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Open Kitchens

August 25, 2018

     Spending twelve hour plus days in a noisy, heated, small stainless steel and tiled room sounds like a torture technique designed to break the toughest soul. Add to this the repetition of the same faces and tasks, day after day, and you've got the special purgatory that is the average kitchen. If you're working outside of the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, winter often means arriving at, and leaving work in darkness. Cut off from society's bustle and natural light, cooks flit and dart in a fluro-lit world like moths. Even if cooks are lucky enough to work in sun-drenched climes they often see nothing more than their work mates, the tools, equipment and produce of the kitchen.

In these sort of kitchens the crew never see who they are cooking for either. Diners literally become numbers. Table for six. Mains for table sixteen. Sixty steaks. Nine hundred rice paper rolls. It’s wonderful when Mrs and Mr Long Time Diner pop their heads in the door to say hi, but for most of us kitchen dogs the vast majority of our customers are an enigma.

 

     That's why open kitchens are so great. The customers are right there before you, and the visual and audible proof of their existence cuts through any tendency to objectify them as just another hurdle in the completion of a paid day. Fighting the factory mind, the conveyor belt attitude is a constant battle. Actually seeing the beneficiaries of your efforts, and getting their interested looks and compliments, is a brilliant antidote to this malaise.

     Being on show keeps you on your toes too. Scalps are left unscratched, noses unpicked and wedged underpants unplucked. The mass of diners, even while apparently engrossed in eating, create an all-seeing eye, a Sauron-like orb that is not only policing your personal hygiene but also judging your grace and efficiency. This feeling of being constantly observed engenders a crisp economy of movement, and ergonomic professionalism comes to the fore.

     The more extroverted will fling open the gate and set free their inner show-pony; flipping and catching knives, calling out urgent requests and commands just a little too loudly. They'll pull many kinetic poses - moving like skaters on ice. They'll dramatically toss a pan dish in order to create eye-catching flames. Startled diners looking over will catch the show-off responsible contemplating the   dining room with the lazy smile of a stone cold pro. Lucky ones may get a dead-pan wink.

     With customers sometimes just metres away, kitchen chatter must be scaled down to the minimum. Service cock-ups and accompanying chastisements must be done in whispers. Pornographic interpretations of popular songs, cheerful swearing and the calling out of disgusting nicknames must be silenced. Full Monty critiques of Grindr and Tinder profile pix may cause sharp-eared diners to gag, and one's bong pulling prowess and jelly shot consumption is best left unboasted upon. You don't have to glue on a Disneyland smile but persistent frowning, grimacing and other signs of stress should also be avoided.

 

     Open kitchens in public spaces are the most fun. I worked in one smack bang in the centre of a large complex comprising markets, a jungle zoo and bird sanctuary. The kitchen was in the round and the view of the world passing by spanned almost 260 degrees. On the cold larder section, right by your elbow, were curious faces watching as you made salads and entrees. This was cool as long as they didn't start asking you questions while twenty five dockets on the rail competed for your attention. The questions could be fun though. One day an American woman rushed over as a sudden downpour of rain started – keen to know if this was the start of the Wet Season. Not wishing to dispel her excitement I said it sure was, and together we marveled at her perfect timing.

    This open kitchen was vulnerable to outside intrusion and one busy lunch a baby bush turkey came flying in. There was a mad scramble to cover any food and our hearts were in our mouths as it lost altitude above the deep fryers. A manic flurry of tea-towels chased the little bugger out before too many customers noticed.

     There were also water dragons, handsome lizards about thirty centimeters long, that would infiltrate in the afternoons when it had gone quiet. While prepping I'd notice a movement, look down and see a hopeful face staring up. Then I'd have to chase the scaly intruder out without letting it run under an oven. During lunch the lizards would appear under the dining tables causing screams of terror or gasps of delight from the customers.

     Humans got in too. One ultra mad day a tourist decided to make a 'short cut' through the kitchen. We had several open ways into the kitchen and this fat lad with a backpack rushed in and made his way through the busy crew. Without warning anyone that he was behind them of course, he zipped past the grill, went up a step, dodged behind the unsuspecting barista, the fresh juice makers and nearly collided with a waitress carrying a full tray of glasses, before exiting the premises. What a dangerous goof. If I hadn’t been putting two meals up on the pass I would belly-bumped him back the way he came. Then the interloper circled through the crowds right back to where he'd first come in. I the distinct feeling he was going to do it again! Maybe this was some kind of new craze - kitchen parkour. Feeling my beady eye on him, he looked up and we locked eyes. I silently roared like the MGM lion, pointed a spearhead of an accusing finger at him, and he scurried for cover into the crowd.

     On another occasion, with my plate full, a few hundred to be exact, I heard bangles jingling next to me and turned to see an Indian woman in a bright sari using our kitchen hand wash sink. As I began to explain it was not for public use another nine or ten of her loudly chattering countrywomen began to queue up behind her! The kitchen crew came to a screeching halt around this colourful obstacle. I repeated my 'the sink is off limits' message but everyone pretended not to understand me. I turned the tap off, firmly kept my hand on it and loudly directed the ladies to public toilets twenty metres away. Without the slightest bit of acknowledgment they turned and filed out of the kitchen.

 

     The coolest kitchen invasion I experienced occurred during a Spring Festival in a small town. From the open kitchen of a bistro, whose tables spread out onto the sidewalk, I could see the passage of the festival parade on the main street. Stilt-walkers, face-painted kids, floats and colorfully costumed characters passed by while the sound of drums, tambourines and cheering filled the air. It was busy, every table full, and I snatched glances of the festivities while I worked.

     Suddenly a local identity appeared in the kitchen. He wore his usual motorbike boots, blue jeans and badge-covered, black, sleeveless leather jacket. With old school tattoos on his bare arms, a red bandanna on his head and a proper mustache on his upper lip - he looked like a biker alright. He was riding a bike too and came screeching through the kitchen, did a doughnut behind the till and pulled up next to me at the grill, smiling massively at my surprise. I had to laugh and we exchanged greetings. Then he did a wheelie by the fryers and went out through the crowded bistro to rejoin the parade. Ah yeah - he was five foot tall and riding a kid's BMX bicycle.

 

 

 

 

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