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Sunday, 11 November 2007

Sticking hands up chickens.

It was a mean-spirited time, especially in catering. Profit and loss was geared to 4 oz portions. Industrial strainers lined counters so tea-slops could be saved and recycled, and waiters were pimply faced boys with attitude or else elderly men with roaming hands. I was one of them - a pimply faced boy - and I hated it, the thin white jackets, the obsequious stoop, that first open day at Mabel Fletcher where we glided over wooden floors presenting bemused parents with Vol au vents.

Cooking was better, solid, real and sometimes dangerous. I learnt not to sit on a cast iron cooking range - even at the end of a long afternoon when they should have been cool. They weren’t and I leapt into the air like a cartoon cat. I learnt not to put my hands into newly introduced microwaves - whether in retrieving food, or out of curiosity, sometimes bravado from those who held them in contempt as not amounting to much, certainly not cooking - hands and microwaves here are interchangable.

These early microwaves didn’t amount to much - in terms of safety but they turned hands an interesting shade of pink. I learnt that sticking hands up a newly dead chicken could be fun, but that foretelling the future from its entrails was not so simple. I learnt how to skin fish, cook Sole Veronique and Ouef Florentine. I learnt how to speak French so long as it knew it’s place - a menu card.

I learnt that Cooking was not for me, but still I persevered. I learnt about square pegs in round holes, and round pegs in round ones and made a friend in Michael Adams. Mike was a natural, a gifted chef and one of the funniest people I've ever met. A round peg in a round hole. It's something he denies, making the point that there was little else going for him, and that in those days you just stuck at things. Many cooks do that, but Mike ended up as personal chef to the Duke of Westminster and moved on to other aristocratic households. I ended up as a teacher, and like him stuck with it.

That’s the best thing I learnt at Mabel Fletcher, that you could make a friend and talk to him forty years later as if it was yesterday.

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