I was reading in the paper the story of Bill Buford, who gave up his job as literary editor of the New Yorker in order to start a new life working on the kitchen floor of a famous downtown Italian restaurant. After an uncertain beginning (the clumsy wordsmith was roundly berated by various terrifying chefs for failing to bring his own knives, then learnt to his dismay that he had spent his entire life chopping onions in entirely the wrong way), Buford's eagerness to learn was recognised, and he was promoted to 'grill-guy'- thereafter spending a year of twelve-hour shifts battling in 200-degree temperatures to keep up with a constant stream of scribbled and yelled-out orders for all manner of chops, steaks and, er, other choice Italian cuts (I can't think of any of their names, I'm a pasta and Lloyd Grossman sauce man myself). It may sound like hell on earth- but the writer found the experience such a liberating contrast from the preceding years of academic and mental toil that on the completion of his stint at the New York grill-face he headed off to Italy, where he spent a further year apprenticing himself to master pasta-makers, chefs and butchers, eventually producing 'Heat': the highly-acclaimed book of Gonzo Journalism chronicling his journey from jaded office worker to impassioned, hardened culinary all-rounder.
Inspired by Buford's tale, I toyed with the idea of giving up my own nine-to five existence in order to become a short-order chef in some iconic Manchester eating house with hellish, unventilated, subterranean Victorian kitchens- the Midland Hotel, I imagined, might fit the bill. This reverie lasted about four seconds, which was the time it took to recall my less-than-illustrious student career as a summertime kitchen porter at Newcastle Airport- the highlights of which included managing to make the microwave explode while trying to boil an egg in it, getting locked into the walk-in freezer during a vain search for the vat of prawn salad, and narrowly escaping having my head taken off by a industrial-size saucepan, sent hurtling through the air by a burly, moustachioed Geordie chef with the immortal words 'How man, you skinny little arsehole- those fucking big pots divven't gan in me bastard sink!'
Concluding that perhaps the life of a lowly clerk, uninspiring as it can sometimes prove, must on balance remain preferable to risking daily decapitation by giant kitchen receptacles hurled by aggrieved alumni of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Catering College, I have decided for now against hanging up my post-it notes and swapping my my stapler for a fish-slice. However, there is still a part of me that hankers for a simple life of kitchen toil. Fortunately, with the aid of a bit of imagination, I have found that it is perfectly possible, while outwardly performing the functions of an office administrator in Manchester, to live the life of a New York 'grill guy' within the confines of ones own head. It is a life that I can heartily recommend.
My daily shift, then, starts at 9:00 AM - or as I prefer to think of it, 7:30PM. At this time I turn on the computer (fire up the eye-level grill), clear yesterday's recycling into the big green plastic wheelie bin (sweep pieces of cabbage onto the floor), and take a look at the first order of the day, for a palletload of industrial flanges to be at a warehouse in Derby by Tuesday (four medium-rare steaks, with fried onions and a side-order of field garlic mushrooms, to be with Fat Eddie and his crew at table nine in twenty-minutes flat). By lunchtime (midnight) I have followed this up with four omelettes, a leg of lamb and a salmon, and, with sweat pouring from my brow and grease proudly embedded in my shirt I emerge blinking into the street for a well-deserved half-hour break spent queuing for a soggy ham sandwich and a packet of cheese and onion crisps at the Deansgate Hot Food Bar (hunched over the Sports pages in a backstreet diner, enjoying a pastrami on rye deli sandwich while debating the latest baseball averages with Mario, the wizened bar-tender, and his crowd of regulars, street-smart old-timers one and all, who witnessed Di Maggio in his prime, and boy, do they ever let you forget it).
Like I say, the life of an imaginary grill guy is one I would recommend to anyone. You will be amazed at how an exotic that missing shipload of gaskets for the power station at Rotherham can become, once they have been mentally transformed into 'a sirloin of pork with a side order of chef salad for Mr Tony and his girl , sitting in the back room'. Just as long as you can manage not to actually say the words 'sirloin of pork' or 'Mr Tony and his girl sitting in the back room' out loud too often while actually on the telephone to a harried purchasing operative in Doncaster, then you can consider yourself ready to embark on a long and fulfilling career in the heat of the kitchen. Hell, give it a couple of years and you might even be able to write a book about it. Watch out, Buford, bonny lad- we're coming right after you, so we are.