Authors: Simon Wroe
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First published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014
Copyright Â© 2014 by Simon Wroe
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Chop chop : a novel / Simon Wroe.
1. RestaurantâEmployeesâFiction. 2. CooksâFiction. 3. Fathers and sonsâFiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
I am greatly indebted to the professional chefs and restaurant kitchens that have chosen, at one time or another, to suffer my employment and let me into their stories. This book would not have been possible without them.
In my research, two memoirs of special value were
by Bill Buford and
by Ludwig Bemelmans. E. T. Laing's book
Fakirs, Feluccas and Femme Fatales
provided me with the laws of the Kanun.
Of the family and friends who have shone their enthusiasm on the project, I am particularly grateful to my mother and father, Ann and Malcolm, and to my brothers, Tom and Pip. Also to Mark Studer, who instilled in me a love of food that I have never shaken, and to Dan Franklin and Bea Long, for their wise counsel through the knotty world of publishing.
Will Hammond and Colin Dickerman deserve huge thanks for being the editors of Monocle's dreams, and for so skillfully reining in his excesses. The insight and patience of Sue Armstrong, my agent, has likewise been essential.
Finally, I wish to thank Laura for her love, support and generosity in all things, for the inspiration she offers every single day.
hey arrive in pairs most weeks, blushing like schoolgirls in the kitchen heat.
Their eyes follow you around the room.
Their tongues loll rudely from their mouths.
Their snouts are rough from rooting.
When you hold one and feel the hair and fat and clammy skin of it you wonder how different a person's head would feel dead in your hands. Sometimes when you pick one up from the peach paper your fingers get stuck in its nostrils, like a bowling ball. Sometimes you can still feel old boogers up there. A strange feeling, that this head must have been alive once, because only a living thing could produce something as useless as snot.
I've heard in fancy places they lather the snouts up and give them a gentleman's shave with a cutthroat razor. Most kitchens use a blowtorch and burn the hair. It gives off a dark smell, which maybe the fancy places won't stand for. We throw ours onto the burners and turn them with tongs until their eyes melt. Then we wrap them in a cloth and carry them over to the sink and wash the char off. We do it gently, like an apology. Ramilov, in one of his letters, says that's what all cooking is: a smart apology for a savage act.
Before the heads are brined and boiled, before they are torn apart at the jaws and the flesh is picked away from the gluey, shaking skin, we cut off the pigs' ears. A respite, I like to think, from the easy listening radio and the catcalls of the chefs. With those long rubbery ears gone the heads look naked and sort of comical, like two old men at the end of the pier who lost their toupees when the wind picked up.
I can't stop looking at how they were killed. I don't want to look. It makes me sick to my stomach. It makes me think I might not be cut out for this after all. A deep, yawning cleaver gash in the middle of each forehead, pushing the animal's tongue through its teeth with the force.
One chop. Sharp and swift.
One for each of them. Chop chop.
I suppose it's something I'll get used to in time.
Now into the pot with you, piggy.
Into the brine, swine.
amilov was in the fridge and he would stay there until he knew better.
“I want everyone to know,” said Bob, dragging one fat sausage finger across the room, “that people will be punished for their lifestyle choices here.”
“You can't ban love, chef,” Ramilov said from inside the walk-in.
“I fucking can,” said Bob.
And in that moment I personally believed, yes, Bob could ban love, he could do anything he pleased. Because when he said it, standing at the pass with a clutch of checks in his sweaty fist, in a pause between the demands for ravioli or onglet or potted prawns right fucking now and the constant haranguing and the whole “Generalissimo Bob marshaling the troops” act, Bob was the most powerful thing in the world. He was a giant, a blue whale, a Leviathan. On his colossal flanks we were mere flies. Bob was king of the universe. Thou shalt have no other god but Bob.
I say was, because even kings can topple. Even gods fade away. And as surely as one falls, another rises in its place.
Get to the point, Monocle. We don't want your fucking life story.”
This was Racist Dave's warning, or literary suggestion, when he heard I intended to write about what happened to us: how we suffered under Bob, how we were drawn past him into that cruel and shadowy world, how we made the mistakes we did. Dave said he didn't trust me to “make a beeline for the blood and gash,” that I
yakked on too much. It is true that I am different from my fellow chefs, one who is not afraid to employ words like
if the situation demands it. Apparently Dave considers this a stain on my character, for he has appointed himself as a sort of editor to me. I didn't mind showing him the drafts, I said, but let me handle the grammar. Dave said he didn't care about that stuff anyway. He just wanted to make sure I didn't get carried away with things, a continuation of a long-standing kitchen policy toward me. For many months, my mouth was barely open before the rebukes started flying:
You speak like an arsehole
, it has been observed.
Stop babbling or I will stab you in the face
âthat was another one.
Monocle is always so fucking proper
. Well, pardon me if that is a crime.
“Monocle” was Dave's idea after Bob, with unconcealed glee, informed the kitchen of my English lit degree.
“Fucking university,” said Dave. “That explains it.”
Dave was proud of the nickname without good reason. Students do not wear monocles. I suggested he was thinking of a mortarboard. He suggested he was thinking of unspeakable acts with my mother. A rude man, Racist Dave, and an obtuse one. Whatever its origin, Dave used the nickname a lot, often several times in the same sentence, and with his sponsorship “Monocle” soon passed into the kitchen's common parlance. Only Ramilov was reluctant to use it. He was angling for either “An Unsuitable Boy” or “An Extraordinary Cunt.” He was unhappy about a chiffonade of mint I had done that had bits of stalk in it. Ramilov was also unhappy about how much I talked, which he said, quote, was unbecoming in so shit a chef. And he was unhappy, like they all were, about my speed.
“If you were moving any slower,” he said, “you would be going backward through time.”
In his recent correspondence, Ramilov seconds Dave's support for the project I have undertaken. He too wants a little light on the
dark heart. Often he asks that I tell this story with “the greater truth in mind” and reminds me of a promise I made under some duress. I have not forgotten it. But how can we ever hope to explain what we did without retracing our steps back to Bob? Without Bob there would be no Fat Man, perhaps no Ramilov either. Bob brought us all together. Without his tremendous cruelty, what would I be? He made me grow up fast. He forged my resolve. Here, in these early memories of The Swan, I can see all the markers for our decline and resurrection, our past and future trials; all the creases of character and thought that brought us to a single moment in time.
Ramilov was in the walk-in now because of a peluche, or the lack of a peluche. Bob had a grouse on order for 38 and it was customary, essential even, for there to be a peluche of watercress, or failing that some sprig of dressed greenery at the very least, in a salad bowl on the pass in front of Bob but not wilting under the lights when all else was plated up and ready to go. Bob called for it late and sometimes he did not call for it at all, but it was Ramilov's duty to know when a peluche was required and to have it standing by, and it was Ramilov's fault if it were not.
” came the cry for the grouse on 38 as the jus was sliding round the plate and the steam was rising into the hot lamps. No answer. No “
Not a sniff.
” Again the cry. But only silence in reply. Everyone in the kitchen looked over to Ramilov's section because all cresses and leaves and salad gubbins were his responsibility, all cold starters and some of the hot ones too, but Ramilov had vanished.
Service hung in midair. The crashing and twisting and shouting and rushing and searing and flicking, the whole carnival, seemed to freeze. Every man thereâand the quiet dark-eyed girl in the corner
tooâdrew in his breath. The burners and ceiling vents and clamor of the KPs all faded into the background. Boorish laughter and snatches of conversation carried from the tables, it was so deathly still. Voices of people who were not chefs could be heard in the kitchen, and that is the worst sound in the world.
“Maybe he's in dry store, chef,” offered Dave.
“Or the yard, chef,” suggested Dibden.
But Ramilov was not in the dry store or the yard. Nor was he in the wine cellar or the downstairs office, and the game of Where's Ramilov? only ended at the bar, where Bob found him talking to the waitress with the button nose, halfway through his joke about how to dance to elevator Muzak. Bob was displeased, you could say, and expressed his displeasure to Ramilov in language that made the waitress's little nose turn white. Ramilov maintained that dinner services would come and go while this thing he had with what's-her-name here would last forever. He clicked his fingers and smiled at the girl.
“Really, though,” he said. “What is your name?”
Alas, he did not hear her reply. Bob had hooked a finger into his collar and was yanking him back through into the kitchen outlining his intentions to injure him severely and telling him he was in for it now, by god. Ramilov was protesting all the while and even when the walk-in door was shut and the lock was turned you could still hear him arguing dimly about free will and the tortuous odyssey of the heart, though the words were mostly lost to everyone but himself.
Dave had sent the grouse to 38 before Bob could come back and make him plate it again out of spite, and Dibden had jumped from desserts over to Ramilov's section and was banging out plates to keep on top of the checks piling up on the grabber above the pass. From time to time he glanced anxiously at the fridge where
Ramilov was trapped. It was not so pleasant being locked in there, 4 degrees Celsius in the pitch dark, trying not to knock over anyone's mise or you'd be in more trouble when you got out and might have to go straight back in again. Bob liked to call it his isolation tank or, if he was in a straight penal mood, the cooler. In the six weeks Ramilov had been in the kitchen he had made that fridge his own.
“I should be charging that cunt rent,” Bob muttered, returning to the pass to make his announcement about lifestyle choices being punished.
Dibden was starting to look increasingly nervous. Those dolorous features, always suggestive of struggle, darkened as the pressure grew. His long hands were fumbling and his movements were becoming leathery and he was saying “SugarÂ .Â .Â . sugarÂ .Â .Â .” under his breath like a nervous twitch. Dibden was of the opinion that cuss words made Mary Magdalene cry and it was wrong to make any woman cry, especially a woman as nice as Mary Magdalene.
“What is it, chef?” Bob had noticed his unrest and was glowering at him from the pass.
“I'm outÂ .Â .Â . I'm out of lemon halves, chef,” he replied.
The lemons were in the fridge with wicked Uncle Ramilov.
“Monocle,” Bob said, “stick your massive face into that walk-in and ask him to pass out some lemons. Don't talk to the cunt or you'll be in there with him.”
I didn't know how to ask Ramilov for lemons without talking to him so I knocked on the door and kept my mouth shut.
“I know,” said the voice of Ramilov. “Lemons.”
I unlocked the door and opened it a fraction and a sinewy hand poked out with four lemons in it. Truly, it was the ugliest hand you ever saw. The kind of hand that comes up out of a grave at the end of a zombie film to claw dumbly at the sky. Every scar and welt and
burn on it stood out against the whiteness of the skin. It was a crazed stump of hair and damaged tissue. Next to those smooth lemons it looked ridiculous. I held my cloth out like a hammock and the ugly hand dropped the lemons into it.
“Treats for fatty,” Ramilov said in a sinister whisper only I was close enough to hear.
The hand disappeared. Ramilov was referring to Bob, of course. Bob was not just a giant in his power over us; he was an actual giant. Six foot four and as wide as a cheese trolley side-on, with blubber tight all around him like his body had started to melt and then decided halfway through to cool and set instead. Bob had worked hard on that fat, gorging himself on anything that he could get his hands on, his sausage fingers never far from a tasty morsel on an outgoing plate, always slick with the saliva from his greasy, slobbering mouth. His face was permanently red, as complexions of his standing and blood pressure often are. It looked like the swollen heart of an ox.
Check on! Two chaka, one bass, one rav! Mains away!”
Bob turned and rigged the new check on the grabber in front of Dave, who was on sauce. With heavy-lidded eyes Dave studied the run of checks. The effort for him was in the reading, not the cooking.
“Five minutes on those two chaka, yeah?” he asked the quiet dark-eyed girl in his northern drone.
“Yeah,” she said briskly, pulling two plates off a shelf above her head and dropping breaded cubes of pig's head terrine into the deep fat fryer.
“Coming up on that rav same time, yeah, Dibden?”
“Yeah.” Dibden was rooting around in the service fridge. “Where does Ramilov keep everything in here? There's no order.”
“Four and a half,” said Dave. He banged a skillet on a burner.
The machinery was whirring again. Dibden huffed and puffed about Ramilov's setup, it wasn't human, no one could work like this, where was the remoulade anyway, why didn't he keep the gribiche out.
“Because it will spoil, you prick,” Ramilov said from the walk-in.
It was just past eight on a Wednesday evening in late November. A reasonable time to lock Ramilov in the fridge. Several days of piercing winds and slushy rain, the kind of weather that turns Camden Town into a very low and uncaring sort of neighborhood, had put people off going out. The dining room of The Swan was half full; upstairs was shut. No office parties tonight. Forty on the books. A handful of walk-ins at most. But at some point in the next hour the dessert checks would start coming in from the early tables while the late tables were still ordering starters and mains, and Dibden, doing the splits between Ramilov's section and his own, would find himself greatly inconvenienced. “To sink like a sack of shit” is the correct terminology for this phenomenon, as Racist Dave often reminds me. Everyone was praying that Bob would change his mind about Ramilov and release him before the evening turned unpleasant.
“Fuck!” shouted Ramilov. “Something just bit me in here.”
Bob grinned evilly from the pass.
“You found my little Christmas present, chef.”
that?” shouted Ramilov.
“I let the lobsters out,” said Bob. “And I took the bands off their claws.”
He chuckled at the thought of Ramilov locked in a box with the lobsters angry and liberated, snapping at his ankles in the dark.
“If you damage any of them, chef, it's coming out of your wages.”
Ramilov's response was brief but heartfelt.
Whatever you say about Bob (and many things have been said), he was a master of cruelty. The man had an appreciation for a wide variety of punishmentsâspoons left on the burner until they were white-hot pressed into flesh, dish cloths soaked and twisted for whippingâthough his favorites were the ones that messed with the mind, the psychological tortures. He would let a finished plate fall from his fingers and smash on the floor if he didn't like one aspect of the ensemble and sometimes for no reason at all, except presumably to teach us that life was as arbitrary as it was cruel. The fridge was quite a custom of Bob's. By forcing the other chefs to cover for HE WHO HAD SINNED, also known as Ramilov, it skewed the emotions and allegiances of the entire brigade. When the prisoner finally emerged, shivering and blinking into the fluorescent light, sympathy was in short supply. The sentence proved the crime. The lobsters were a new touch, but that was Bob: the man had an exquisite grasp of suffering; he was an innovator of pain. It was a rare genius that unleashed the lobsters before looking for the victim.
Aside from Dibden, who bore The Mark of Bob upon his hand and who, despite that, still defended him when the insults were swarming over pints in O'Reillys, there was not one man or quiet dark-eyed girl or kitchen porter in the place who did not hate Chef Bob. No one fought with him as Ramilov did, but I knew how they felt even if they never told a soul, because I am the commis. In the kitchen the commis is everywhere. Like a fly, he sees things that no one else sees, things he is not supposed to see. It is his job to buzz this way and that, from fridge to section to dry store to pass to wine cellar, fetching and prepping and chopping things the other chefs
do not have time to fetch and prep and chop. I am the one beside the chef whom Bob is bollocking, topping up his herb bundles. I am the one sweeping the yard, unnoticed, when plots are being hatched over cigarette breaks. I am the one in the dry store trying to pull a fifteen-kilo sack of flour over your weeping body. I am the third who walks always beside you.