4. Kitchen Diaries of a mountain goat

All chefs are weird. So they say. On my lunch break I ran up Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, and then quickly down again to get changed into a shirt and trousers to serve three course meals all evening. Other days there were different mountains, and some people only had 2 courses. I funded my running and cycling addiction through the time and minimum wage offered in split shifts in a Lake District restaurant.

***

Crawling in to the tent just before midnight, I just about managed to forage a late night snack out of left over chick peas a crust nozzled squirty bottle of pesto. Cutlery is crafted out of set of Rivita scoopers, a panel for each hand extending the reach and purchase twice over.

Work was hectic this evening. As the tables began to hubbub and the check list grew like village bunting across the pass, I soon find myself banished to the rear laundry room, polishing the noble men and women’s silver wear. The clarity and efficiency of this mornings caffeine-jacked breakfast service seems a million hours from the mushy brained fumble through Dinner. I stumble through mixed up drink orders, first in the middle lounge, where a couple whet their pipes prior to ordering their meals.

Lounging back in the large cream and leather loungers, a foot resting upon a decorative brown travel chest, the waiting couple smile apprehensively at my arrival.

‘Two Gin and Tonics please.’ A theatrical gentleman announces from a rotund head propped up by a bright patterned Nelson Mandela-esque shirted torso.

‘Absolutely. And would you prefer Gordon’s or Bombay?’

‘One of each’. Of course.

‘Right-o’. I cringe a little as I hear my ‘customer-friendly’ voice rings out chirpily an octave higher than natural.

Once and then again, 35ml of clear white liquid pours just like the adverts over two tumblers of ice-machine dregs.

Bombay on the left. Gordon’s on the right.

I make a slow and deliberate internal dialogue.

Identical. Identical.

A way to remember which one is which? How about, Bombay on the left, Gordon’s on the right, because B is before G in the alphabet and the alphabet is read from left to right… What about in Arabic? But we aren’t using Arabic, so that doesn’t matter. Does it?

Focus.

B before G, Left to right.

I place the Bombay on the left, and the Gordon’s on the right.

As cautiously as a stealthy cat in long grass, I ease myself and the tray of drinks to through to the middle lounge. One step, two step, door.

‘Excellent!’ The sudden and loud gesticulation of Widow Twanky causes a quiver in my tray balancing arm. I eye ball the drinks and pray desperately as they just manage to stay up right, placing the tray gingerly on the side of the chest, looking up.

‘Bombay…’ Hesitation. Wait, which way round did I pick up the tray? Did I adjust it as I moved through the swinging door? How did I place it down on the table? Ah!

‘Errr….’ Disorientated in the possibilities of tray rotation and drink relocation, I could easily pass as having polished off the rest of the two bottles in the back myself.

Breath. Feign certainty. The customer is always wrong. I move the Bombay to the gentleman, and push the Gordon’s with one finger across the surface of the chest towards the parched looking biddy.

‘Are you sure that is Gordon’s?’ His voice, deeper and more serious.

Bollocks. He has done you! He’s called ya bluff son!.
‘Yes.’ I answer too quickly. A snap. I leave the scene fast.

*

‘And a large Merlot for me. Yes?’ Another perma-tan gentleman, the sort who looks like he needs a holiday to relax after his previous last, gestures towards his wife, permitting her the privilege of ordering her own drink. Avoiding any sudden movements, for she looks as if she could crumble at the smallest flinch of a tweeter.

Cautiously, ‘A Cabernet Sauvignon, 250ml for me. Please.’

A large! How very daring of her! A muscle in her Husband’s eye brow twitches on the ordering of her medicine. I prepare the drinks stage left.

‘Good, and do you know which one is which?’ Eloise helpfully checks up on my dispensary progress.

‘Ye…Erm…’ Oh no, a cloud of uncertainty moves in.

Sigh.

‘Erm.’

Quickly, Eloise takes the tray. Reaches back for the two just lightened bottles of red, and puts each to her nose. A sniff of this bottle, a whiff of that glass. A sniff of that glass, a whiff of this bottle. I offer my input, but have very little optimism in being able to unravel yet another of these Crystal-Maze like brain teasers of Which drink did you pour in which glass?

*

‘Check on! Let me explain it, I have written it confusingly.’ I call entering the now humid and cacophonous kitchen.

Ash doesn’t look like he wants me to explain the check. He is busy. Possibly heading into the shit. I explain anyway:

‘They ordered all three courses, including pudding already. But they did it all in one go each…’

Attentively he plates up a Duo of Pork Loin and Pig Cheek, and is carefully threading in his three different types of coloured kale, without time to waste, without any surplus attention to give my scribbled order. I continue to explain anyway:

‘So, one is having soup, which I wrote at the bottom, because they ordered sticky toffee first even though they want it for pudding, so that is at the top.’

Again, I see another muscle twitching in another person’s eyebrow. I still continue to explain anyway:

‘So for the main they are having the steak, but they want it done Medium, but they said they want it pink like rare, but without the blood like a more well done. Now the woman is having a steak too and she wants it well done, but she isn’t having a starter, and so I have written her steak at the top of the check as she chipped in as he was orderi….’

A piece of kales blows off the plate and flutters painfully slowly from the pass, a tumble weed opening a world between waiter and chef. I wonder whether I should carry on. I choose to carry on explaining anyway:

‘There is a pie for the other bloke, but I wasn’t sure if we still have Steak and Ale left as well as the Chicken and Leak, and so I have put a S and an A next to each other with a slash next to a C and L, and they don’t mind which so you can cross it off there yoursel…

‘Stop!’ It isn’t a shout. Nor is it angry. A simple instruction.

‘Rewrite the check clearly. Put it up. Polish cutlery.’

Tail tucked firmly between my legs, I place in the newly reorganised check, I pick up a polishing cloth, a silver wine cooler, fill it with boiling water, and drop in the piles of cutlery left over drying from breakfast. I head to the close heat of the back room, and set up refuge between the tumble dryers and washing machines.

To appease my slug like service, I plan to share any tips with the rest of the staff, who usually take only a small share.

We tidy down. We set up for the next morning’s breakfast. I don’t see the tips. Maybe there weren’t any.

*

The wind is now billowing through the channels of the Borrowdale fells, and the rain has drenched me thoroughly on the way home in the dark. The bike has just been to the doctor and has been fixed up, replacing every moving part, like new, with a price to match.

Having never bothered looking after the bike, no cleaning, just dousing oil on any trouble area, it is now liberating to ride in its rebirth. Pushing hard into each undulation, confident the chain won’t slip, that the gears will change, with all squeaks and plunks gone, I glide along the side of Derwent Water and drill out any impurities from the dissatisfying shift through a detoxifying sweat and a nurturing wind through the natural gifts of Cat Bells, the Water, Oak and Fir Woodland, and the view of a distant Walla Crag. I fly through and towards the fantastical groans of granite and forest that bulbaciate triumphantly in each direction, and into the jaws of Borrowdale.

*

Back in the tent I think that about the joys of being so firmly rooted outdoors, and could weep at the beauty of being part of something so perfectly and majestically formed….. Ahem. The scoot along the eight mile scoot along the backroad has put a bookend to the day, and relaxation blossoms. As I consider how nice it is connecting with nature, to stand in wonder, and to reassess your actual insignificance in the grand scheme of things, lardy-da-da and so on, a Daddy Long Legs appears. It’s multiple drum-stick limbs rattle an irritating rat-a-tat-twat against the very netting which is supposed to keep him out. I try to block out the sound and listen to the silence behind it. But just as a calm is found he begins again to fluctuate to and throw towards the hanging light of the tent. This fellow soon requires immediate removal. Sleep is sleep, a necessity, and no amount of meditative thought will overcome this number of incessantly humming and buzzing legs to allow rest.

***

‘RAVIOLI, RAVIOLI, RAVIOLI!”

Bellowed to the tune of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus.

‘UPTOWN GIRL.. MMM BOP!’

A fireworks display of inane drivel,

‘DAN. THE MAN. WHOSE CAR LOOKS LIKE A VAN.’

Ash references the Toyota Yaris Verso I drive, which is admittedly van-like in shape, though offers both the comfort and practicality of a well designed and generously spaced car, despite looking like it should have a Blue Badge in the window.

‘OOOOO BAAAAABAYYY!!!’

Eventually I crack, like the three glasses so far today, and let out an exasperated laugh.

The Head Chef is a tour de force of talking nonsense, streams of rubbish, song lyrics, sound effects, and animal noises brand him an utter gobshite. But do not be confused, this is not a bad thing. Not ten seconds can pass without some form of whizz, pop, or guff passing from one of Ash’s key orifice.

A serenade of mindless songs, noises, and outlandish facial contortions are regularly punctuated by a ‘AGH! Shutup. You can hear everything in the restaurant!’ from a mostly patient Eloise or by me failing to resist cackling like a little school girl at the sheer ridiculousness, stamina and persistence of audible bile.

On a quiet Friday evening service we all discuss ideas to get more folk through the door. As a proud advocate of Whetherspoons, I thoughtfully suggest ‘Fish Friday’.

Two bemused faces spell no.

‘Posh Fish Fridays?’

Conversation moves onto the possibility of a cheaper early bird menu, focused at theatre goers, and it quickly becomes the soul occupant of the maybe list.

‘Falafel Friday.’

The promise of alliteration fails to woo.

‘We all dress up as giant falafel and hand out flyers that explain how, despite no known family connections to the Middle East, we do in fact create the most delicious balls of squashed chick pea this side of…’

‘Oh God…’ Eloise audibly despairs and turns to walk away.

‘Roller Disco Friday. Each member of staff must prepare, cook, and serve all meals whilst sporting old school, four-wheeled roller skates, with accompanying leg warmers.’

‘ASH! SHUT UP.”

‘Musical Fridays.. Each member of staff picks a song from a musical of their choice, changing each week. It is both their honor and privilege to perform this song alone to all diners in the restaurant. Costumes are customary.’

We swing through the door between kitchen and dining room.

‘Yes. And I know the perfect performing spot.’ Pipes up Ash, he then proceeds to the corner of the room and pulls himself into a tiny cubby-hole in the wall. He squeezes himself in until his stocky frame and slightly soiled chef whites are folded quite awkwardly into the tiny gap. Absolutely hilarious, pulling a face resembling a clenched fist, drumming against the wall, and putting on a ridiculously high pitched chant:

‘WE. WILL. WE WILL. ROCK YOU. WE. WILL. WE WILL. ROCK YOU’

Everyday, sounds that accompany the service add a kind of music that makes the time at work pass. To join together in the mindless task of a shared creation of noise becomes a welcome distraction from the assumed mundanity of setting up tables, filling up the dish washer, and checking ‘How is everything, sir?’ Sounds, smells, small task, the heat, flavours, and the feel of different food on your fingers as you toss it into the bin, the multiple layers of activity in a kitchen, in a busy job, in a pressurised environment are rewarding. As each little job is complete, and a little tick put next to the imaginary to do-list, a sense of achievement is found, a little pat on the back. Whether this is to take two coffees to table three, or to successfully join in a nostalgic chanting of the Smurfs theme tune in the kitchen, it doesn’t matter. Finding enjoyment in the banal and mindless gives great scope for fun and diversion.

Certainly makes work fun and not much of a struggle.

*

Went up the Struggle hill from Ambleside up to Kirkstone Pass on bike in lunchtime split today. Tend to get 1130am to 1730pm off each day, which let’s me squeeze a ride or run in most days.

The night is clam tonight, and I sit still outside the tent, a Decathlon sourced light glow, book, and Wainwright beer.

***

Why are the people behind getting their drinks, a honeycomb latte and cappucino, before mine. I ordered way before them? This surely had to be the poorest customer service I have ever received at a British railway station Pumpkin Cafe. Outrageous. I ordered one polystyrene bucket of tea nearly four whole minutes ago. Ah wait. What is one of the most irritating trait of the worst of the Saga cruise squad at work? Impatience. Proper annoying. I back off a little. Fearing I am becoming my own nemesis. In doing so, I notice my cup of tea standing dutifully on the table behind my bicycle. Oh. They already gave it to me. I had already put it down and somehow become distracted and forgot. Embarrassed. I sheep off.

*

With a spring in my step, I pick up my rucksack which is ready for a trip down to see Lucinda. I stick my bike in the back of the Yaris, and jubilate in the practicality of not having to take off the wheels first because of the blessing of boot space, and picture the route we have planned around the Surrey hills for the next day. Before boarding the 1422 to London Euston, via a change at Crewe, I put in what South African Sous Chef Lawrence calls a ‘Rockstar shift’. Like Lemmy, Townsend, Hendrix, a rockstar shift involves showing up to an already set-up service/gig, doing a short, usually four hour, shift, and disappearing as soon as the main performance is over. Only this rockstar has just folded what seems like every napkin ever created. Would Ozzy gently mop the corner of his mouth after chewing off the head of a bat? As I seamlessly match the folded seems, I contemplate the seemingly pointlessness of triangulating material for face and finger wiping. Just do it on your trousers, no one cares. Hot steam pumps out the press, and a pile of not quite perfect black napkins grows, the rhythm and routine becomes almost rewarding and I consider the ease of earning £8 and hour for such a menial task. As my brain wanders, I try and work out how much each napkin fold pays. I can’t remember what the answer is.

An atmosphere like that around the breakfast table on the day of an important school exam, we tread carefully as Ash is uncharacteristically quiet. A ‘foodie’ blogger is heading along the A591 towards the restaurant as we clear the tables of this mornings feeding. A chance to impress, or a chance to be unjustly destroyed. Carefully, the chef designs, prepares, and executes seven courses of taster menu, showing off the skills, ingredients, and resourcefulness of the Ivy House’s Kitchen.

The menu panders to the bloggers apparent fondness for foraging and fresh local flavours.

Whinlatter foraged Spek butter. A trio of Cumbrian Pork. Lakeland Bramble with a Meadowsweet panocotta are amongst some of the intricacy designed dishes.

The food and creator deserve all the praises they will undoubtably receive, and I look forward to it being over, and having a noisy kitchen again.

*

On the Virgin Pendolino to Euston, I curse as I find the bike ride is fully stocked. I have booked the space, and usually forgetting to do so, have an inflated sense of self righteousness, silently demanding to know how I have been starved of my stable!

‘Here, let me give you a hand.’ a helpful passer by moves my bike alongside his fast looking red machine. ‘I didn’t book on, but the guard has let me squeeze on! Have you been far?’ He beams enthusiastically.

‘Nah. Heading down London to visit my girlfriend!’ I reply with a silly grin of excitement, although he seems a bit more interested in my bike than love life.

‘Oh. I like those bags.’

He points to my streamlined ‘bike-packing’ style saddle bags, which are hang off the back of the bike and are ready to be stuffed with clothes, food, and bits and bobs of bicycle first aid kit.

‘A couple of friends have used them for trips into the Highlands, and we are looking at doing a trip over Europe using that kind of set up’.

I further defrost and take the invitation to bore him with details of my 1800 mile cycle from Hertford to Istanbul last year. Amazingly, he listens, he asks questions, and takes a genuine interest in my explanations of luggage packing, route planning, navigating, eating, sleeping, slumming, and overheating. ‘Have you been far?’

‘Just up from Birmingham to Glasgow,’

‘Ah OK, nice!’

‘Yeh, just did it yesterday’

‘In one day?’ I puzzle.

‘Yep.’ The man’s smile and enthusiasm show he is , rightly-so, still buzzing from the huge 320 miles (in just 20 hours) achievement.

Later, I return to take my bike off at Crewe and another cycling couple are in our special section of the train. With fully loaded, budget mountain bikes, they have just cycled a route alongside Hadrian’s wall.

Coming up with an idea. Planning pathways. And just doing it. Seeing these people out on their own adventures, making their own paths, having the balls to get up and go, gives me the itch to push myself out of my comfort zone once again.

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