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The Oyster House Siege -- part one

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1169818388/gallery_29805_1195_25597.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Jay Rayner

Yesterday

The Oyster House Siege ended on its fourth day shortly before 10am. At a noisy press conference afterwards the authorities emphasised that, during the operation to end it, only four shots were fired inside the Oyster House kitchen by officers of the Special Air Services. They also said that neither police marksmen nor the army had been responsible for wounding or killing a single hostage during the previous four days. They said this was an achievement, for which they deserved to be given credit.

When the smoke from the stun grenades had cleared two of the four bullets were found to have penetrated the stomach and chest of a man who had fallen to the floor close to the doors. He was wearing chef’s whites, and was lying on his back. His eyes were open, and his lips parted to present an oval of surprise. Once an SAS officer had pressed two fingers against his carotid artery, just below his jaw, and satisfied himself that the man was dead, another figure in whites came and knelt by the body, as if in supplication. The chef drew a finger through the crimson puddle spreading across the victim’s chest, checking the liquid for consistency, then leaned down and whispered into the dead man’s face, 'You weren’t supposed to die.'

One

Four days ago

In the early hours of the 8th of September 1915 a bomb, dropped from a Zeppelin airship, struck 87 Jermyn Street in central London. It detonated in the basement kitchen killing the three bakers who were working there, and filling the street outside with a cloud of dust so thick it was likened to an Autumnal fog by those caught in it. The subsequent renovation of the Jermyn Street Oyster House tidied away the back staircase that had been used by Edward VII and his mistress Lillie Langtry for secret trysts, and the dining room with its long mahogany bar, red upholstered banquettes and brass rails was restored and expanded. However the Oyster House never returned to baking its own bread. The force of the explosion had been so great that there was nothing of the victims to recover and the guild of master bakers declared it sacred ground. None of its members would work there. Despite this, the restaurant’s reopening in the spring of 1919 was seen by the politicians and businessman who booked its tables as a symbol of continuity, in a city traumatised by the long agony of the Great War.

By the time the last bakers who could recall the deaths at the Oyster House had retired only London’s grandest hotels could afford to bake their own bread. The work was instead contracted out and on the morning of the 9th of June 1983, it was the driver of a baker’s van who made the first delivery to the restaurant. The box was placed in the doorway shortly after 7am and retrieved half an hour later by a cook called Tony Simpson who, as most mornings, was the first to arrive. Inside the box there was coarse, open-textured wholemeal to go with the plates of smoked salmon. There were great, domed bricks of white bread with a crust the colour of burnt butter for the Welsh rarebit and baguettes for those who did not want oat cakes with their cheese. Downstairs in the kitchen, the cook unpacked the bread into the dry stores cupboard and sniffed the base of the loaves for the sweet, comforting smell of yeast. It was the smell of the morning bread which made him question his capabilities as a cook; for all his skills in the kitchen he had never once been able to bake anything other than an amateur’s misshapen loaf. Tony had been a chef for four years but saw himself still as a refugee from his home town of Sheffield who, in another age, would have been getting his hands dirty in the city’s steel mills and foundries, like his father and uncles had done before him.

<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1170485080/gallery_29805_4189_6074.jpg" hspace="8" align="right">It depressed Tony that it didn’t happen that way. The steel industry had gone and by the time he left school there were no jobs. He realised that he had to learn a trade and that eventually he would have to leave the city. When he arrived at the Oyster House, two years after becoming a chef, he was immediately nicknamed Sheffield Tony. Sheffield for short. After that the other cooks would pick up knives that had been left lying around and, with their thumb obscuring the ‘Made in’ stamp, ask if they belonged to him, because his name was on the blade. They thought this was very funny but for a long time Sheffield felt the reference to his home on all the knives as a rebuke.

The bread was away, and Sheffield was cutting up vegetables for the stock pot, when the head chef arrived. At first Bobby Heller stood leaning back against the pass, eyes closed, sipping black coffee from a chipped mug and saying nothing. In other kitchens where Sheffield had worked, the head chefs came in shouting orders. They tore up menus or abused the front-of-house staff. Bobby preferred a different approach and Sheffield, who had four brothers and no sisters, assumed this was because she was a woman. She insisted that every order be followed with a shout of ‘Yes, Chef,’ rather than something in the clumsy, mispronounced French London’s old-fashioned kitchens favoured, and if she needed to berate a member of her brigade it was always done beside the walk-ins out of earshot of the others. The cooks liked the atmosphere in her kitchen and told her that was why they stayed.

The chefs in London’s other restaurants had a different explanation. It wasn’t about the sweetness of the kitchen regime, they said. It was about Bobby Heller’s blue eyes and the golden peroxided hair, tied up with a colourful gash of silk scarf. The cooks wanted to take her to bed, they said and to hear her whisper in her rich Mid Western burr. They also said she was unstable, and carried a boning knife with her at all times which she was happy to use. Sheffield knew the truth behind that story. Occasionally, in the all-night Chinese cafes of Soho, where London’s kitchen brigades gathered after hours for bowls of rice and sticky roast duck, a drunk cook from one of the other kitchens would try to make a pass at her. One night, faced by an approach, Bobby withdrew a crescent of horn-handled blade from somewhere unseen by her waist and placed it gently, tip upwards, leaning against the edge of the bowl, as if ready for use. Without looking up she said, ‘What was that you were after?’ The cook stared at the knife, and then walked away. Sheffield thought it was a measured and subtle response; he did not regard it as the behaviour of an unstable woman.

After finishing her coffee, Bobby fetched her leather knife roll from a drawer and chose a mid-sized blade, which she sharpened on her knife steel. Then she went to work removing the tendons from a long, purple beef fillet. While she worked she stowed the steel in the waist band of her apron for easy access, where it hung like a pirate’s cutlass.

Stevie McGrath was the last of the cooks who would be working that day and he did not arrive until shortly after 10am.

He said, 'Sorry, chef. It was a bit full-on last night.

Bobby looked over at Sheffield, who was preparing vegetables. 'Glad somebody here's got a social life.

'Don’t know where he gets the energy, Chef.'

Stevie, who was tying an ankle length apron low around his narrow waist, allowed himself a shy grin.

Bobby returned to the sole she was filleting. 'You might as well tell us his name.'

Stevie took a breath, as if more air would refresh his memory. 'Patrick. I think.'

'You think?'

'It was noisy,' he said with an apologetic shrug, and Sheffield and Bobby laughed.

The kitchen staff was completed by Kingston, the broad-shouldered Jamaican-born kitchen porter, who had only been at the Oyster House for two weeks. As agreed he arrived at noon, because Bobby knew there would be a large enough pile of oven trays and pans by then, and the coming promise of the lunch service.

Not that there was much of a lunch service today. Just four tables were booked and one of those was by the owner, Marcus Caster-Johns, who ate there everyday and, as today, always by himself. He liked soups and grilled chops and oysters, though only the natives, which he could eat by the dozen, splashed with sherry vinegar. The Caster-Johns family had owned the restaurant for much of the 20th Century and Marcus spent so much time there as a child that, from his usual table opposite the bar, he could identify the places around the room to which his most important memories were attached. At the bar was the high stool where he sat while his father prepared for him his first oyster, cupping the open shell in the well of his palm as he separated the bi-valve from its sticking place with a stubby knife. Marcus was six years old and he kept his eyes closed as his father poured it over his bottom lip with the instruction to 'taste the sea'. And he did taste the sea, a wash of sweet and salt which made him think of the Northumbrian shore where the family kept the big house.

'Look at my little oyster catcher,' his father said proudly, and Marcus asked for another one, because he wanted to please him.

In one corner of the dining room was the table where he had once joined his father, Princess Margaret and the actor Peter Sellers for dinner, and been introduced by them to what they all agreed was 'a pretty good Bordeaux' to accompany the grouse that Marcus and his father had shot on the family’s land. He had just turned 13. ‘In some countries you could get married now, Marcus,' his father said, 'and if you’re old enough to marry you’re old enough for a little claret.' Then there was the store room behind the bar, separated from the dining room by a red velvet curtain, behind which a young waitress, with quick soft hands and shining eyes had eased him from his trousers one lunchtime in the last summer before university, while on the other side ladies ate poached salmon with mayonnaise.

<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1170485080/gallery_29805_4189_746.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">He knew what people said about the Oyster House because, for a few years while he was a student, he had said it too. He told his father one day that it was a restaurant with ‘too much history and not enough future’ and for six months after that they did not speak. But when his mother died he realised that he had not a single food memory of her. She was too busy going out each evening, jewelled and smelling of lilac, to cook for her children, and every taste he could recall came from the Oyster House. His father died in 1981, when Marcus was 26. The executors of his will asked Marcus if he wished to sell the restaurant to developers but he refused. The restaurant had opened for business in 1825 and he didn’t want to be the one who brought that history to a close. 'It would be like selling England,' he said.

So the restaurant stayed as it was, and Marcus Caster-Johns came every day for his lunch of soup and chops. Today, as he drained his coffee, he called over the head waiter, and asked him why the room was so empty.

Mr Andrews leaned in towards him and let his eyebrows knot at the centre of his moon face. 'I believe there is a general election today sir, for which I am most awfully sorry.'

Downstairs Bobby claimed she had expected election day to be quiet, because people would be voting during their lunch breaks, but she was also relieved because there were so few cooks in the kitchen. When she saw that the restaurant was booked out for the evening, she tried calling in more help but none was available. At 6.30pm a waiter appeared in the pool of light cast by the pass. He delivered a ticket, written up with an order and announced that the first table had arrived. The cooks called on Bobby to play them some sounds, as they did every night and she thumbed through the kitchen’s music collection, looking for something which she thought might raise their energy levels. Bobby found an unlabelled black cassette, which she waved above her head.

She said, 'I hold in my hands your redemption,' and she pushed it into the mouth of the ancient, paint-splattered tape machine up on a high shelf. She pursed her lips as she turned the volume up to nine, and glanced up to the ceiling with a look of delight on her face.

Two

Upstairs in the dining room the head waiter placed a finger lightly against the rim of a wine glass. He could feel the vibrations of the music being played downstairs through the table to the glass. He disliked the way such an ugly sound could make itself felt through such a beautiful object, and he allowed the contrast to encourage his anger. Mr Andrews had given up complaining about the noise to the head chef, but he still felt the need to make his disapproval known. He nodded politely at the lone couple sitting at a back table, tugged at the hem of his waistcoat in an attempt to stop it rising up over the curve of his huge belly, then turned and walked to the front of the restaurant from where he took the stairs to the basement kitchen.

<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1170485080/gallery_29805_4189_6283.jpg" hspace="8" align="right">He did not recognise the music of the Ramones as he came through the swing doors, just as he did not recognise recordings by the New York Dolls or the Dead Kennedys when they were being played on other nights. But he did hear in the mix of voice, drums and electrified guitars a sound that he considered inappropriate. After 32 years at the Jermyn Street Oyster House, Mr Andrews believed he was one of the few people qualified to decide what was appropriate to the restaurant and what was not.

He looked at the cooks briefly enough to confirm that there were just three of them working that evening; this gave him pleasure. Mr Andrews knew that the kitchen would be under the kind of pressure which would make it an unattractive and inhospitable place, and he liked to think of the cooks sweating. He did not, however, acknowledge them. He turned instead to a work surface just inside the door, above which were shelves stacked with crockery and glasses. He took down a tray of champagne flutes and two large Tupperware boxes. Working quickly he half filled both boxes with hot water and added to one of them a champagne glass full of white wine vinegar from a bottle kept on the shelves for the purpose. He lay a second tray with a clean tea towel. He then dipped a glass in the water and vinegar mixture, before rinsing it in the second box. Finally he stood the glass on the new tray where it could dry to a clean, drip-free shine, and started on the next one. After two and a half minutes the Ramones track came to an end. There was a pause punctuated only by the satisfied laughter of the cooks behind him, and a new track began playing. Mr Andrews held his position, dipping glasses. The head waiter felt that engaging in an activity like this, which was necessary to the smooth running of the restaurant, was a fine rebuke to the kitchen’s lack of professionalism. He felt the gesture was appropriate.

In the break between songs Sheffield took a drink of water from one of the cleaned, glass milk bottles that all the cooks used for the purpose. As he drank he gestured rudely at the head waiter’s back with his free hand, which made the other cooks laugh. He put the bottle back on a shelf behind him and, as Joey Ramone counted in the next song -- 'One, two, three four' -- prepared to mime lead guitar, one hand clawed over his belly to play the strings, the other outstretched at the neck, thumb cocked. Stevie bashed at the side of the solid top stove with two knife steels, and Bobby took on the bass, nimble fingers flicking at the empty air.

As the second Ramones track came to an end Mr Andrews picked up his tray and shouldered his way out through the doors. Bobby walked over to the tape machine and turned down the volume. She picked up the first ticket.

'One grapefruit, one avocado. Two steak medium.'

'Yes, Chef.'

The Ramones gave way to the Talking Heads, by way of the B52s. Starters gave way to main courses. Flames leapt from the stove and steam hissed from pots. The solid top fizzed, the temperature rose and the cooks took long drinks from their water bottles. At his sinks, a pile of oven trays and dirty crockery built up next to Kingston, and hot water splashed against the front of his blue, nylon house coat.

<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1170485080/gallery_29805_4189_9579.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">The last of the diners was seated by 9.30pm and Mr Andrews was finally able to survey the dining room, which he did with satisfaction. Up the three stairs in the L-shaped back room he could see MPs and industrialists. There was a brace of Thatcher-supporting tabloid newspaper editors and a famous political columnist who looked nothing like his youthful picture by-line. There were PR men who had turned their gifts to the black arts of politics and bankers on to their second bottle of Pomerol. On table one, in the restaurant’s prized front section, there was Lord Connaston, whom he recognised from behind because of his great mane of silver hair. He was accompanied by his wife Carla and a friend, who rocked in his seat when he laughed in a manner which suggested to Mr Andrews that he had drunk most of the bottle of Burgundy standing empty in front of him. The small table at the top of the stairs leading down to the kitchen was occupied by the art dealer Carl Walker and his friend Grey Thomas. The head waiter disliked them both, as much for the flamboyance of their dress as the pitch of their voices, but thought it wise to keep on good terms with men like this who had enough money to order wines from the bottom of the list.

In the bay window there was a trio of advertising men whom Mr Andrews knew slightly and, on the table next to them, an elderly couple he had not seen before, treating a younger couple to dinner. It was the evening of the 1983 General Election. The Conservative Party was on course for a landslide victory, and it was clear to Mr Andrews that everybody dining at the Jermyn Street Oyster House was pleased, both with the predicted result and their part in it. As they ate their profiteroles and their sherry trifles, the election was what they discussed, to the exclusion of any other subject.

So nobody paid any attention to the loud boom from somewhere nearby, assuming it to be nothing more sinister than a car back firing. Nobody noticed when a man's shout echoed down the street outside or when the shutter on the archway directly across the road, the entrance to a tight arcade of expensive shops and boutiques, lifted a couple of feet. They didn’t spot the man dressed in black who rolled out on to the pavement, followed by another, who stayed wedged under the shutter on his knees for a moment, looking back into the arcade. Soused with wine and giddy with the coming victory, none of them bothered to look up, when the first of those men shoved his way in to the restaurant and stood in the open doorway, panting, despite the bashed leather jacket on his back, the black balaclava on his head, and the oily pistol in his tattooed right hand.

<div align="center">+ + + + +</div>

This extract is taken from The Oyster House Siege by Jay Rayner, published in March by Atlantic Books at £10.99. To order an advance copy at the special price of £9.99 including postage and packing, call 01903 828503 quoting reference JR1.

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I really fail to see the reason that this story is even on this website.

Aside from the title, what does this have to do with food or the culinary arts?

It certainly has nothing to do with oysters.

It reads like a poorly written Martin Amis novel (not that there are any good ones)

Just wondering why this was posted at all.

Keep on shucking

Oyster Guy


"Why then, the world is mine oyster, which I with sword, shall open."

William Shakespeare-The Merry Wives of Windsor

"An oyster is a French Kiss that goes all the way." Rodney Clark

"Oyster shuckers are the rock stars of the shellfish industry." Jason Woodside

"Obviously, if you don't love life, you can't enjoy an oyster."

Eleanor Clark

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Just wondering why this was posted at all.

Keep on shucking

Oyster Guy

The short answer is that I (and many others here) enjoy reading thrillers in restaurant settings. This is part of the new Saturday Night Special, where we will occasionally present something just a little different.


Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."

Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com

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One

Four days ago

In the early hours of the 8th of September 1915 a bomb, dropped from a Zeppelin airship, struck 87 Jermyn Street in central London. It detonated in the basement kitchen killing the three bakers who were working there, and filling the street outside with a cloud of dust so thick it was likened to an Autumnal fog by those caught in it. The subsequent  renovation of the Jermyn Street Oyster House tidied away the back staircase that had been used by Edward VII and his mistress Lillie Langtry for secret trysts, and the dining room with its long mahogany bar, red upholstered banquettes and brass rails was restored and expanded. However the Oyster House never returned to baking its own bread. The force of the explosion had been so great that there was nothing of the victims to recover and the guild of master bakers declared it sacred ground. None of its members would work there. Despite this, the restaurant’s reopening in the spring of 1919 was seen by the politicians and businessman who booked its tables as a symbol of continuity, in a city traumatised by the long agony of the Great War.

87 Jermyn Street was also the home of Sir Isaac Newton, wasn't it? The apple on the head guy? I'm rather hoping he turns up as a character somewhere, too. :biggrin:

To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. `Tis much better to do a little with certainty, and leave the rest for others that come after you, than to explain all things.

Sir Isaac Newton, quoted in G Simmons Calculus Gems (New York 1992).

Looks like The Oyster House Siege will be a jolly romp. An excellent way to spend a Saturday night. :wink:

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docsconz   

I found this to be quite the appetite whetter. Will there be more here?


John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I found this to be quite the appetite whetter. Will there be more here?

This one I can reply to. Glad you're enjoying it. The plan is to serialise the first eight chapters over four weeks. You've had one. Three more to go.

It is, I should say, interesting to see a novel I've been working on for two years receive its first publication in this way. The novel in serial form, which was such a given in Dickens' day, has rather gone out of fashion. We are, I think, revising a noble tradition.


Jay

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I, for one, will be looking forward to the next few weeks. I enjoyed this a great deal.

And the Ramones are always appropriate on a short-handed, busy night.


Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Kent D   

I rather enjoyed the excerpt, although whether I can scrape together 10 pounds to buy the book is quite another matter.


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“A favorite dish in Kansas is creamed corn on a stick.”

-Jeff Harms, actor, comedian.

>Enjoying every bite, because I don't know any better...

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cfm   

No way I am reading this - I enjoyed "The Apology" so much I'm just going to wait for the book. Don't need my appetite whetted!

Catherine

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No way I am reading this - I enjoyed "The Apology" so much I'm just going to wait for the book.  Don't need my appetite whetted!

Catherine

Nice to hear that Catherine.

Just in case anybody is confused she's referring to The Apologist, which is my previous novel.


Jay

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Fantastic stuff.

Hardboiled crime and kitchen war-stories... I'm hooked.

Particularly gratifying to see it set in '83, the last day's of quality violent crime in London. Oily guns, leather jackets and balaclavas. Not a bloody forensic scientist or half-baked profiler in sight just a vinyl roof on the Granada, a shooter in the boot and a lock-up near Heathrow. No CSI, no CPS just Bodie, Doyle and Regan.

Raymond Chandler, Derek Raymond, Jay Rayner .... I rather like the internal rhyme.

My copy is on advance order.


Tim Hayward

"Anyone who wants to write about food would do well to stay away from

similes and metaphors, because if you're not careful, expressions like

'light as a feather' make their way into your sentences and then where are you?"

Nora Ephron

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No way I am reading this - I enjoyed "The Apology" so much I'm just going to wait for the book.  Don't need my appetite whetted!

Catherine

Nice to hear that Catherine.

Just in case anybody is confused she's referring to The Apologist, which is my previous novel.

Glad to have that cleared up, I thought she was comparing you to Plato for a moment there.

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No way I am reading this - I enjoyed "The Apology" so much I'm just going to wait for the book.  Don't need my appetite whetted!

Catherine

Nice to hear that Catherine.

Just in case anybody is confused she's referring to The Apologist, which is my previous novel.

Glad to have that cleared up, I thought she was comparing you to Plato for a moment there.

It is possible to compare me to Plato, just not in a good way.


Jay

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I really fail to see the reason that this story is even on this website.

Aside from the title, what does this have to do with food or the culinary arts?

It certainly has nothing to do with oysters.

It reads like a poorly written Martin Amis novel (not that there are any good ones)

Just wondering why this was posted at all.

Keep on shucking

Oyster Guy

Cranky cranky!!!! It's just an enjoyable diversion, and if you don't enjoy , don't read! Personally, it's interesting and entertaining and this is a great venue for people to showcase their talents (or to fail miserably with a deluge of grouchy respondents). I say, continue! It's fun!

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nikkib   
I really fail to see the reason that this story is even on this website.

Aside from the title, what does this have to do with food or the culinary arts?

It certainly has nothing to do with oysters.

It reads like a poorly written Martin Amis novel (not that there are any good ones)

Just wondering why this was posted at all.

Keep on shucking

Oyster Guy

Cranky cranky!!!! It's just an enjoyable diversion, and if you don't enjoy , don't read! Personally, it's interesting and entertaining and this is a great venue for people to showcase their talents (or to fail miserably with a deluge of grouchy respondents). I say, continue! It's fun!

Hear hear!


"Experience is something you gain just after you needed it" ....A Wise man

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