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Working as a Cook for a Spell


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Posted (edited)

I thought I had posted this before, but apparently not. I did search. I wrote it in 2009. Slightly edited today.

 

I decided many years ago that I wasn’t going to survive in China unless I was willing to do something utterly ridiculous every now and again. Perhaps one day I will get round to confessing to some of the more insane moments but in the meantime you have to be content with this.

 

A few days ago, I had a long online chat with a close Chinese friend who moved from Guangxi to Australia some years ago. She has now married a local and taken up Australian citizenship. Like many a Chinese expat, she has  opened a restaurant, Chongqing Wanzhou Fish BBQ House in Melbourne. If you are passing, do drop in. Tell her I sent you.

 

During the conversation, I teased her for opening a restaurant despite her well known inability to cook and she retorted by offering me a job as her chef! This arose from an incident many years ago, to which she was a witness.

 

Another friend was opening a restaurant here in Liuzhou and I was there a couple of days before the scheduled opening night, helping the owner to test the beer, an activity to which I applied my full attention to detail and which took most of the afternoon. The owner had invited a group of special and influential guests for a preview of her new establishment that evening. Unfortunately, just before they were due to arrive we learned that the chef had managed to poison himself or something and was unable to perform. The owner then ran around in circles panicking and generally seeing her dreams of restaurant success pouring down the drain.

 

After a few minutes she got herself relatively under control and despite still hyper-ventilating managed to croak at me, “Do something!”

 

I did. I poured another beer.

 

“No! Really do something!”

 

“Like what?” I wittily replied, while trying to give my full attention to judging the suitability of the beer as a beverage in a top class eatery.

 

“Like cook!” she whimpered.

 

“Of all the 1.4 billion people in China, the only person you can think of to cook for your guests is the drunken foreigner in the corner? You are opening a Chinese restaurant in China, into which you have sunk not only your life savings but those of your entire extended family and a few neighbours and you are suggesting that the gastronomic creativity behind the launch of this venture should be undertaken by a drunken foreigner who has never been in a commercial kitchen in his life?”

 

“Yes. I have no choice.”

 

For reasons which can only demonstrate the strength of the local brew (or the quantity tested) this suddenly seemed to make some sort of sense and I vaguely recall agreeing (or that’s what they told me afterwards).

 

I decide that there was no chance of me cooking the existing menu as I had never heard of 80% of the dishes, never mind being in possession of the mysteries of their recipes, so a new limited menu of dishes was drawn up and was to be presented as a special ‘tasting menu’. In other words, the guests would be given what I decided to cook, whether they liked it or not. The only provision was that the food should be Chinese. That ruled out my killer baked beans on toast.

 

chefchopA lackey was sent off on her bike to the market to acquire the ingredients which the kitchen did not possess, my dishes being somewhat off menu. Lackey No. 2  was set to chopping stuff while I spent half an hour or so working out how to turn on the gas.

 

Lackey No. 1 returned minus half the ingredients, which she claimed the local market did not have, so I set her to washing and chopping what she had bought, while I jumped in a taxi and shot off to my favourite market where I found everything I thought I needed. When I got back, lackey No. 1 was surprised to see that I had found the stuff she was sure didn’t exist.

Finally, with all the lackey aid, everything was ready – chopped, sliced, minced, ground etc and I had worked out the rudiments of turning the heat up and down etc. I decided that cooking bucketloads of rice could be trusted to a menial and I relaxed with a beer to await my customers. Then, another beer to wash that one down.

 

Eventually, someone woke me up to tell me that the customers had arrived, thus totally ruining my dream that I was about to be the chef in a Chinese restaurant in China. A couple of shakes of the head and I realised that it wasn’t a dream. It had the makings of a nightmare, though.

 

Grabbing a beer to steady my nerves, I headed for the kitchen and work.

 

God! It’s hard work. Those woks weigh a ton even when empty and the kitchen was damned hot. I quickly sweated out all the day’s beer and more. Lackey No. 1  was commissioned to pass me vegetables, knives, condiments etc on order. I was too harassed to even worry about getting the Chinese right. I yelled something and she delivered. Lackey 2 was given the onerous task of keeping me supplied with liquid refreshment in case I died of dehydration mid way through a stir-fry.

 

Somehow all the dishes got cooked and passed to the waiters who disappeared into the depths of the restaurant and were never seen again – well the waiters were seen again, but not the dishes.

 

I collapsed in the corner, dripping sweat and called for a celebratory beer. To celebrate finishing the cooking without having passed out, set fire to myself or dropped the woks which had become heavier and heavier as the service went on.

I now waited to hear the roars of complaint about the dishes. After what seemed like hours, the head waitress (the one who who greets customers and is always rather pretty and dressed in a sexy qipao (cheongsam) arrived and requested that I get myself in gear and report to the private dining room, where the guests were hiding.

 

It seems that my friend, who was dining with her guests, had failed to inform her guests of the unusual catering arrangement and had surprised them by suggesting she introduce the chef, not something that usually happens in Chinese restaurants. But after several bottles of Chinese gut rot (rice wine) they were amenable. When I turned up, they thought that this was a great joke. They didn’t believe that I had cooked, but I was just glad to see that they had eaten most of the food and weren’t complaining. This I put down to the fact that they were all too drunk to notice the food, which would be typical for a Chinese banquet.

 

I retired to the bar and thought it was probably time to have a beer.

 

Next morning I woke up in pain. The head was a bit cloudy and my mouth tasted like a particularly rancid panda had spent the night there (have you ever smelled a panda?)  but the real pain was in my arms. They were virtually dead. It was all I could do to scratch myself. Those woks!

 

I decided there and then to give up all the dreams I ever had or would ever have of getting into a culinary career. I now know which side of the pass is the best.

 

The real chef eventually recovered and the restaurant had its public opening night without problem. A year later it went bust. Not my fault!

 

Edited by liuzhou (log)
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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3 minutes ago, KennethT said:

Hilarious... I just wish there were photos!

 

I'm glad there weren't! (It was in the days before cell phones with cameras).

...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

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Bravo! That is a demonstration of real friendship. 

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Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

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1 hour ago, FlashJack said:

Nice piece. Congrats on the Bob Dylan reference.

Tangled up in blue is one of my favorites of his...

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19 hours ago, liuzhou said:

Unfortunately, just before they were due to arrive we learned that the chef had managed to poison himself or something and was unable to perform.

 

Probably got into some raw vegetables. 

 

Fun story, thanks for sharing. 

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That's the thing about opposum inerds, they's just as tasty the next day.

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19 hours ago, liuzhou said:

I decided there and then to give up all the dreams I ever had or would ever have of getting into a culinary career. I now know which side of the pass is the best.

 

It did not take me long, as a 40-year old intern, to recognize that my skills were not suited to being "on the line."

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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20 minutes ago, chileheadmike said:
19 hours ago, liuzhou said:

 

Probably got into some raw vegetables. 

 

 

I've always thought more a case of stage fright.

 

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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.

 

The Kitchen Scale Manifesto

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