It’s taken me a while to write this.
I’ve wanted to for a long time, years actually, but in a way akin to post traumatic stress disorder, thinking for too long about what went on there shuts me down. Even now, three years on, dwelling on my months at Fera still fills me with an inert kind of fear. It seems so long ago, so detached, that it could almost have happened to someone else. Almost.
I’m fortunate in that I like to write, I’m sufficiently coherent, and I have my beloved blog as a platform to discuss, muse, and inform. Many chefs don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to write, and as a result people are never told about the things they endure. And yes, it is endurance.
So let me start at the beginning.
I was living in London for the first time, at 21, incredibly young and naive, and my diploma in patisserie at Wesminster Kingsway was nearly over and done with. I was looking for work, both in London and in Kent, as a pastry chef, and I had all the attributes kitchens look for, so it wasn’t hard to receive offers and trial shifts. I was energetic, passionate, hard working, diligent, and I didn’t talk back. I was eager.
So when I saw that Simon Rogan, my hero at the time, was returning to London after his pop up Roganic had successfully run for two years, this time to take over the Gordon Ramsey space in Claridge’s; I was hooked. As a previous Three Michelin star chef with his own two star restaurant up north, Simon Rogan was one of the reasons I wanted to become a chef. He creates beautiful works of art on the plate; using ingredients from his own farm, and herbs which his own forager has scouted for. At the time this was a new, organic and incredibly wholesome train of thought and I adored it.
They were looking for a whole team of chefs, so I applied for a pastry commis role. There was an interview, followed by a Masterchef like testing. The kitchen wasn’t up and running yet, so I was put in one of Claridge’s other kitchen with a few ingredients on the table, and asked to make an apple crumble whilst one of the senior chefs silently watched me. It was unnerving; and as my first time in a commercial kitchen I couldn’t even work the damn oven on my first go. Hahahaha. Ah, memories.
Anyway, I left and that was that. I didn’t think of it. Then about a month later I had a voicemail from Claridge’s asking for me to call them back. I did so, and when a woman answered she asked me if I was planning on accepting the job. Obviously my response was, “Uh, I didn’t get an offer?” Which was a mistake on their end. They’d forgotten to send it out.
So I was offered the job, I took it. And just like that, my fate was sealed.
The run up to opening day.
In most kitchens you get the job, you start the job. Voila. However in Fera’s case, there was a lot of waiting. We had an official start date, but it was completely dependant on whether or not the builders finished on time. There was no expense spared; the kitchen was to be brand new, with all the newest technology, equipment, and plating. It cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and it was nice (somewhere in the region of £750k) I tell you.
Before then however, there was a run up, and I can’t say we weren’t treated nicely, we were.
Induction was a formal affair; food and drink and learning about the history of Claridge’s. I believe there were around 46 chefs, and I remember walking into the room and seeing a sea of men. There were three other women in the team. This is typical.
We went in again a week or so later to get fitted for our uniforms, and then again for health and safety work. The opening got pushed back a week and everyone was eager to start. That’s what I remember most about this time period; the eagerness to get stuck in. I had so much energy and spirit and I couldn’t wait.
I spent my time sitting at home, researching herbs and flavours and everything I could about Simon Rogan’s previous dishes. I was foolish.
Eventually we got stuck in, and let me tell you; a new kitchen and a new opening is something from the pits of hell. You have no stock, you have no bond with your colleagues; nobody quite knows their role, nobody knows the structure and structure is so damn important in a team of that size. In my pastry brigade there were about 13 of us. It had its very own classical French substructure; Head pastry chef, sous pastry chef, junior sous, chef de partie, and commis chefs. The thing is, with everyone starting at once, all of us untested, we ended up doing mainly the same roles.
When the numbers started dwindling that became all the more extreme.
And so, we had a week to begin prepping and testing desserts and then the soft launch began. Critics came, high valued guests, other chefs, celebrities. It was the hot opening of the year; Simon Rogan was a big name in British cuisine and everyone wanted to see what Fera was made of.
When the doors opened to the public, things went into full throttle as night after night we were full. 100 for lunch and 100 for dinner service; each meal a multitude of courses and extras, taking each diner some time between 2 and 4 hours depending on which menu they opted for. This means those who came in at 10pm wouldn’t be out before 2am, and as a result, neither would we. Pastry chefs are the first in and the last out.
Presentation was everything, and our dishes had to be stunning; with every food blogger in the country coming to eat and judge, we had to perform.
It should be noted that Fera wanted three stars. Three stars, we were told, and that meant working to a three star standard. That meant perfection.
Some days, I would spend hours, one in a row of chefs, picking out herbs with tweezers. If a leaf had a pinprick, a pinprick the size of a . then it was not be used. Perfection was key, end of.
We had a number of desserts, petits fours, breads, crackers; each dish had half a dozen components. Each of them complicated and in need of precision. We didn’t have the time.
Five days a week, I would be the first in the kitchen at 7am, and among the last to leave at 2am/2.30am. That’s 19 hours a day. Just shy of 100 a week. And there were weeks when I passed 100 hours, believe me.
And still, there wasn’t time.
The whole day was spent running; no time to eat, no time to go to the bathroom, no time for a break. It was non-stop, because if you stopped, you wouldn’t be ready for service. Prep was still being done as the dishes went out to customers; I remember how on many occasions I would be scooping out the insides of the carrot meringues seconds before they needed filling to be sent to a waiting table. There was just no time.
And then chefs started vanishing. It was bizarre really. Every day when going to work, we’d be one less in the kitchen. Some came up with half-hearted excuses, but most just left wordlessly and never showed up again. Nobody blamed them.
And then one day I came in to find that the previous night, our head pastry chef had just taken his knives and quit. He took the recipes with him. More pastry chefs left, and our team of 13 became 6. I became in charge of the four petits fours and the crackers, and various other components for the desserts.
This was my first proper job, and it became unbearable.
My day…my day would go something like this…
I’d arrived at 7am. Set up my knives in a corner. Make mascarpone cheese. The previous day’s cheese would need draining and then put into piping bags. Concord reduction would also need to be made. As would the sweet cicely sponges. Prep for some of the other deserts would need doing; and everything was done from scratch. Beetroot sorbet would mean walking into a fridge of 45kg beetroot and hauling it downstairs. The beetroots would be hand peeled, then chopped, then blitzed. Every kg or so the machine would need emptying and cleaning. The liquids would be put into vac-pac bags and would then need to be sealed by a machine. It would take hours. I would be dyed red. Rhubarb was equally tough; maybe even worse, because the strings would clog up the machinery and every half kg you would need to clean out the machine. Anyway, long hours of prep. At 10am, the kitchen would halt progress to have a huge clean down before service. That took close to an hour, and afterwards we weren’t allowed to do messy or noisy things upstairs in case customers saw and heard. Madeleines would be baked off, and then I would hollow out the damn carrot meringues, put seabuckthorn curd into piping bags, and and make and cook off the trays of biscuits and flapjacks. Service would start and then it would just continually be prepping and serving, prep and serving long into the night and early hours of the morning.
Five days a week, the workload increasing every time one less person showed up to work.
Obviously that does shit things to a person, physically and mentally.
You are exhausted. On four hours sleep a night there’s no rest. In my dreamless fugues I heard the ticket machine buzzing and my heart never settled. How could it? When I was terrified of the next day. My feet were fucked. I started to develop trench foot. Yes. Actual trench foot. They became bloated shrivelled white things, puffy and full of liquid at the touch. They weren’t painful so much as uncomfortable, and like the rest of my body, they became something too far removed to cause concern. I didn’t have the energy to feel concern. I was already in a constant state of anxiety and heart hammering panic; there was no room for concern, not for myself.
Until my hip got injured.
I pulled something, and in the real world, when you badly strain and bruise a muscle, you rest. You rest and then you get better.
But of course I was working 100 hours a week; there’s no rest there. So I didn’t get better. For three months I had a horrific limp, and at 21 years old I truly thought I would be lame for the rest of my life. I was on prescriptive painkillers to combat the agony, but they didn’t numb the pain so much as detach me from it. They detached me from everything, aged me, and still it was painstakingly horrific to put my own weight on my leg. I hobbled to work every morning crying, and when there, I hobbled as fast as I could to do my job, crying. I couldn’t stop to cry so I cried whilst I worked. I cried whilst I peeling and cutting and blending and piping and serving. Whilst hauling 20kg trays of fruit and veg up and down the stairs. Nobody took me to one side and asked if I was okay; everyone was equally exhausted. Equally tired. Nobody had the time for concern.
The painkillers were a temporary solution. I wasn’t getting better. The doctor saw this, and she asked me what I did. I told her. Then, crying, I explained my situation. She told me to quit my job. She quite explicitly said that if I didn’t, I was not going to get better. And I would limp for a long fucking time to come.
But I didn’t want to quit; I wanted to be a chef, I wanted to be part of this new and exciting venture. Didn’t I? Isn’t that why I was still there?
And that’s what they bank on. I had a 40 hour contract, and I was paid accordingly. £1200 after tax a month. For 40 hours a week. Overtime was not paid. So 60 hours a week went unpaid.
Simply put, if I worked an average of 90 hours a week, it worked out at £3.30 an hour. In Clardige’s. Where the basic rate for a room is half a grand per night.
At Fera, where a ten course menu will set you back £100 before alcohol or service charge even comes into play: I earned £3.30 an hour.
Yes. And the commis chefs not in pastry earned even less; they earned 2k a year less, in fact, for equally backbreaking work.
There is no justification for this. It just is how things are; they have swarms of young, eager, hopeful chefs who are desperate to work for a name. So we work, for nothing. And then when we are all used up, we leave and are replaced instantaneously by someone else just as a fresh and naive, until they too are drained of their youth. It’s a vicious circle.
So, this was my reality. And then one day, I cracked.
If you’re a fan of irony, you’ll love this.
So you know those yellow wet floor signs? They looks like this;
Well it was just another day of exhaustion and tears and the crushing pressure to perform and I was limping as quickly as I could to get things done in the corridors downstairs. I limped around a corner, painkillers already wearing off from my morning dose, when I stepped right onto something slippery. It sent me flying.
Turns out someone had left one of those warning signs lying flat on the floor, out of sight, behind the corner. I fell hard, and of course I landed on my hip.
It was agony. I remember lying there, sobbing, and almost hysterical. How had I ended up literally on the floor, in more pain than I had been in already, because someone had left a fucking warning sign on the floor. It was too ironic.
If someone had walked on by they would have found me sobbing and laughing manically. But nobody came. Nobody saw me at that moment; nobody had any idea of the real pain I was in, because I’d been pushing and pushing and pushing. But now I was done. I was done. Fera had broken my spirit, broken me psychically, broken me throughout.
So I managed to get myself upright. And I got back to work. A few days later I handed in my notice and I worked it out. 16 chefs had left before me, and I’m pretty sure I was the only one who actually gave notice beforehand and stuck around for it.
I’d like to say that when I left I rested for a while, but actually I only had three days off before starting my next job- pastry chef at One Aldwych, a five star hotel in Covent Garden. At 60 hours a week, (yes, paid only for 40. Overtime is not generally paid in this industry but the extra hours will be expected. It’s standard, sadly.) it was less straining, and I was able to slowly get better. I eased off the painkillers, and after another 4 months or so, I finally stopped limping.
I was a newly turned 22 year old, but I felt old. In under a year the life of a chef had drained all zest from me, taken all joy; I had no hunger for life anymore. I was just tired all the time.
And worse than that: food didn’t give me the joy it once did. There was no pleasure in the of creation beautiful things. There was never time to take enjoyment in the things I achieved. Things for the next instalment maybe!