The Secret Chef: The case of the mysterious drive

A few years ago when the business was just getting started I was up in Liverpool meeting potential new clients for our private chef business when I received a text. This was late on Wednesday evening.

The text was from a acquaintance who is also a private chef. He is called Peter and he is based on the south coast.

Peter was unwell and had a 40th birthday party to cook for a former racing driver that Friday. Peter asked if I could ‘do the gig’. I was reluctant because I had a full diary in Liverpool for the rest of the week. Also I couldn’t work out why Peter didn’t have a chef friend who was already on the south coast to do it.

My team of chefs were all tied up with other clients on that Friday, so if it were to be done, I myself would have to do it.

I asked to see the menu that the client had agreed to. After that I was even less keen to do it.

The menu was a really odd mixture of items that didn’t (in my opinion) go together at all. Cooking someone else’s menu is akin to going on holiday with a suitcase full of someone else’s clothes. What they would pack is not what you would pack. Same with menus, even my best friend chef, or chefs I myself have trained, would write menus I would find ‘odd’ to cook.

TLE

Thursday afternoon Peter was still begging me to do it so I agreed to do it. I cancelled all my meetings for Friday and started the drive down. The venue for the birthday party was within striking distance of our office so at least I didn’t have to organise a place to stay and a prep kitchen to cook in.

On the four hour drive down I got a text from Peter saying the change of chef had yet to be approved by the client. The client must have not realised that unless they agreed to the change of chef, the Birthday Boy plus all his guests, who were flying in from all over the world, would be sitting down to a table entirely empty of food.

Friday morning at 10.30 I got a text from Peter, who said he was still too ill to actually call me. The text said the client would be texting me ‘shortly’.

From the menu I had typed up and printed off I wrote down all the ingredients I would need to buy and the order of work. With this done I could hit the ground running as soon as I got the all clear from the client.

The other elements of prepping for a one off gig: all the tools I would need at the client’s house; various serving platters; jugs; my knives and my whites, I’d placed by the door.

My parachute was packed, at least as much as it could be.

TLE

At 11.30am I finally had a text from the client’s wife. At last I had the thumbs up to proceed. This was leaving all the timings extremely tight since I was an hour away from the venue and the birthday dinner was to be served at 7pm. Add to this the fact that I didn’t know the kitchen I’d be cooking in, the oven I’d be cooking with and had never met the client. Even though I’d been cooking for clients in their own homes for over 15 years at this point, I’d never had to deal with so many unknowns all at once. I was nervous.

Part of the menu was a baked ham. Hams, even little ones, take several hours to cook, first boiling in stock then removing the fat, covering in a honey mustard mix and baking. And there is no ‘winging it’ with a ham. Undercooked pork equals many unpleasant trips to the bathroom.

First stop was my friendly butcher. I picked up all the meat I needed for the menu including the massive lump of raw ham.

I went straight to the prep kitchen and put the ham in big pot covered it in boiling water and put it on a low heat.

Immediately I turned around and headed out to shop for the remaining items. I could speed up the shopping process slightly by using some of the items we already had in the prep kitchen’s freezer. We had frozen whipping cream and homemade stock which I could use for the birthday party. All this time the ham was slowly coming up to a simmer.

We have special insulated containers for keeping large quantities of food hot for short periods of time so once the van was packed I carefully placed the ham, pan and all, into the insulated container and putting on the lid, punched the postcode of the venue into the Sat Nav. Off I went into the great unknown.

The ham sitting in the hot liquid would continue to ‘cook’ as I drove.

The Sat Nav led me to a lane beside a beauty spot. People had parked their cars in the lane and were walking their dogs. The client’s house was in a particularly breathtaking location. I had to drive up and down the lane a few times to find the house and by the time I rang the bell on the gate I was flustered, sweaty and stressed. It was in this state that I met the client and his wife for the first time.

I parked the van to the side of the drive, which looked like an outdoor supercar showroom, packed as it was, with some of the world’s fastest road cars. Their daily drives seemed to be a brand new smoke grey Bentley and two glistening black Land Rovers.

After a brief round of ‘hellos’ I started to unload the van. First item was of course the ham. I put the huge pan straight on their gas stove. The commercial size pan looked gargantuan on their domestic five burner gas oven. Meanwhile I unpacked and sorted out everything so that I could start cooking in a logical, organised manner once I had changed into my whites. That way I’d minimise the stress of cooking this big, complex meal.

The client asked me to move the van as the space were I had parked was near to the patch of lawn they used as the helipad. The Birthday Boy told me ‘I’m not sure if Robbie will fly or drive, so you’d better move’. I did as I was told. The work van was a new addition to the company. I was sufficiently proud of it that I didn’t want to get a helicopter blade lodged into it.

Really feeling against the clock now I hurriedly changed into my whites in a downstairs loo and tied up my hair. Once dressed as a chef I always felt like I was a professional who could handle any level of chaos.

As I emerged from the loo the client’s wife asked me if I could smell burning. I could smell burning wood and assumed it was a log fire. It wasn’t a log fire.

On entering the kitchen I saw the gas flame licking up the side of the ham’s saucepan. The flames had made contact with the adjoining solid wood work surface. The surface was glowing bright orange and alight.

I put out the fire. Apologised profusely to the two worried faces of the client and his wife. I told them the company insurance would pay for the damage. Trying to clear my mind to focus on cooking dinner wasn’t easy.

Not only was this a disaster but it also ate into valuable cooking time.

So many things went wrong during preparation of that dinner.

The defrosted cream wouldn’t whip (I was too flustered to stop and liquidise it before trying to whip it), the wooden work surface became marked by every spot of liquid dropped on it. The house proud client kept popping into the kitchen to be chatty, wipe up any drops of liquid and presumably to see what other destruction I was causing. The oven was too small to fit the leg of lamb, so I performed some emergency butchery. The oven itself cooked very unevenly and I burned one side of the Brownies. Each newly arrived guest had to come into the kitchen and talk to me at length. The rest of the disasters I seem to have blacked out of my memory.

The meal went well and everyone was very happy. I cleaned and packed up the kitchen. I got changed back into my civvies and went to the loo I realised my period had just started. I walked out onto the drive (which now spot lit and crammed with a dozen more supercars) and loaded the van.

It was now an hour after sunset. Whilst the drive was spot lit, everything beyond the gate was a thick rural darkness. I backed out of the gates onto what I thought was a path beside the beauty spot. I continued reversing thinking the lane further away from the gates. I met resistance but carried on, then I worked out that the ‘path’ was in fact the ‘lane’. I got out of the van and saw what had been causing the resistance. I’d been trying to reverse over a low but solid wooden post. The type of low post that is often at the edge of beauty spot precisely to stop people driving onto the beauty spot. I did my best to reinsert the post into its whole and bash it back into place by stamping on it.

All of this was watched through the open gates by two guests who were out on the drive showing their cars off to each other.

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