Guess what happens when you throw a writer into the nuts, the bolts, the cogs of a wheel to witness the inner working of the hospitality business? It’s a very personal experience, especially when you consider that the writer is a foodie from way back who relishes the sampling and gourmandising of new and exotic food. I felt lucky when I unexpectedly became the ‘fly on the wall:’ they had no idea who I was or that I was a writer about to review and critique.
It wasn’t lost on me that every time the buzzer in the kitchen beeped in quick succession that knives, dishes and phones would get put down so that everyone could concentrate on ‘the rush.’ The rush is what you get when lots of people are ordering at once and also when the staff have to work together as one unit to get through that period of time and come out of the other end with sanity intact. I have to admit, when I first started the job of Kitchen Assistant, I would often flounder when the boxes of food were thrown my way to be packed into bags and readied for customers. Once, even the head Chef, who is re-known as a serene Budhist and gentle giant who would never hurt a thing, tossed a container of food toward me in utter exasperation and then threw his hands in the air and looked as though he would cry. The language barrier that existed between us – him of Chinese descent and me English – didn’t detract from the sheer exhaustion and desperation of those times when we were drastically understaffed and overworked. The staff turn-over was rapid; not many people could handle the pressure. My reason for staying was ballet fees for my teen daughter but the truth was, I just loved the adrenalin pumping and I guess it became a way of life. Just think of Bradley Cooper in Burnt and you start to get the picture, although we weren’t playing for Michelin stars – we were just trying to make a living – and our restaurant, although well-liked by a particular local set, was often criticised and condemned for being all of the things that a restaurant shouldn’t be. It had become seedy, run down and unliked by many.
But back to the rush: in the height of summer when it’s 45 degrees in the kitchen and everyone is sweating and saying “what!?” to each other because the fans are so loud that you have to yell to be heard, the three chefs with their woks at the gas burners will be clothed in shorts, singlets and clogs almost as though they have just come back from a day at the beach. From where I was standing behind them, waiting for the food containers for customers, the tension and movement of their lean, muscular bodies were never wasted on me. You have to possess a certain amount of strength to handle those big woks and don’t forget well trained knee caps too: the lever for the wok burners gets thrown backwards and forwards by their knees – I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s true. Everything is timed to perfection, the knee jabbing at the lever, the muscular arms lifting the wok up and down and scraping at it, the dash of something from here, the spin around to grab the hint of another spice from there, the order to the ‘dishie’ to get a lettuce cup ready – even in the worst rush ever, the head chef will know exactly where his staff is, what to ask them to get, what vegies need cutting right now, what food is running low, what requests are made ie: leave out prawns or add in more onion, what time each meal or delivery is expected, to wipe that drip of sauce from the edge of the plate and still have time to laugh raucously at the fact that someone has just slipped over on a banana skin and landed on their bottom. The kitchen is tiny and there are a lot of people required so needless to say it is a constant dance of bump and shuffle and “excuse me” and “sorry,” being brushed up against was normal. Add to all of that the constant demands of the owner who would come in at regular intervals and shout orders. I remember once she walked right up to the Head Chef with a bunch of blackening bananas in her hand and screamed at him in Chinese. I have no idea what she was saying but I’m assuming it went something like this: “Why are you using the new bananas when this bunch is just sitting here and will now need to be thrown out, you numbkinskull!!” He very gently pushed her aside and got on with his job without ever making eye contact. That’s the number one rule, no eye contact with upset owners or irate customers who have had to wait too long for their food. And, if at the end of the rush everything has gone well, he will congratulate you by cooking up tender titbits and popping them into your mouth to see if it’s to your liking and ask if you want a beer. This is also the time that half the staff disappears out the back door for ‘smoko’ and sometimes we would loaf around a bit out there and just chat about random stuff until the beeping bell started again and then we all exchange knowing looks and nod and skulk back in without saying anything and it would start all over again.
I got firsthand experience of the people who lived in the mansion and ordered lobster on a regular basis but would then try to short change the delivery driver. The head waiter, who would refer to me as Mumma when he addressed the young waiter because he was hoping to marry him off to my daughter. The customers who had been coming for 25 years who wept openly when the owner told them she was selling – the restaurant was something of a local icon – an institution – to them anyway. The way we would all sit and have a meal together before the shift started, I never really knew what they were talking about although sometimes someone would translate little bits for me but we felt like a family anyway and the food was always superb. The fact that the busy times sometimes required painkillers and/or alcohol just so you could survive the shift without having a meltdown. The music and culture of the Chinese and their hard-working and friendly philosophy. The way we would all relax, laugh a little and goof off on the nights the owner had off only to snap to attention the moment she walked back in the door. The way her brother, the head waiter would pull up a chair to the regular customer’s tables once a bottle or two of their favourite wine had been consumed and talk about the state of the world, politics and anything else that was on the table. He didn’t make love to the customers for greed or any other selfish motive, he was genuinely interested in their lives and they had become his friends over ten years.
A lot has changed at the restaurant now. There is a new owner, new music, new décor, the meals have changed, the prices have changed and so has the staff. The name has changed and there is an ‘app’ now so you can order from your phone. There are discounts, monthly specials, a facebook page, a website and all kinds of gifts and give-aways to entice you back. I have to say, the reviews are much better now and I feel like it may be picking itself up from three stars more toward five. For someone who eats the food a couple of times a week I still swear by its wholesomeness and deliciousness. It was good before and is still good now. But I’ll never forget those hot, summer nights when Anna was trying to drum up new business and would wait out on the street and smilingly ask all passer-bys to come and eat in her restaurant. The street would be packed – there would never be parking spots – and it took on an aura and charm of a seaside esplanade shop that held all kinds of wonders and treats inside. It wasn’t anything that you would expect that made it so special, being a simple restaurant after all. It was the quality of the people inside and how they made you feel like you’d come home that I will never forget.