Like many young people, my first foray into the working world took place in the food industry. Part-time, after school and on weekends, I wore a nametag — and a hairnet. The option of a smartly striped baker’s cap or a sleek ponytail pulled through the back of a baseball hat simply did not exist. Obviously, everyone loathed the hairnets but they were compulsory. I would carefully style my hair and add extra kohl pencil, à la Colette, around my eyes; in this way, I hoped that others would understand that an artist like myself was being forced to conform, in order to keep myself in Gitanes, decent Levis and import albums. (Did I mention that I was sixteen?)
And so it came to pass that I waited on tables, made sandwiches and learned how to make faux Peach Melba (ice cream with a dollop of cherry pie filling, a sliced tinned peach and a generous crown of whipped cream) at a frenetic seaside café in Britain. This particular café was tucked into a narrow strip of land that faced the Irish Sea and offered diners a panoramic view. For this reason it was a favourite of coach tour operators, and it was not unusual to see three buses chock-full of senior citizens hurtling down the curving path towards us, often without warning.
The Chef was not beneath running outside with binoculars to get an overview of the demographic on board, and amused himself by (profanely) predicting what they would be ordering, with considerable accuracy. At the first sighting, massive steel teapots would be filled to accommodate the pending 70 cups of tea, with teabags the size of chicken-noodle soup sachets thrown in a few at a time. I was marveling at the size of these teabags as we worked when The Chef overheard me and asked sternly if I was aware of the amount of food that was often wasted in the restaurant business. Did I realize, for example, that these catering-size teabags were intended for multiple uses? Had he just seen me earlier emptying the old ones into the bin? Did I not understand that they must be dried and re-used? I was tearful. I had not known. The Chef softened, but explained that in future, I must hang the used tea bags on the clothesline outside. Pegs were by the door.
The next hour and a half was spent in the fray of making English High Tea for several dozen elderly and demanding patrons (each one had a squeeze purse with a single ten pound note in it — each required change). Carrying five plates at a time was revealing biceps I never knew I had. My heel was throbbing blood beneath one of my strappy patent pumps and although I knew my legs looked amazingly long in them, by the end of the week I would be wearing sandals like an elderly aunt at the Sunday school picnic. As we set about clearing dishes, I remembered my earlier gaffe and, cheeks hot with shame, I went outside with a bucket to make things right.
Carefully pegging the dripping tea bags on the line, I suddenly became conscious of the entire staff behind me at the door. Supporting themselves on one another, they brayed with uncontrollable laughter, a few even showing the presence of mind to combine a smoke break with the planned spectacle. The Chef hugged me: “You didn’t believe that really? Never mind — you’re one of us now.”
This was good-natured kitchen “hazing” at its finest and I was ultimately able to laugh at myself without feeling too ridiculous. At the end of my shift, I walked down to the beach and sat on a rock with my shoes beside me, dipping my feet into the blissfully cold shock of the water. I peeled off that hairnet and looked closely as it curled in my hand like the gossamer skeleton of some tiny woodland creature.
The day was over now and my mind was made up. My kitchen career was just unfolding. But like tea — I would become stronger as time went on.
SUE SUTHERLAND WOOD is a freelance writer who also works in the London Public Library system. She lives in London with her teenage sons and a floating population of dogs and cats.