Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Christmas remembrance of times past

It was a London Christmas for me in 1987. I spied from the Hotels larder kitchen windows, piles of grey wet melting sludge on the footpath of Vine Street below, which you’ll know, is famous for its Police Station in Monopoly. It was a shocking realisation that snow does not always arrive and settle in fluffy white puffs like it did in all the movies and postcards I had seen as a kid. Prior to my trip abroad and imagining a bucolic England gripped by a good-natured frostiness, I’d naively pictured crisp white icing that coated everything and scores of ruddy faced, mitten clad and jolly people darting everywhere with large ribboned boxes destined for the tree. For someone who had never seen snow in real life, these melting grey stains accompanied by the grim faces of puffa-jacketed chavs darting through the bleak chill was a major letdown for me in my first Northern hemisphere winter. I felt very lonely and homesick for the warm glow of the Wilson’s Prom Summer I’d left behind.
As I had no family in which to enjoy Christmas and that I lived in a hostel which reeked so much of melancholy that even limiting my time there just to sleep was almost too much to bear I put my hand up to work at the Hotel. This meant the staff ‘with family’ could have Christmas off whilst us ‘orphans’ had to work. This didn’t bother me at all for the reasons I stated above however it did mean that I got New Years Eve and day off, which to a young unattached working tourist in a foreign land with a leave pass, was almost like winning the lottery.
On duty that night from the top down went like this: Senior deputy General manager, Assistant housekeeper, Front desk personnel(a few) Executive Sous chef, Assistant F & B manager, Deputy Floor manager, Chef de Rang(one step below Head waiter) Sous Chef pastry, Head kitchen Porter, Chef de Partie, 1st commis chef, 2nd commis chef(me) and two kitchen Porters.
In the bowels of the kitchen with just a few festive sounds from the street outside slipping in as the heavy back door opened and closed to exhale jubilant staff on their way to festivities, the above staff were invisible, except inevitably for the kitchen team whom unlike senior management, have nowhere to hide.
After a while the Exec sous chef disappeared, presumably to shag one of the Front desk girls in one of the numerous dark banqueting rooms. The Nigerian Head kitchen porter, Pastry Sous Chef and the Chef de Partie were in the wash-up area deep into a game of poker.
This left me and Snorky, the 1st commis chef, so named because of his likeness to the long nosed and floppy-eared character on the Banana Splits to our own devices whilst the two kitchen porters wafted around like spirits cleaning this and that, communicating in their mother tongue and occasionally shooting an envious glance over to our white uniformed and ethnically sanctioned idleness.
As the night progressed my colleague Snorky became increasingly drunk on the alcoholic flavourings nicked from the pastry chef’s cupboard and I marvelled at how quickly hazelnut, walnut and almond essence could get one inebriated.
Unluckily for me some hotel guests ordered food from the Room Service menu.
Snorky, quickly but unsteadily dispatched himself to the butchery to cut some Porterhouse for the steak sandwiches which had been requested. Gathering and combining all the other ingredients I waited for him to appear with the two portions of steak. As I turned the corner into the butchery to find out what the delay was, it became apparent that Snorky was otherwise engaged to a higher calling.
On the industrial sized wooden butchers block lay a beautifully trimmed whole aged sirloin. Along its length were vicious and random slash marks inflicted by a heavy but dull edged instrument and my eyes settled on the weapon in question, a huge cast iron cleaver buried in the crimson meat to the rivet on the handle.
Snorky however, was standing on the workbench forcing burger mince into the wire mesh grill of the speaker in the in house Tannoy communication system.
‘Oui Chef’ he kept saying sarcastically to the speaker all the while the mince muffled the incoming words and orders.
Sensing trouble I did my best to volley back all the incoming Room service orders on my own as Snorky did his best to decorate the Butchery walls with Poussin, Woodcock and Grouse.
As these things happen and right at the parabola of service the assistant F & B manager decide to make his rounds. I knew this by the flurry of activity over at the pot wash area around the corner as the impromptu card table was melded back into the conformity of the kitchen. I had to act quickly, if the manager was Snorky in this state, he’d be fired on the spot.
Somehow and in the nick of time I managed to convince Snorky that the main Banquet kitchen was in need of mince in the Tannoy system and he eagerly shuffled off, both hands cupping clods of red beef mince just as the Cuban heels of the manager clicked into the Larder kitchen. His wispy moustache and thin angular features unkindly reminded me of a rat peering through a toilet brush as his eyes darted around my work area, keen to settle on some perceived slovenliness. Finding none he minced off down the hall toward the service elevators and the main kitchen below.
Picking my moment, I jumped into the other lift, jabbed my finger on the button to the banquet kitchen and the old lift groaned into action after I slid the metal cage door shut with a clatter. It shuddered and moved upward past exposed and ancient pipes and conduits slick with years of grime captured by staccato shafts of flickering light.
Before I arrived at my intended floor I could hear the evidence growing louder of what I assumed to be Snorky’s snoring.
The gate crashed open to reveal him lying on his back, mouth opened in a trembling yawn, hands smeared with mince beef and the most unpleasant snore emitting from his gob.
Let’s just say it took an age to steal him down through the kitchens, past the sous chef and duty manager unhindered and into the awaiting clutches of the idling cab at the back door. The Pound notes pressed into the cabbies hands did nothing to soften the arched eyebrows which seemed to convey ‘I’ve seen it all before matey’
I finally relaxed and watched the red tail lights of the cab merge in the distance with all the other Christmas decorations along Vine St and took a swig of my bottle of Porter, ‘Merry Christmas Snorky’ I said to myself and went back inside.

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