A Monkey in the Kitchen

Jade Burrell blows the whistle on the high-pressure, sweatshop-like conditions of a Southsea restaurant kitchen.

‘What are you monkeying around for?’ Lawrence shouts over the kitchen fans. His dark eyes catch a scrawny kitchen porter who is about to throw a handful of peas across the room. ‘Can you do some fucking washing up? Cutlery, now!’

Porters are the lowest of the low in a kitchen. In ours they’re usually weedy, spindly teenage boys with more grease on their foreheads than you’ll find in the fryers. When they’re not having fun they’re dealing with the scum of the kitchen. And they’re treated like it too.

Tips they should follow include not starting pea wars, being quick on their feet and always appearing busy.

A waitress in a starchy button-up, shiny-back waistcoat, straight knee length skirt and scuffed brogues storms into the kitchen with an armful of pecked-at starter plates. She dumps them on the nearest countertop and drops into a crouch so she can fish more plates from the warmer. Two kitchen hands (myself included) flock to the plates and eat from them with our fingers like starved vultures at a fresh carcass.

‘What table’s next?’ she yells. Throwing her tied back hair over her shoulder, she balances eight circular plates on her forearms like they haven’t been stored at 55 degrees in the hot cupboard. ‘What pissing table is next?’ she snarls, body not used to being stationary for so long on a Friday dinner rush.

I dart to the ticket board and scowl at the kitchen pass littered with various-sized dishes loaded with steaming food. It’s a mental game of bingo half the time, finding out what’s what and crossing off what’s cooked. You never ask. No one has time to think about answers.

‘It’s table eight,’ I shout over the fans. Hurtling past Big Bennie, I snatch five sets of cutlery from the kitchen porter and slam them onto the counter nearest the waitress. ‘Go, go.’

Just before she backs out into the restaurant she plasters a smile on her lips. I am constantly amazed at the acting skills of our waiting staff.

‘I need more rice wine,’ I hear Bobby shout from behind the open-flame grills at the back of the kitchen.

I slip past another stressed waiter in need of extra forks, shouting back a quick, ‘On it.’ I grab the near empty brown American sauce bottle we use for rice wine and slip past kitchen workers till I reach the pantry. I scan the wall length shelving till I find the casket of rice wine. It has a nozzle that you flick open and it pours the wine like the water coolers you always find at the doctors. When the bottle is three quarters full I stop the flow of rice wine and return to the heat-sodden kitchen. I go to the tap and fill the bottle the rest of the way with water, turning it upside down so the two liquids fuse properly. (This makes the rice wine last longer, according to Lawrence.)

I pass the bottle to Bobby who makes grabby hands towards it. He shoots back to the grill as I sprint for the prepping station. It’s my turn to dice the mushrooms, so I have before me the delivery basket, a clean green chopping board and a small, thin kitchen knife. I hold the mushroom in my left and bring the blade gently (yet quickly) to the domed top of the vegetable. I then hold the halves together and repeat till I have four quartered chunks of mushroom in my grasp. I throw them in the nearest empty ice cream tub and repeat the motion.

Someone slips on the greasy tiled floor, which makes me jump and nick myself with the knife. I groan, run over and grab a tissue from the sink, smothering the cut to prevent my blood contaminating anything. I shove my way to the kitchen pass, fishing for the green first aid box underneath it.

No one mentions it. I’m covered in tiny scars from previous accidents.

It’s the heat and the long hours that do it. Eight open-flame grills, four fryers, a lack of air conditioning and an eleven hour shift (with no break) doesn’t do wonders for your concentration. Or a pair of glasses. I spend half my shift spraying them with Mr Muscle in some vain attempt at de-greasing the sodding things. That’s when I’m not de-veining prawns, washing the chinaware impression of Mount Everest or attending to the new members of staff whose idea of sorting pending orders is heaping them in a dishevelled pile on the countertop.

I can feel the sweat trickling down from my temples to my throat. I resist the temptation to swab it away with my apron. It’s not that the added sweat will make the thing less immaculate; it always looks like it’s been tie-dyed with a mixture of sweat, sauce and chicken remnants. I just don’t want the filthy thing rubbing against my face; I’ve only just got my glasses clean.

I flick open the first aid box and admire the separately packaged plasters, burn cream, disinfectant, bandages, compresses and other medical musts. I squat and disinfect the cut, check it out (only a tiny thing) then proceed to plaster it and dig out a blue glove to wear. A usual kitchen precaution.

It’s expected that you’ll burn yourself when you work in a kitchen, just as it’s expected you will eat from customers’ plates, lose your temper and accidentally skin your own fingers. All of which I’ve done too many times.

What shouldn’t be expected is the pay.

I work at a family-run establishment. The owners hire family and friends to toil for them. The chefs grew up together, the waitresses are cousins. If you manage to worm your way into the kitchen without family ties, you need the patience of a tortoise and skin as thick as an elephant’s hide. I’ve known kitchen porters, young lads, treated like human washing machines and paid a pathetic £5 an hour, with no breaks.

Here’s an idea: don’t pay your kitchen porters peanuts and they won’t act like monkeys in the kitchen.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.