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Oct 17, 2017

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Food Noir
by Cam Noakes
Magazine Issue: AUS/NZ Issue Three
It seems these days you're not really a chef unless you have your own book, TV show and reputation as a bad man. Cam Noakes cleans up and steps behind the swinging doors to see if there's any truth behind the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll reputation of chefs.

"Remember George? He was a chef. One day they found him and a girl asleep, naked, on the kitchen floor. She had pesto all over her and George had pesto all over his face. George was mad ... an alcoholic. Remember that time he pinned that waiter to the wall and held a meat cleaver to his throat? He said he was going to cut that guy's head off. I wish he had done it, too. That guy was a smartarse."

The head chef is off his head and he wants to cut your head off; speak to people in the restaurant business, especially waiters, and you'll find this is no joke. The old wives' tale goes, chefs are crazy because they work in heated environments and that heat pumps out on their foreheads and makes their brains angry. But chefs say, you try and cook 100 meals at once. No thanks. Personally, I get a little tense trying to time the toast and the eggs.

Speaking of something funny to the brain, chefs also admit drugs are a staple part of many of their colleagues' diets. Tales of all-night drinking and drug bingeing seem to be common in kitchens everywhere.

Anthony Bourdain is the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York and his tell-all book about the restaurant industry, Kitchen Confidential (Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly), has been a huge success.


Bourdain -- who was recently in Australia for a food and wine festival -- gives you the impression that chefs are modern-day pirates, drug-addicts, boozers, sex gods and lunatics. In one passage of his book he describes line cooks as "wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths".

This kind of imagery, combined with tales of chefs exploring the anuses of women (before sending them back to their husbands) and recipes for dressing-up off fish, captures our imagination and confirms some of our suspicions of the restaurant business.

But the question must be asked, is Bourdain romanticising his industry and his colleagues in a bad-arse kind of way or are his descriptions and our stereotypes accurate?

It is three in the afternoon and Melbourne chef Charles Shepherd is preparing for the busy night ahead in his tiny kitchen. And, according to Charles, the chef stereotype is pretty much on the money. However, Charles is quick to point out he is a "good-boy" but there are a lot of "psychos" in kitchens. He says the industry has tolerated a culture of aggression but "you realise you get a lot more done by being nice to people".

"Everybody's aggro and there are shitloads of druggies. Personally, I think there is nothing wrong with just being an alcoholic. How do you find a chef? Find a bar," he says.

Charles has worked in "shitholes in London", he's worked in a kitchen that did not have a refrigerator, he's worked with a deaf chef, he's worked for a boss who was a "right, stand-over prick" and another boss who had an enormous cocaine habit.

But as he glides around his kitchen, casually telling stories of drugs, booze and debauchery, he then stops and says: "You should always ask a chef what celebrities he's cooked for". Keanu Reeves, he boasts, and then tells me to go around the corner to a restaurant called Dining Room 211 and speak to Andrew McConnell.

"He's cooked for Madonna and find out if he screwed her." So with my new orders, I discover Andrew did not have sex with Madonna but he did cook for her, as well as Prince (or The Symbol, or whatever), Bryan Ferry and a host of other pop stars.

And on the subject of the crazy chef? It's all true, Andrew says. "Basically, you've only got one chance to get it right. You're cooking for 50 people, each person is having three courses, that's 150 meals in the space of two, two-and-a-half hours.

"You're also using a perishable product, you've got staff to deal with who are also stressed so you can let it get to you."

And the drugs?

"I got into a taxi last week and the driver asked 'what do you do' and I said 'I'm a chef' and he said 'are you an alcoholic or a drug addict?' Basically, we've got this hideous reputation but to a certain extent we've brought it upon ourselves.

"There is a large group of us that perhaps over-indulge from time to time. But you work hard, you play hard."

Both Charles and Andrew admit the hours are the problem and the cause for partying. Andrew says: "You can't close up and go home and go to sleep. You've got a couple of hours to kill before you can wind down, especially when you've been busy." Charles says the secret is to treat your day as a "normal day" otherwise it can become a trap.

"Some people go to bed at ridiculous hours and sleep all day then wake up and go straight to work." And apparently this is when reality gets lost and the cycle begins.

"So Charles, is it a good job?" "Yeah, sure," he says with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "Why not?"

"I knew this chef. He had seven girlfriends. One for everyday of the week. He had it arranged so he would see each girl on their allocated day. But one day he went to this bar and all seven girls were there. They were furious with him, naturally, but he went up to each girl and told them they were the special one and how he didn't really care for the others. He got back with all seven of them. Next week he was back in his same routine, even kept the girls on the same day."

"One of my friends - she was a seriously good-looking, young woman. She was at a bar one night and this big fat chef, who had his own TV show, shouted her drinks until closing. He was giving her the eye all night. I'll say this once again, she was a seriously sexy, young woman and this guy, with his bad moustache and big gut would have been twice her age. But he honestly believed -- undoubtedly due to the fact that he was a celebrity chef -- he would be getting into her pants at the end of the evening. She started drinking Margaritas and before she left she went up to him and said, You're not Bono, you know."

"I got chased out of a kitchen once. I was working in the bottleshop and I needed change from the pub and the quickest way to get there was through the kitchen. The chef told me to go around. Then I had to get something else and I was in a hurry and I went through the kitchen again. Next thing I knew, I was running down the street with this crazy man behind me wearing a bloodstained chef's coat and waving an enormous knife at me. I thought I was going to die that day, I really did. Lucky I was fast."

"When I was 16 I started working in this famous French restaurant in Sydney and the chef there, he was a pig of man. Anyway it was a really busy night and we ran out of plates and he needed to make some desserts. I quickly washed these plates but they were still warm. He put this ice-cream on the plate and it started to run. Then he smacked me in the face. I started crying."

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