We’ve all had to endure some pretty hideous jobs and power hungry bosses, only interested in bums on seats and subordinates and superiors . I occasionally reminisce back over some of my darker days of the employment world and whilst they were some moments that made my blood boil, each time I experienced injustice, it made me all the stronger. In the hospitality industry you will always encounter those whom you would like to do unspeakable things to their food but working in private households is a career in its own league.
I’ve cooked for many well known people from television, film, the literary industry and royalty, including HRH The Prince of Wales. The job of a private chef requires striking a balance between immersing oneself into the life of your employer yet keeping a respectable distance and always with an air of nonchalance; feigning ignorance when a little too much private information has been exposed to you.
You are never completely free when you live on site as I have been required to do for two of my previous jobs. The ‘could you just…’ moments as infrequent as they are, stand to remind you that you are living on someone elses land and therefore terms.
Of the two live in jobs I did, the first was the hardcore bootcamp training for the second. By the time I returned home to Dorset to begin a 3 year stint as a private chef, the occasional fleeting comments to remind me of my status and purpose were like water off a ducks back. The one and only time a situation arose where I felt a huge sense of injustice, I approached it head on.
Unbelievably I endured my first live in job for several months, because we were situated in a beautiful part of the world and immersed among 125 acres of undisturbed countryside. Our only neighbours, 3 spitting alpacas and the rolling hills and regular woodland visitors to the garden at breakfast time made up for the draconian approach to employment. I can happily say that job taught me a lot about people, food and life in general. and stood me in good stead for my subsequent role.
I usually steer away from the F word. I don’t believe in failure. I see our learnt opportunities to begin again, only this time much wiser. And the smattering of class discrimination that marred the otherwise perfectly idyllic work and life balance for me made me truly aware of the vast array of human behavior and of course gave me whimsical fodder for my writing.
However farcical I write, there is an underlying note of seriousness that I must convey to you all. We may look back on upstairs downstairs or Downtown Abby as a fictional series based on events that happened in history and we must all be aware of the drastic times we live in when many are barely getting by below the poverty line. But I have seen and lived amongst great affluence and when you realise how much wealth there is and then you look at the end of the spectrum and see the suffering, you realise the class system, whilst we may no longer refer to it as that so much, is alive and well, living amongst hundreds of acres in the home counties and giving their animals better care and attention than fellow man or woman…
A few weeks in as The Housekeeper /cook and Mr and Mrs C are in residence for the birthday of their eldest daughter Miss C the 1st, who arrives into a room with the same amount of melancholy as an emo teenager (she is in her late 20’s) that I feel I should offer her a noose and a radio head album with her morning coffee.
Mrs C was adamant she wanted stuffed mushrooms for the starter and even though my life time motto is that life is too short to stuff a mushroom I dutifully began the stuffing process.
I have always loved waitressing, being able to carry three or four plates at the same time and swishing my hips through the restaurant was my forte.I always felt in my element. I prepared the entire meal and then turned my hand very quickly from chef to serving staff. With a fixed smile upon my face I began the obligatory circling of the table. Laden with fish and potatoes I had churned out for 14, with only the mangy feral vomiting cats for company in the kitchen, I began my tour of the table where I was promptly ignored by 11 diners. This was not like the funky cafes and restaurants I had served in for the best part of my working life. This was old school. This was 19th Century ‘scullery maid verses master’ at its best. (What a great idea for a reality programme, don’t ask me for a breakdown of it – I literally just thought of it – Channel 4 if you are reading this, you saw it here first).
Undeterred, I moved on and approached one gentleman ( I use that term loosely) finishing an anecdote about how he had only ever changed a nappy once and instead of putting on a fresh one he simply turned it inside out. I waited patiently as he received his uproar of “Gfwoars” before gently clearing my throat. He looked up at me squatting next to him, the lactic acid creeping up to my thighs, smile fixed to my face now turning into gritted teeth and he pronounced
“Oh! there is someone there”. I continued my sponsored squat, lactic acid now lashing up into my right arm holding the platter which incidentally weighed about 10Kg.
“I saw a platter appear and wondered if it had a head” he continued.
Oh, I thought. Yes, indeed this platter has a head. It also has a heart, an inside leg measurement and a preferred brand of tea. But you and I will never get there. For now I am a headless squatting platter serving you potatoes and fish whilst you entertain your fellow diners with tales of your incompetency in child rearing.
The next morning as I served breakfast I had to endure listening to a half an hour conversation about who they considered to be the better housekeepers, as I slopped eggs and bacon onto their plates. With just two examples within the space of 12 hours,you can see how this level of oppressive behavior was unambiguous throughout my time there.
Headless platter man probably wasn’t trying to be a facetious (he really was) and the breakfast clan probably were not even aware I was in the same room as them. But fairly quickly it hit home. How did I get here? I want this lifestyle of beautiful countryside, freedom and all being together as a family but is this the con to my pro? Must I always sacrifice something in life in order to get something? Am I sacrificing my dignity, my feminism, my egalitarian views, my views on the class system?
I allowed myself to be in that situation for a short period of time before I bailed and abandoned ship but not before grabbing all the moments and memories I could to remind myself to never ever let anyone treat me the way I allowed that entire family and their friends to treat me on a regular basis. Julian Fellowes may be earning his crust writing about the socioeconomic statues of days gone by, but I was living it. Everyday. And many people still are, whether they are experiencing it first hand like I was or they are the poor wretched souls suffering for the disgraceful amount of greed that consumes those who feel they’ve earned, inherited or married into it.
The thing that saddens me most is that first live in job I did, I was not paid for. Not one penny. I was given a house to live in and that was it. In exchange for that I had to give 24 hours a week of my life to a family who owned more land than I could physically ever see and were heirs to a British-based multinational agribusiness and global providers of distinctive high quality ingredients.
It moves me more now than ever that I have my own little critters to drag up and eventually have to raise the curtain to reveal to them the blatant reality of the divide between the rich and the poor.
Food is a basic right and good food should be available to all. Especially our children. Whilst I post fun foodie pics on my instagram accounts and harp on a bit about good family food, my absolute vocation is to make a difference and by exposing a little bit of the truth about the selfish greedy monster that hides in gargantuan pads, or obscures itself behind lush fields and forests, I hope to be one step towards making my mark in the fight for equality.