Old Ship HotelBy Robin Tulley
Brighton, September 1956. The sky was a canvas of pastel blue, a backdrop to the screeching seagulls wheeling and diving over the glittering sea. Though early, the promenade was already bustling with holiday makers disgorged from their guest houses and making progress like an endless tide of ants to either the pier or beach. A fine summer’s day was in prospect.
With both trepidatation and expectation, I pushed my way through the polished brass and plate glass revolving doors of one of the town’s premier seafront hotels in Kings Road, into its opulent and grandiose interior. Having taken a few faltering steps on the richly pattered thick pile carpet I was confronted by a uniformed top hatted gentleman. With a booming and commanding voice he questioned my presence in the hotel foyer. I noted from the badge on his lapel that he was the head concierge, which to an unworldly fifteen year old, meant very little.
With some apprehension, I advised him that I was reporting for my first day at work as an apprentice chef at the hotel. I supported this claim with a letter I had received a few weeks earlier confirming my appointment. Unduly impressed, he proceeded to inform me in no uncertain terms that “under no circumstances were staff permitted to use the hotel’s main entrance“.
Duly admonished, I made my way as directed to find the uninviting staff entrance to the rear of the hotel. As I entered through the sea weathered and rusty iron door, an elderly clerk lifted his weary gaze from his ledger and without saying a word, pointed a finger in the direction of the time keeping clock and the racks of accompanying cards. I was very impressed that one bearing my name was already in place amongst numerous others. After I nervously clocked in, the time clerk instructed me to accompany him to The Head Chef’s office. We proceeded through an echoing labyrinth of dimly lit passageways into the bowels of the hotel and finally after knocking, entered a door marked - ‘Monsieur Gaston Monniere-Maitre Chef de Cuisine’. I had, of course, previously met him some weeks before with the hotel General Manager when they had considered my application to be indentured to the hotel for a period of five years.
During my interview, they had seemed to dwell on the negative aspects of training to be a chef and any pre-conceptions I may have had that it was a glamorous vocation were quickly dispelled. I was left under no illusion that I would be at the bottom of the pecking order, under taking menial and repetitive tasks in a very hot and frenetic environment. Clearly I had satisfied their concerns that I had the drive, stamina and commitment to succeed in this regard, which culminated in my standing once again before the venerable and learned Monsieur Monnier.
He was a kindly, elderly, rotund and ruddy faced gentleman of Swiss origin, wearing a pristine double buttoned white jacket, checked trousers and a crisply starched hat that appeared at least two feet high and befitted his hierarchal position. With a heavy accent he welcomed me and further instructed me where I was to change into my carefully parcelled and yet unworn uniform.
We subsequently made our way back through the corridors until the air was increasingly filled with a cacophony of sound that grew louder the nearer we approached the brightly lit kitchen. On entering the swing doors, I was confronted with a scene of frenetic activity. The kitchen resonated with raised voices that issued both commands and curses in equal measure. To me and probably any other outsider, this was a scenario of menace and unmitigated bedlam. But I was quick to learn that what I was experiencing was in fact a finely orchestrated performance of pure theatre. Every one in the kitchen was a player, contributing elements that would finally evolve into hundreds of meals produced day in and out to satisfy the discerning palates of the hotel’s diners. The atmosphere was electric and exciting, the heat intense and unrelenting and the ensuing aromas of cooking food confused the senses.
Was this how I really imagined a professional kitchen would be, and could I actually work in such an alien environment? I was soon to find out!
This page was amended on 22/08/2012
Great memories, beautifully told - can't wait to read more!
From John Riches