The birthday of Scottish poet Robbie Burns was always a big function at hotels around the world. Because I was the youngest employee at Canberra Hotel it was traditional that I carry the haggis. I was petrified I had to carry it into a room with 300 Robbie Burns admirers. The deal was the piper, playing a traditional song on the bagpipes, went first. The maitre d’hôte, carrying a bottle of the finest scotch whisky, was next. Then I followed with the haggis held high. I was told to place it on a specific table and stand back (at attention). They would cut the haggis and the maitre d’ would signal me when to return to the kitchen. What could be more simple – what could go wrong?
I’m standing to attention after thankfully placing the haggis on the table in one piece, my part was initially over. Then the head dude from the Robbie Burns Club (they were all done up in kilts) stands before the haggis and starts to talk to the thing and stabs it with a sword repeatedly. (Later I found out this was the ode to the haggis.) Next the maitre d’ pours four very large whiskies from the special bottle. I’m looking and counting – the piper, the maitre d’, the head dude, it can’t be for me, I don’t drink whisky I only like light shandies. The three of them raise their glasses. The maitre d’ shoots me a glare. The head dude proposes a toast. I pick up the tumbler. They skol the lot, I wait. The maitre d’ glares again. I skol the lot.
I swear to this day there were four nips in that glass. It felt like my throat was being assaulted, my cheeks were on fire as I tried to hold some of this foreign liquid in my mouth. My eyes were streaming. As we stepped back from the table I knew I had done well as I met the maitre d’s eyes, a nod and an approving smile. Hell, I didn’t think I had a choice, standing in front of 300 staunch followers in ceremonial kilts complete with dirks, who would have killed to skol that whisky.
Another ten minutes of speeches and pleasantries and the maitre d’ signals me it’s time we departed. I’m feeling pretty strange. We walk back to the kitchen except I’m having trouble walking and, when we enter the bright fluorescent lit kitchen, I’m having trouble seeing. The head chef comes over and asks me how it went. I go to talk but I’m as pissed as a camel. He goes for the maitre d’s jugular. “What have you done to my fuckin’ apprenti – look at him – what have you done?” I found out the next day they had to help me downstairs and put me to bed. My first Robbie Burns birthday.
Then my mother started working nights at a new Chinese Restaurant, in one of the local hotels. The restaurant was leased and run by Chinese people who spoke very little English. My mother, Meg, used to relate to us stories of how they were such hardworking, honest people and the food – it was to die for. One day, Mother Meg took my younger sister Sandra and me to visit the restaurant, to show us where she was on those nights she was missing from home, to see her other world of which we were not a part.
The Head Chef ’s name was Than Ku. (Yes, I remember laughing at the time too.) Than Ku took us into the kitchen where there were two other Chinese chefs preparing meals in giant woks, food flying in the air as they were sautéing, flames leaping, a dizzy mixture of aromas. Then bang onto plates, and that was a number 34 and a number 17 ready. I was totally in awe. This was like nothing I had ever witnessed in my short life.
Than Ku then invited us into the restaurant for a meal. But, at that moment, eating was very secondary for me. I wanted to stay and witness this marvel forever. I was allowed to remain alone in the kitchen until our meals were ready, as long as I didn’t speak or move. Watching these Chinese chefs perform was like witnessing ballet, yet battle. It combined, smooth rhythmical movements, rehearsed hundreds of times. The movements similar, the end result on the plates so uniquely different. I remember the noise, the heat, the sweat, the urgency, the adrenalin, the sense of chaos and hearing a foreign language. This was my first impression of a commercial kitchen running at full steam and I was sold. I wanted to be part of this magical world.
THREE MILLION PEOPLE
A large hotel is exciting; it’s a city that never sleeps. So much happens when you have 420 people in a building for twenty-four hours. It’s a self-contained unit. We sleep, we eat, drink, are entertained, break shit, fix shit, launder, make a mess, clean up, and are ever ready for the next person to eat, drink, etc. You want to be born, you want to die, you want to do anything in between. We do this, we do this for a living, we are very good at this. In forty-two years in the hospitality industry I have witnessed births, deaths (I swear it was not my cooking), and many marriages. We are talking, I have just done some rough estimates, three million plus customers. That’s awesome. For a short time, you can be an integral part of the lives of three million people!
THE KIDS ARE IN CHARGE
Enter Mum and Dad and two kids aged four and seven. The parents are mid-forties. If you are a forty-plus parent reading this book, stay with me, you will discover why you get quizzical looks and confused waitresses coming to your table. The family is seated, you give them all menus, explain the specials and soup of the day. You can pick the father or the male parent because he is the one still looking for a table suitable for his family; unbeknownst to him the sibling Johnny, who is four, has already chosen the table. You rescue the older male and tell him where he is sitting. Meanwhile forty-plus mother notifies you that Samantha is E1043 allergic. “Fine. I’ll bring her water, no ice, because I’ve had experience with Samantha’s medical problem before and as far as I am aware that’s all she can drink with what we have to offer.”
Johnny has Celiacs and before forty-plus mother can give me instructions Samantha orders the pasta entrée without mushrooms because, “I am mushroom intolerant.” Forty-plus mother orders for herself, “I would like a warm chicken salad with no dressing in case Samantha would like some of it because you see she is also allergic to… .” Okay, no problem! “I want fish and chips,” says the kid from hell. Mother interrupts and educates you to the fact that four-year-old Johnny cannot eat the fish and chips on your menu because it has batter. I knew that!! It has flour in it. I know about Celiacs, your brother was here last week, I’m saying under my breath. No problem!! We can grill Johnny’s fish with chips.
Meanwhile Dad, who has managed to drive them safely for the entire length of the South Island, is not sure what he wants to eat. To be fair he has only just found his table and he hasn’t yet been told what to order. You return in five minutes and Dad has been instructed to order a toasted sandwich, ham and cheese, with no bread on half the sandwich. “So we will make you a toasted sandwich, half of which will not be a sandwich because it won’t have any bread on it, in case Johnny wants half. No problem!” The drink order is worse than you can imagine. In the ensuing six minutes it takes to get the order from the kitchen to the table there is much tête-à-tête from this table. As I am serving the food I can see the guy at table four is getting stressed because the kids are rioting. “I don’t like this – I didn’t order this – the fish hasn’t got batter on it – yada, yada, yada.”
I deliver all modified instructions to the table for them to digest, and retire to an acceptable distance to assess the situation. It’s pretty scary because the parents aren’t even sure what’s going on. The kids from hell are issuing instructions to the older people at the table. “You said orange juice but this has got pieces in it. I don’t like this!” “This water’s warm. I would like some ice with my water.” The guy at table four who is trying to have a quiet lunch has had enough! He rocks his chair back towards the Dad and says, “Excuse me. Who is in charge at this table?” Forty-plus father is flummoxed. It can’t be him, he is just the driver. Forty-plus mother is a little perplexed, the table four guy is directed to seven-year-old Samantha who is also not sure. He replies, “I rest my case, your honour” and goes back to his soup of the day and bread and hopefully comparative peace.