The peace of a morning prep was suddenly shattered by a crackle and bang. The six-slice vertical toaster had shorted out. Dark smoke rose from it, pestilent and foul and an awful reek filled the kitchen. An early breakfast order had revealed that there was something extra in with the two slices of sour-dough. My cohort Chris batted away the toxic fumes with a tea-towel, and unplugged the toaster. He peered in, loudly groaned and then used a knife to chip out a cremated mouse.
It's unpleasant fact of life that kitchens attract hungry animals - usually rats, cockroaches and mice. This particular kitchen, in a downtown building probably a century old, had a long-term relationship with mice. We found them drowned in the dishwasher and hiding in grotty trainers in the staff room. Traps and poisoned bait were frequently deployed but it seemed the mice were eternal. It's no surprise that in major built-up areas, like old city cores, there is always a rodent within three and a half metres of you.
Vermin arrive in kitchens for two reasons. One is that they can – there’s an entry point into the kitchen, and two, there's something to eat or at least like lick. What sort of snackery is this? It’s things like meat-enriched grease accumulating around stoves. Dead French-fires forgotten in far-flung corners. Blood dried unseen under benches. Dry store shelves accumulating a subtle humus of spills. Bottles and jars with sticky tops and lids. Though not so obvious to the lazy human eye, all this is a welcome smorgasbord for rodents and insects. Only a spotless kitchen will deter the opportunistic raiding.
Most kitchens deal with rats and mice by leaving out poison bait - always on the floor of course – but the problem doesn't always end with their corporeal capitulation. Sometimes the little buggers will find an out-of-the way place in the kitchen to die. Up in the roof, behind an oven or down a drain. The olfactory integrity of the kitchen becomes horribly compromised. Making up gorgeous food and inhaling its lovely aroma becomes problematic when there is a rotting corpse close by. The kitchen hand or apprentice, sometimes the owner, is now forced to find the stinking relic and give it a proper burial – in the skip.
Working in outdoor kitchens means it's impossible to stop creatures from getting in. At the National Folk Festival, we laid down tarpaulins as our floor. It was a busy long week-end and we ran like dogs over that floor for sixteen hours a day. When it was over and we pulled everything apart we found a dead mouse under the tarps. My partner held it up between finger and thumb - had been squashed as flat as a piece of cardboard!
Regrettably, living, breathing vermin-control devices, such as cats, are illegal in commercial kitchens. In a private home a feline friend can patrol the kitchen at night, but restaurants by law cannot have any animals, other than cooks, in them.
So, when I sat my U.K. food-handlers exam I was most intrigued by one of the multiple-choice questions. What do you do if you see a rat in the kitchen? There was an obvious choice - bring in pest control, but the one I liked was bring in dogs - specifically terriers. I could just see it, terriers fighting rats during a busy service, dog drinking bowls by the cold room door and gnawed old bones under the benches. I didn't tick this choice.
The rat in the kitchen is the archetypal nightmare, but while working in London I heard a tale of the fox in the kitchen. In a hard-to-see place - under a pipe or down in a store-room was a hole. From out of it came a curious fox and it ran through the kitchen - right in the middle of a busy service. Now that's a big pest problem – something the folk who set the multiple-choice answers for the food safety exams would love. Fox in the kitchen? Send in the hounds.
The best biological vermin control device I've seen was in a communal kitchen on a private property in the tropical north of Australia. Up in the kitchen roof lived the exterminator - a four-metre-long amethystine python. It stayed up in the roof and aside from the odd squeal and thump in the night, was absolutely discreet. Zealous health inspectors, I sure, would nix this serpentine assassin as an essential piece of kitchen equipment.
On a smaller scale are cockroaches, who produce more revulsion than any other insect - except maybe spiders. This is because we know that cockys have been around millions of years longer than us, and will still be here long after we've gone. We're jealous.
Fortunately I have not worked in any roach-ridden kitchens. Though, in the course of job try-outs I've walked into a few. You see the tell-tale poo speckling corners and ledges, and I even had a poker-faced chef stamping on one while he was showing me around the . . . cold-room.
As kids in Fiji, my mates and I investigated a dark dockside warehouse that smelt of molasses. A massive rustling sound came from a back wall. Squinting in the gloom we saw that the wall, meters high, was pulsing with movement. A fragment of the wall skittered through the air and landed close by. It was a huge cockroach. Now we realized why the wall was moving - it was covered with thousands of wharf cockroaches. Spooked and screaming with laughter, we scrammed out into the sunshine.
A true heavy-weight of kitchen marauders is the Australian marsupial giant rat – an utter bastard of a creature, which tips the scales at a kilo or more. They sport a long finely scaled white tail and so with stolid logic the first Europeans called them Giant White-Tailed Rats. At a resort on a tropical island that we shared with the White Tails the kitchen was supposedly animal proof. Supposedly.
Opening up one morning I was greeted by an appalling mess. The kitchen floor was ankle deep in debris and the shelves swept clean. Jars were smashed, boxes torn apart and even tins had been split open! The White Tails had popped in for a late supper. After cleaning up we combed the kitchen for their entry point, finally finding a hole in thick wood under the back stairs. It must have taken them a long time to gnaw through. We removed the breached potion of plank and poured in cement, sandwiching it between two solid bits of wood. Sorted. Then a few months later those rotten murids trashed the kitchen again. We checked the previous break-in spot and saw that they'd re-gnawed through the wood . . . and the concrete! This time we put a piece of steel mesh in, re-cemented and that worked.