Sunday, 24 February 2008

Cookery school

I was getting slightly worried about this cooking school. I'd been here three days so far, out of the two-week learn-to-cook holiday I was on, and it already felt like a lifetime. I was crossing the days off in my little pocket diary already, and would probably have left quietly in the night if they didn't lock us in the dormitories.

The dormitories were just that: long, low-ceilinged rooms with twelve beds down each of the long walls with a locker at the foot and a wardrobe-cum-cupboard at the side. Each bed had sheets and a single thin blanket, and when I opened my cupboard there was a pin-up in there, presumably from the previous occupant, of an asparagus stalk. With some stains on it.

On the first day we had looked in dismay at the beds, put what we could of our luggage in the lockers and wardrobe, and then looked on in further dismay as everything that wouldn't fit was taken away from us to be burned. Luckily I always travel light, and hadn't actually be able to fill my locker or wardrobe, so I kept all of my stuff. The woman who'd arrived with a toddler had been told that either it went in the locker or went to be burned. She went hysterical, and we've seen neither of them since.

The first day in the kitchen was spent on knife work. All day. 18 hours long to be precise, chopping things into batons, into julienne, into dice and brunoise. My fingers were bleeding at the end of it from the numerous occasions I'd slipped, and my arms were aching as though I'd been lifting weights. I could barely see from the tears that the onions had induced. I was so tired I slept without noticing if the bed was hard or not, or if I was warm enough with only a sheet and a green, military issue blanket.

The second day we were split into two groups. My group was announced to contain only the people who were competent to cook, and there were four of us. The other group, containing 19 people were told they weren't fit to clean our knives, and set to making stock. We continued to hone our knife skills; we were given double the quantity of vegetables to chop as the day before, and told we had only 15 hours to do it all in. I chopped like a maniac. It helped that I didn't want to look up: the splashes and the screams told me how the other group were being punished for failing to get their stock right.

When the 15 hours were up I'd chopped up all of my vegetables and was so edgy that I was sharpening my knife every two minutes because I had nothing left to chop. When a slab of beef was slapped in front of me and I was told to fillet I'd started before the instructor has taken his hand away. As he walked off I heard him saying quietly, "this one has potential."

That night I took the blankets from the beds on either side of me, and annexed a locker and a wardrobe that I didn't need. I'm not sure why, but I felt a definite need to exert my authority. No-one tried to object; they just got on with shivering in silent misery.

Today, the third day, two people had graduated from the stock group to my group, and the rest all seemed to have burns and scalds; mostly hands, but one or two faces too. When I came into the kitchen I'd pulled my knife from my belt automatically and looked from something to chop or to fillet, and the rest of the students had backed away from me. The instructor looked at me appraisingly, and then at a live chicken chained at the ankles to the long steel instructor's table at the front of the classroom. He nodded at the chicken, and said,

"You have three minutes to kill, clean and joint the bird. You may leave the feathers on."

A red haze seems to descend, and I can't remember what happened after that, but I remember moving fast, and hearing a high-pitched squawk. My memory only clearly comes back with me shouting "2 minutes 48" and hurling the chicken head at one of the slaves in the second group. It hit her between the eyes, and she collapsed to the floor. As she did so I said curtly, "Pick it up and use it for stock," and I'm ashamed to say I don't honestly know if I meant the chicken head or the woman.

I felt the chef's hand on my shoulder, and he said quietly, "You will make a good chef-assassin, we will move you up to the advanced course tomorrow."

And that's what's got me worried; I don't know if I can cope with the advanced course....

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