable upstairs table next to the toilet.
I showered and put on my ‘opera clothes’, a packable, quick-drying long black dress and jacket and sauntered down for my 8:30 p.m. date with myself. As it turned out I got the ‘jilted sod's table’, a lone little nightstand with a single chair.
I ordered a glass of house red, the impeccable Uovo Ravioli (one huge egg ravioli occupying most of the plate in a butter sauce), the delicious home made fennel and pork sausage with salsa, and for dessert, a divine pear pie washed down with a house white. This cost me twenty pounds in all, or three-and-a-bit hours' work as my alter ego on other side of the swinging door. I had to spend a long time digesting and sobering up in the atrium lounge before attempting to descend the spiral staircase lest I mimic the Incredible Bouncing Knife from my first night.
"Lynette, it's not working out".
Nothing prepares you for being fired. Not even the worst job at the worst pay, because at one time you signed a dotted line with enthusiasm. Quitting had already crossed my mind barely three weeks into the season, but Katherine had beaten me to it. Sitting before those Irish eyes unsmiling, I suddenly came over all faint and had to excuse myself, run to the toilet and stick my head between my knees to get the blood flowing against gravity.
My downfall began with the lack of X-ray vision needed for servicing the floor above, followed by my uncomely Harley-Davidson waitressing attire. It slowed when I offered suggestions to streamline operations – like serving bottled fresh juice rather than staff frantically squeezing oranges at the bar, but sped up when I commented that Katherine’s mammy’s traditional Irish soda bread was at cultural odds with Con’s signature Mediterranean foccacia, so why trouble the poor dear? A few more worthy but unsolicited suggestions, and my tenure deteriorated faster than a prawn cocktail under a blow-dryer.
In my previous career in advertising, I was paid to be a creator and a critic. I foolishly assumed this requirement would be transportable and indeed, appreciated in my new career. It was not. I was a pickle in their cheesecake. And besides, they never built a monument to a critic.
Katherine was reluctant to elaborate on my dismissal but I implored her to give me more feedback on how I'd fooked up, so I could take away more than just footprint on my tush.
"It's … a personality thing. We find your suggestions intrusive. I like someone to just get on with it. And you don't seem to have really … grasped the place," she said simply.
My flat-mate Elaine suffered the same fate, for other reasons. We sat on the sofa commiserating with each other. We agreed that in a way, the job was too good to be true: reasonable bosses, a five-day week, double the average server’s wage, the luxury of an evening shift leaving the whole day free, and a glorious employer-subsidized flat in one of the world's most desirable tourist destinations - well, in summer at least – The Ring of Kerry.
For some unfathomable reason, perhaps a state of deep shock and over-reaction, I actually returned that evening to treat myself to a last supper in the restaurant. The entire staff flipped out. What was I thinking? Perhaps this: life's too short to spend too much time in recovery.
In my last weeks in Kenmare I often spotted my former employers on the same side of the street, and they would immediately cross the road. Yes, our cultures had blended like chilled lard and iced water. As uncomfortable as it was, that is partly why I travel. When experiencing another culture, don’t expect to fit in. Because to fit in, and to not fit in – it’s all part of the experience.
Before I left the town for good I left a letter and a recipe in an envelope under their door. It read, in part:
Dear Con and Katherine,
Just a note to let you know I’ll soon be leaving the country which has been my home for almost a year. Enclosed is the wonton recipe I promised you, dug up from my father's notes; he’s a great unsung home chef, and I’m sorry we never got to prepare it together. I thank you for giving me the chance to experience living in a small town and to try my hand at something I’d never done before. If it weren't for you, I would not be here in the first place. I wish you Michelin stars and every success.