If You Can't Stand the Heat. Restaurateur Prue Leith Says Many Chefs Quit Because of the Pressure. Here One Former London Chef Reveals Why He Couldn't Take It Any More; FOOD;RESTAURANTS;CHEFS

Article excerpt


MY mother was a wonderful cook and inspired me to go into the catering trade.

So when I left school, aged 16, I went straight to college in Hastings where I spent two years dreaming of being a top chef. I was particularly good at the creative side of the business - I could make fantastic sauces and was obsessed with getting the presentation right - and eventually graduated with all the right qualifications. But when I got my first job in a proper working kitchen, the reality was not at all what I had expected. I did a stint at a popular restaurant on the Fulham Road called the Hungry Horse and when it came to getting the meals ready in time for tables of customers I couldn't take the pressure. The kitchen was frantically busy and almost immediately I began to worry that I couldn't handle it.

On one occasion I was trying to get some hot spinach out of a pan and the best way was to flick it out using a big two-pronged fork. I was in such a rush that I dropped the fork and as I grabbed for it, slightly panicking, it hit the counter and bounced back up, stabbing me in the hand.

I can remember the pain to this day, but there wasn't much blood as it went straight through the fleshy skin between my finger and thumb.

Working in a kitchen is a dangerous environment. Many chefs cut off fingers or scald themselves - it's just part of the job.

It's not always the cooking implements that present the dangers but the people you work with. When I was working as a commis chef a few years later, I was attacked by a mad, overheated chef. I was at a low level in the kitchen hierarchy, preparing salads and vegetables and slicing the smoked salmon for starters. There was only one knife in the kitchen suitable for carving thin slices and that was being used by the second chef, who was in charge that day.

I needed the knife in a hurry for the salmon, and as he was so busy at the stove I just took it and started carving. As soon as the chef turned round he went into an absolute storm and shouted: "Who's taken the knife?" I told him I had it, at which point he grabbed another carving knife and lunged at me.

Luckily the sous chef grabbed his arm and managed to restrain him. …