The Secret Chef: On Blocked Sinks and Embarrassment Abroad

Here’s a story about going shopping in Italy. Usually in order to protect the innocent, the guilty and myself, nothing I write is quite true. In this case it is all true. I have no client identities or world events I need to mask, because this story is solely about me being an idiot.

My qualification for being your Secret Chef is having spent two decades being a private chef for High Net Worth (HNW) and Ultra High Net Worth (UHNW) clients all over Europe and on super yachts. I have become experienced at keeping secrets. Here is what I remember about going shopping for a sink plunger in Italy.

Somehow, I’m not exactly sure how, I’d managed to block the main sink in the kitchen. If you are a private chef breaking things in the kitchen is all in a day’s work, so it’s nothing particularly alarming, and usually when I break something I can fix it fairly rapidly. However, in this case, even undoing the U bend and getting all the black filth out of it only made the water run out of the sink at a dribble. Boiling water, soda crystals and drain unblocking chemicals with icons of dead fish on the back also didn’t shift it. Undeterred, I wasn’t yet ready to alert the villa’s grumpy handyman to my misdemeanour since a trip to the ironmonger might still fix it.

Next morning after the usual breakfast of coffee and fruit had been laid out for the clients on the pool terrace, I headed down into the village to do the daily shop. First stop, bagging the fish, vegetables and fruit from the open air market in the shady tree lined central square. Next stop a sneaky visit up the alley to the ironmonger’s.

For me, the ironmonger ‘ferramenta’ was my favourite non-food shop in the village. It was crammed with coffee-making devices, massive pasta pots, copper bottomed saucepans, cake tins and products to clean everything from chandeliers to gutters. In other words, a top afternoon out for anyone with a love of the kitchen.

At this point I’d been working in French speaking countries long enough to be relaxed about not understanding every single word said to me. Also in France I no longer looked up the vital word, for say safety pin, before I went to the shop to buy it. By this point I was confident enough (in French) to not need to know the expression ‘safety pin’ and would instead say ‘you know, the thing that attaches old fashioned nappies’ and then mime it.

In French, this worked. In Italian where I had a vocabulary of about two hundred words (mostly the names of fish, fruits, vegetables and drinks) and no real understanding of the grammatical structure of the language, this strategy of mine was untried but still had considerable merit, I felt sure. I would be able to wing verbal interaction with the Italians in the ironmongers because I had a secret weapon. Twenty-five years earlier I’d had a smattering of Latin at school. Obviously if the conversation bore any resemblance to ancient Romans going about their daily business, I’d be all over it.

The friendly ironmonger and her husband were up at the counter chatting, I had a quick look round the shop for a suitable plunger, but didn’t see want I needed. The ironmonger knew me from my frequent forays into her shop to spend a ton of the client’s money on things I passed off as vital, but really I was just curious to try.

I approached the counter and smiled. There was nothing for it now, I had to go for it. I said Good Morning and told the signora in my shocking Italian that the sink wasn’t working; “lavandino non funziona”. A puzzled look came across her face and I turned to her husband to see him similarly confused. Miming would have to be the next stage of this.

I mimed ‘sink’ (basin, plug hole, plug, taps). I mimed ‘water in sink’, ‘removing plug’, ‘water still in sink’. I assumed I’d laid the groundwork for the star of the show, the plunger.

I mimed ‘plunger’ (the shaft of the handle, the bulbous rubber cup bit). I held the mimed plunger in my fist and lined it up with the imaginary plug hole. I mimed pushing the plunger up and down against the plug hole. I mimed removing the plunger and the water splashing up with force as the water released.

The frown removed itself from the ironmonger’s face and she covered her eyes and turned her head away from me. Now I was confused, but looking at her husband for a clue, I saw his face creased in a naughty smile.

At which point I realised, I’d just mimed ‘hand job’.

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