It's lunch and we're short-staffed. An American woman stops me. Indignant that her filet de bœuf is not à point as requested, but most definitely saignant. The sliced-open, offending piece of meat's rose centre stares up at me like an old wound. What she has is what French chefs would consider 'medium', I say politely, and perhaps she should try it first. Using terms more suited to the Pass, the lady thrusts the plate into my hand and tells me to get out of her sight. As a waiter, you quickly get used to the fact that people believe they can talk to you like a lower species. With no plateau to hand I pray to God I'm not caught by a manager. Carrying dirty plates on one's hand is fine, but never something with food on. And when you do carry dirty plates you must carry as many as possible. It must look impressive. It's part of the show.
At the Pass the timing couldn't be worse. Almost all the waiters are there, and the atmosphere is toxic. Accusations flying, Nimsath shouting Tamil obscenities, and De Souza and Renaud in a stand-off officiated by Adrien. De Souza is saying something about Renaud stealing tips again. Nimsath flatly refuses to send the beef back. The other waiters agree and I'm pulled back from the Pass and thrust back towards the restaurant. I'll have to take it to the upper kitchen myself, I decide. I've never been there before. We're told to stay away. The caste system keeps us separate. It's from the upper kitchen that all the important parts of each dish come: the meats and the fish. Sent down in the service lifts to join the rest of the dish that comes up from the lower kitchen. Where the Tamils piece them together into orders.
I imagine the upper kitchen to be quite a glamorous place, considering its importance, full of highly skilled people doing important culinary work on gleaming metal worksurfaces using fancy equipment. However, at the top of the steps I find a cockpit-sized room with flaming hobs on all sides cooking on full gas. The roar is deafening, a constant blast of extractor fans, sizzling meat, metal crashing against metal and shouting. There's a tiny window above head height, which is closed. The intensity of the heat is indescribable. The black walls and ceiling are covered with huge globs of condensation. Manning the flames are five African men. Big men in sweat-drenched, soiled cook's clothes. The place feels more like an iron forgery in a remote Roman outpost than a Parisian kitchen. I watch as pieces of searing meat and sizzling fish are scooped from pans and tossed onto plates to be sent down in the lifts after a quick wipe with a dirty towel.
Presiding over this terrestrial inferno is the Chef. The only white man in the entire kitchen. A Corsican, and a giant of a man who wields a knife so large it probably once belonged to Hercules himself.
Presiding over this terrestrial inferno is the Chef. The only white man in the entire kitchen. A Corsican, and a giant of a man who wields a knife so large it probably once belonged to Hercules himself. With this he points, prods, slicks, licks and hits metal surfaces. He's a man full of frothing rage. Nothing is ever good enough. The little printer is constantly spitting out tickets which he rips off with such ferocity that it seems the machine will come off the wall. The orders he shouts violently into the ears of the cooks, as if he takes an intense pleasure from treating them with such disdain.
'Deux poulets! Trois loups! Un filet – bien cuit!' He leans right into their ears as he shouts: 'Did you fucking hear me?'
'Oui, chef!' they cry back in trance-like unison. Not even bothering to wipe the spit from their cheeks. Their sweaty faces glowing in the flames. 'Bon, espèce de connard. Encore! Deux magrets! Un loup! Trois saumons! Deux veaux! '
This is when he sees me. 'Get-the-fuck-out!'
I stand there like an idiot with the plate outstretched. He charges me with the giant knife.
'Did you not understand me? Va te faire foutre! Fils de pute! '
Under pressure, my French fails me and I stutter. He pushes me to shout. Louder and louder. I feel like I'm in the basic training scenes of a Vietnam War movie.
'Dégage! This steak is medium. Your client is not special. She's a pute!'
He turns back to the cooks. For some reason, I stay where I am, on the threshold. Determined to get the meat cooked.
When he turns back and sees me still there with the plate of steak in my hand I glimpse the exact moment when he's consumed by rage: pure, total hatred. Within an instant he has me up against the wall with his free hand on my throat and the point of the giant knife near my eye.
'How dare you tell me how to cook!' he screams.
I can't breathe. His vice-like grip is crushing my trachea. Still holding my throat, he slams the knife down and pulls the plate from my hand. The steak slides into a pan with a piece of cooking lamb.
'Cremate it!' he shouts at the cook. 'Oui, chef!'
Panic overcomes me as I still can't breathe. I try in vain to remove his hand, which only angers him further, making him increase the pressure. His breath smells of cigarettes and cognac, and the wall smells of meat.
Time has never passed so slowly. I'm about to black out when… 'Cramé, chef!' shouts the cook nearest to us. Burnt.
The chef at last takes his hand from my throat, picks up the piece of meat with his bare hand, holds it to my face so it touches my nose, then slams it down onto the plate, which nearly falls from my hand. I turn and hurry down the steps. At the bottom I collect myself. I'm struggling to breathe, to pull enough oxygen into my lungs. After a few moments I check my appearance and smooth my hair back. I use a serviette that has been left on the side to wipe down the plate and then my face, then make my way back along the narrow corridors and into the restaurant.
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In the dining room nothing has changed. I've been gone hardly a couple of minutes. There's still the clattering of cutlery against plates, the hubbub of polite conversation and waiters flitting about like flies. I go straight to the table and put the meat down in front of the American lady. She doesn't look at me, or thank me. She simply prods it with her fork, declares it OK and proceeds to eat. I make a beeline for the Pass, ignoring every diner and waiter who tries to solicit my attention. I shout at Nimsath for water, which I cough back up as I drink. Yulia, one of the less glamorous hostesses, and therefore more humane and more inclined to speak to us, hurries into the Pass.
'What have you done?' I turn. Panicked. 'What?'
If I don't have a jacket, I can't work in the salle; if I can't work, I'm sacked.
She spins me around and begins rubbing with a cloth. 'It's disgusting.' The entire thing is covered in a layer of slime. The grease, sweat and condensation from the upper kitchen walls. My newly fitted jacket. Youssef's work. Ruined. And it's the middle of the service. If I don't have a jacket, I can't work in the salle; if I can't work, I'm sacked. I hurry back down to the locker room beyond the lower kitchen. The cooks ignore me. I look through the unlocked lockers, hoping to God that one of the waiters not working has left a jacket somewhere. There's nothing. Back upstairs and Yulia has gone, my offending jacket lies screwed up on the side. The swinging door bangs open; I look up, thinking it's the Rat.
Fortunately, it's Yulia; she has a jacket. 'Here, try this.'
I slip it on. It's huge. It would even be too big for Salvatore.
'But it's clean,' Yulia says. 'Keep it, until you can get yours cleaned.' 'But I don't have a day off until next week.'
Lucien comes in and see me: 'Either you've shrunk, or the clothes have grown.'
When I tell him how it happened, he's adamant: 'What did I tell you? Hey? You never go into the upper kitchen. Ever.'
This is an expert from Edward Chisholm's "A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City" which was released on Aug. 9 by Pegasus Books.
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