Ever wondered what it would be like to live the life of a chef for a day? Our Executive Chef, John McLeay opens up about working 16 hour days, stumbling blocks in the kitchen and pork belly (of course).
I’m always amused that people think a chef’s life is glamorous, The celebrity chef might make it seem that way, but it’s more hard work than glamorous. This is the way a normal busy Friday goes in our kitchen.
8.15: It’s Friday and to us that means the busiest day of the week. So Adam and myself arrive a little earlier than usual. We get changed and exchange a little banter about last night’s activities. The meat order arrives, we weigh it, measure the temperature and we sort through it. Dividing up what gets put in the cool room and what gets left out to be dealt with straight away.
8.30: Time to deal with the pork belly. At McKillop Street we go through 80kg a day and we cook it overnight, we often joke that our employee of the month is our oven.
We take it out, drain the braising liquid off an put it aside to cool it down a little before it hits the cool room.
8.45: All the other kitchen staff begin to meander in and its time for a little fuel to get through the day so some Red Spice Road breakfast rice is in order.
9.00: With breakfast in our bellies, it’s time to get on with organising out day. We break up into sections and get stuck into our prep lists. Every second Friday we change our lunch banquet and on those days, I have to coach everyone, making sure everything is right.
10.00: At this time, Marty’s Usually arrived and is in “Pork Belly mode” which means the previous day’s 80 kg of pork gets cut up and fried, sometimes I think he gets more flour on him than the pork.
10.15: The fish and veg order arrive at the same time. The veg order is the toughest to deal with, as it takes two staff members and 15 minutes to check it off, sort through it and put it away. And if you’re under the pump like we are this morning, that’s about 14 minutes too long.
10.30: The floor staff start to arrive, which means a coffee for the kitchen crew. Adam and I don’t drink, we have a Red Bull.
11.00: It’s time to up the ante. I walk around to each section to ask If anybody needs a hand and often Iarder will. Dressings need to be tasted and the inevitable cry from me is always more chilli. It’s a fine line between authenticity and our customers chilli tolerance.
11.15: The rice goes on. We have 300 booked and our three cookers only produce enough rice for around 100 so that means that as rice is cooked it goes into a big pot to keep it warm, and then we cook more.
11.20: I need to have a quick check to make sure our specials are sorted for the night, this today means a quick call to John or George, my seafood suppliers at Ocean Made, as I get a text every morning with the daily specials. Blue Cod from New Zealand and some fresh Morton Bay bugs are way too tempting for me to pass up today.
11.30: Crunch time for us – If we’re not organised now, lunch will be a disaster. I make sure that everything is ready and if not its time for me to stir things up. Us chefs have a fearsome reputation and its generally warranted. If we’re or ready for service you get bad food and then our restaurant suffers and sooner of later, we’re all looking for new jobs. Not a good scenario for any of us.
11.45: Floor staff briefing: time for the staff to taste the new dishes (apart from the pork belly) and ask any questions. It’s also a chance for me to get the staff enthused about the dishes so that it’s passed on to our customers.
12.00: Game time, our time to shine.
12.20: Orders are coming in at a fierce rate. We always pride ourselves on the fact that you’ll be well fed and back in your workplace within the hour. For now we are ahead of the game.
12.40: Stumbling block time. The inevitable difficult dietary requirement appears. 8 people, 2 vegetarians, 1 vegan, 1 pescatarian and 1 no pork. This stops us in our tracks as we scramble to meet their needs. No matter how much you plan, it’s pretty much impossible to cater for a docket like this on the spot.
12.42: As always is the case, another difficult docket follows. It’s my time to keep cool and come up with the solutions to our predicament without disturbing the flow of service.
1.00: Our first sitting is done, it’s time to take stock and replenish our prep in readiness for the next onslaught.
1.15: The second wave hits, never as fierce as the first but hopefully no difficult dockets.
1.45: Lunch service is pretty much done, staff drop off to the back of the kitchen to do prep for dinner and those still in their sections continue with prep while still cooking lunch for the last stagglers.
2.00: The guys who are on tonight’s dinner shift enter the kitchen. Bench space is now at a premium, without a doubt the worst time of my day, lunch orders still coming in and starting the organisation for the 400 bookings we have tonight.
2.15: Last call for any fish orders that need to be placed, a quick check with Iarder and I’m on the phone needing more scallops and oysters. The guys at Ocean Made are looking to offload some cheap fresh school prawns and I’m a sucker for a deal so it looks like our specials will be expanded tonight.
2.45: A little office time for me, typing up specials and going through tonight’s bookings, checking for any special dietary requirements or any other surprises that might affect service.
3.00: Lunch service is over. 328 customers and its been reasonably good service apart from the dietary hiccups. We live to fight tonight’s upcoming service.
3:15: Back into the kitchen and first cab off the rank for me is making sure everyone has cleaned down their sections. Marty is in braising more, Iarder is frying lamb ribs and the wok guys are chopping away furiously. Being a Friday there is always a little more pork to fry as well.
I start organising the prep for tonight’s specials, something I very much enjoy.
4.00: For anybody not used to being around kitchens it would seem that chaos has descended upon us, but to me everything seems normal in my world and we are on track for tonight’s busy activities.
4.45: Sections cleaned down again and it’s time to set up for dinner service. Anticipation awaits us as on Friday, we don’t have to organise staff meals so it’s pizza delivery for this Friday.
6.00: Time for me to do another check of the sections, everything looks pretty good as the floor staff come in, I run them through the specials.
7.00: Our first sitting is in full swing, unlike lunch the early sitting for dinner is much easier than the second. Everything is going along swimmingly.
7.50: Melbourne in winter and it’s the footy start time, Adam and I are footy nuts and for the rest of the night we’ll take it in turns checking scores on our phones or on the computer.
I’m lucky if Adam’s team Essendon isn’t playing, as he really is the worst supporter I know.
8.00: Not much happening as it’s between sittings. Gives us a chance to replenish our prep.
8.30: The onslaught begins We’ve had a few large bookings arrive later than expected and we are starting to get hammered from pillar to post. Dockets are looking ominous: large tables such as 32, 16, 20 and 14 are all coming in at once. Ouch!
8.45: Time for me to jump into Iarder to try and right what could rapidly become a sinking ship. They really take a kicking in that section on busy nights.
9.15: The docket rails are full and I’m organising the kitchen flow as smart as I can. You cannot teach someone what to do at moments like these. The knowledge boils down to countless hours of experience in the kitchen.
9.45: We are back on top of it and winning our battle. Once again Varun, the guy who organises food delivery, is the king. That guy is as close to being irreplaceable as anybody I know.
10.00: The end is in sight, time for a quick footy score check and for Adam to drop off and do the ordering. I check to make sure all is good in pastry.
10.30: The beauty for us in both our restaurants is that service is done and dusted pretty early. By this stage of the night, Iarder is pretty much packed down and the front is doing the last few orders. Time for me to find an excuse to head to the office and avoid the pack down duties.
11.15: Back to the kitchen to make sure everything is in order and to do my most important duty of the day, organising our knock off drink.
11.40: We are all done, 435 customers for the night. Work over, changed and enjoying a drink in the kitchen, recounting our tales from the day’s proceedings.
Afterwards, some of us will head home, others join the floor staff for a drink. Adam and I usually head to a nearby bar.
As we always say in the kitchen “Tomorrow is another day”.
The above is an excerpt from our cookbook Road To QV, available for purchase on our online store.