A Chefs Memoir

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: New Writers wanting Reviews

A Memoir of a young chef working in London and France in the 1960s.

Hello, my name is Michael, I'm twenty seven year old and an alcoholic. I have also been diagnosed with manic depression. I wasn’t always like this. This is the first time I’ve been hospitalised. Why did this happen to me? Truth is, I really don’t know. Here’s what I do know. It’s easy to look back and enjoy the memories of being young. It’s a lot harder to understand how your adolescent life takes you to where you are now. 

I can remember with clarity the first day I arrive in London. I had just turned seventeen. My uncle Harry was on good terms with the maître d'hôtel at the renowned restaurant L’Escargot and arranged for me to have an interview. A job offer followed and I was instructed to arrive at 48 Greek Street, Soho London at ten o’clock on Thursday 9th February 1961. I caught the train from Faversham to Victoria train station and before I knew it, I was on the number nineteen bus heading towards Shaftesbury Avenue. Dirty, smelly, noisy Soho was an incredible mixture of restaurants, cafes, markets, and clubs. The multicultural blend of people surging round the streets was mesmerising. As I was taking in my new surroundings, I tripped and fell on a feisty and now angry young woman. “Fucking Hell, watch where you’re going” she yelled.

Her name was Brenda. She had long, raven black hair, inviting blue eyes, pink lipstick and was showing off her full figure in a revealing crop top. I offered to help carry her heavy luggage as a way of an apology. “Oh, and bye the way, My name is Michael, Michael Forester” I said, somewhat shyly. 

“And you can call me Brenda” She replayed flirtatiously. “Now hurry the fuck up”.

She led me to a nearby club entrance with a large red sign over the front door. A man “built like a brick shithouse”, who looked like one of those mobster you now see in the movies seemed to be guarding the entrance. He acknowledged Brenda and let us both through the entrance and into the lobby. “Wait here and Look after my cases, I'll be back soon” 

Brenda appeared several minutes later and instructed me to carry her cases up four flights of stairs to a small room at the top. We chatted briefly and I suggested we could catch up some time for a coffee as we were both new to Soho. She smiled but didn’t answer. There was something about Brenda that I liked straight away. As I left, My mind was buzzing with thoughts of us crossing paths again.

Arriving at my destination, I was greeted by John Paul, the maître d'hôtel of the restaurant. He was a medium built man with short cut thick black hair, bushy eyebrows and a square chin that gave him a rugged look. He would turn out to be a good friend. I guess my uncle had instructed him to keep an eye on me.

‘Bienvenue mon ami’ The next thing I knew, I was kicking off my shoes and changing in to checks, chef jacket and kitchen clogs. I was briskly escorted to the kitchen and introduced to Anton Bocuse. Anton was in charge of the vegetable section. He was a short stocky feller, who looked only a few years older than myself. Each day would start at 7pm. Anton and I would wait for the fresh vegetables to be unloaded from the nearby covert garden market, then we would carry the boxes down three flights of stairs and across the outside basement into the main storage area. By 8pm I was peeling potatoes; Pommes frit and Pommes chateau being the order of the day. This was followed by beans, aubergines, courgettes and asparagus. The ‘mise en place’ list never seemed to come to an end.

The maitre chef de cuisine was ruthless when it came to discipline and standards. The kitchen fell silent when he appeared. Head down, on with the job. "Yes chef, no chef." No one ever questioned his decisions. His name was Jean-Claude. He was a heavily built man with a grey curling moustache and spectacled beady-eyes that didn’t miss a thing. He would check each dish for quality and if it wasn’t right you would soon know about it.

Lunch started at 12pm sharp. As service neared, grills and ovens were lit and you could feel the heat and the tension rising. 

Chef Claude would appear at the pass to orchestrate service. Food service would start with the sound of a bell ringing followed by Chef Claude calling the first of many orders. ‘Sur commande duex terrines, une sole, deux côtelettes d'agneau...’

Food service was nothing less than amazing. All the chefs working together; cutting, slicing, chopping, shouting orders. The kitchen was ferociously hot and fiery; it looked like chaos but somehow was organised with complete dishes appearing from nowhere. By 3am the restaurant was closed for the afternoon. This was an opportunity to take a break for an hour or two before dinner service. By 11am the kitchen had been scrubbed clean and it was time to sleep. My accommodation was a box room housed in the lower basement of the restaurant. There were several other staff bedrooms and a shared recreation room which staff would meet up to play card games or talk shop. It was against this backdrop that I soon felt part of the restaurant’s extended family.

On my first day off, I decided to explore my new surroundings. As I passed the jazz club of Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street, I couldn’t help noticing a suave dapperly dressed black man in an alleyway leading off the side of the entrance. He was in the process of rolling a large joint of Marijuana. Having seen me looking over, he lit the spliff, inhaled the fumes and promptly offered me a puff.

“Would you like some ‘Charge’ man?”

“Pardon me?” I replied nervously.

Do you want to try some ‘Charge’? 

You knows it man: POT, SHIT, WEED.

“It will make you feel good man” he said in a calm Caribbean ascent.

Trying to act cool, I accepted without hesitation. I took the spliff between my fingers and inhaled.

“Not like that man, take it down, deep down man”

I felt dizzy, sweaty and relaxed whilst at the same time euphoric and excited. 

Tajo Goldberg was a kitchen porter in the now famous Ronnie Scots Jazz club. we instantly became friends and on my days off I would often take a bus trip to his digs in Westbourne Grove in Bayswater. Tajo lived in a spacious one room ‘bedsit’ which was furnished with colourful scattered cushions and a single mattress which everyone would sit on whilst smoking Marijuana. The sound of Afro Jazz would continuously be played through two large wall speakers. It was always busy with people popping in and out, mostly from his home country. Sadly, racism was very prevalent.

I had been working in Soho for about two week when I bumped into Brenda again. And I literally mean bumped. We both collided as we simultaneously came round the corner pavement of Broadwick and Wardour street. Managing to stop her from falling over, we both regained our posture. I gave her a hug and we chatted for a few minutes before she briskly walked on. This chance meeting prompted me to call on her. Managing to bypass the doorman, I energetically ran up the stairway to her room and nervously knocked on the door. As Brenda answered she looked horrified to see me.

“What the bloody hell are you doing here?”

“I thought I’d pop round for a cup of tea” I replied nervously.

“Well, you can bugger off, before I call for help” She exclaimed angrily.

I had just turned to leave when she called back, “Okay, just a cup of tea mind”

We spent the afternoon chatting away like we had known each other all our lives. We shared a couple of joints of Marijuana and fell asleep on the bed, curled up in eachother’s arms. The warmth and smell of her body was intoxicating. I awoke to the sound of Johnny Tillotson’s hit record ‘Poetry in motion’. Brenda wasn’t anywhere to be seen. She had decided to take a bath. As steam poured out of the bathroom, I caught sight of her naked reflection in the mirror. I had never been so aroused. The next thing I knew, Brenda was ushering me to leave, insisting she had to go to work. She said I could call on her tomorrow evening.

Back in my room, I wrote a letter expressing how I felt about her. It read something like this.

Dear Brenda

This is going to sound crazy, but from the moment I first set eyes on you I haven't been able to stop thinking about you. I believe I’m in love with you. Would you consider going out with me?

Love Michael x

The following evening, I returned to Brenda’s room. I knocked on her door. There was no reply. I continued to knock and then for good measure I turned the door handle to see if it would open. It was locked. I slid the letter under her door. The next day, I returned to her room with naive expectations. Again, there was no reply. A love letter is useless if it isn’t read by the recipient. I had to find her. I continued to return to her room whenever I had a chance, all to no avail. She had disappeared. 

As a last resort, I asked the doorman if he had seen her recently. His reply wasn’t what I was hoping to hear. “She’s fucked off, And if you know what’s good for you, You’ll do the same”.

Time flew by between Brenda’s disappearance and the day I am about to recollect in August. Brenda’s whereabouts often played on my mind whenever I had a moment to reflect. I was anxious to find her. I couldn’t understand how someone could disappear literally overnight. During this time, I vividly remember one occasion when visiting my parents and sharing my concerns with my father. My dad just grinned, put his arm round my shoulder and tried to console me.

 “You have nothing to worry about, People come and go all the time, especially in London. She’ll turn up again. Mark my word.”

I spent most of my free time in Westbourne Grove with Tojo getting stoned whilst listening to Jazz prat the Coach and horses having a few beers with the chefs from work. I had also invested in buying the recently translated ‘Guide to modern cookery’ which I read when ever I had a spare moment.

(Chef Escoffier is credited with modernising classical French cuisine.) This book was amazing at the time and a big inspiration to the way I thought about food. By now, My cookery skills had improved enough for Anton to trust me to serve the vegetable dishes without supervision. 

Throughout August the weather had been very warm and the evening was only just beginning to cool down. It was Tajo’s birthday and we were celebrating it at the popular Flamingo jazz club. Tajo and I were standing outside the side entrance smoking a spliff when we were joined by an old friend of his called Lucky. His real name was Aloysius Gordon. Lucky seemed to know everyone. He had a reputation as a hustler and fixer. He worked part time as a Jazz singer, singing rhythm and blues at the Stork club in Swallow Street. Tajo had known Aloysius most of his life. They had both been brought up in the same village just outside Kingston in Jamaica. Aloysius was several years older than Tajo and had been the leader of their gang.

were standing at the side entrance of the club when Aloysius drew our attention to a young woman who looked an epitome of elegance.

As I caught sight of the woman in question, I realised it was Brenda. I almost didn’t recognise her as she had her hair in a bun, wore a revealing expensive looking dress and had a stunning diamond crusted necklace round her neck line. Accompanying her was a middle aged man, who was tall and impeccable dressed.

“Hello Brenda love, how are you?” I asked full of good spirits. She walked past me as if she didn’t know me. I wasn’t perturbed by her actions and followed her towards the cocktail bar on the other side of dance floor. The room was packed with people jiving to the sound of the Jazz band playing ‘Twist and shout’. It was noisy, smokey and the lights were dim. As I approach the bar, two well-built heavies wearing dark suits arrived on the scene. Split seconds later, violence erupted. The attack was vicious and swift. As Brenda’s companion reached for what looked like a gun from his jacket pocket, his attacker struck him so hard on the nose, his face seemed to split in two. His tonnage crashed to the floor knocking over bar stools like skittles. The two assailants disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Brenda ran for the back entrance dropping her evening purse bag as she tried to escape. Our eyes came into contact for a split second, confirming my suspicions that she had chosen to ignore me. I grabbed the purse, hiding it under my jacket as she disappeared into the night. On my way back to my room there were Police everywhere. I still had an adrenaline rush and my head was packed with excitement and anticipation. I had only one instinct, to find Brenda again.

On returning, Anton and John Paul were in the lounge playing billiards. John Paul asked me if I had heard anything about a murder at the Flamingo club. I told him I had not. Once alone in my room, I opened the clasp of the purse hoping to find Brenda’s contact details. Inside the purse was a small bottle of Chanel perfume, a lip stick, a handkerchief and a pair of tweezers. I slid the zipper back to open the inner compartment. To my surprise, I found over two hundred pounds in cash. A substantial sum of money back then. To put things in prospective, I was earning less than eight pounds a week. There was also a door key and a receipt with safe deposit written on the back of it. There was no address or phone number. As it turned out, Locating Brenda wasn’t an issue as she contacted me, or should I say John Paul. That morning, he came to the kitchen to inform me that he had a message from a young woman. She had requested that I meet her this evening at eleven o clock, outside the Hippodrome theatre. ‘She hadn’t identified herself but insisted you would know who she was’ he went on to say.

Food service finished at 10.45 pm and I headed straight for the Hippodrome Theatre. Brenda seemed to appear from nowhere, having been waiting for my arrival in the concealed side entrance. She was wearing a glamorous beaded Turquoise dress with high heeled shoes and lipstick to match. Her long raven black hair was flowing as the wind blew between the cavities of the buildings. She greeted me with a confident peck on the cheek, pointed out I was late and grabbed my wrist as she directed me towards a silver Jaguar waiting at the side road adjacent to the entrance. She instructed me to get in the back seat of the car as she followed me in. She introduced me to her companion at the steering wheel and pleasantries were exchange, with hints of cynicism and jealousy.

“Stephen this is Michael”

“Hello Michael, very nice to meet you”

“Michael this is my friend Stephen, Dr Stephen Ward”

After the introductions Brenda cut to the chase. 

“Michael, Have you got my purse? I really need it back.”

As the car prowled Westminster, Brenda explained what had happened. Since meeting Stephen, she had been moving in ‘Mayfair's smartest’ meeting lots of very wealthy men.

The other evening at the Flamingo club, when that tragic incident happened, she was with Frank, Frank Torrio. Frank was an American business man. They had recently met at an exclusive chemin de Fer party, hosted by John Aspinall at the Ritz hotel. Frank was in the process of expanding his business portfolio in London, buying clubs and dancehalls. He was supposed to be meeting an acquaintance to discuss a deal to take over the Flamingo club, when the attack happened. A well known East-end gang had instigated the attack following his refusal of a partnership. She needed to return the key and safe deposit voucher to a contact of the gang before anyone else got hurt. It was no good going to the police as half of them were on the gangster’s payroll. 

As I returned her purse, I asked the question that had played on my mind since her disappearance. Why did you just disappear without saying anything?”

Brenda’s answer wasn’t forthcoming. Embracing me and displaying a guilty look, she went on to say, ‘I’ve been staying with Stephen at his Thames-side summer house just outside Taplow near Windsor. One of Stephen’s friends has arranged for me to do some modelling work in New York, I leave in a few day time.’

As the car pulled to a standstill outside the L’Escargot, Brenda returned my letter. It was unopened with a Turquoise lipstick kiss seal in the centre of the envelope. I wondered if our lives would cross paths again. Soon after, I was offered an opportunity to continue my training in France.

 

Paris June 1967. The year now dubbed the summer of love. French cuisine was being acknowledged as the finest in the world. Discotheques, jazz clubs and cafes were sprouting up all over Paris suburbia and students and workers were protesting for their right to wear long hair and sleep together.

By now, I had become part of the French culinary scene. I enjoyed socializing, drinking and smoking pot. Time had flown since leaving London. I was now able to speak French with confidence. My cooking skills had exceeded my expectations and I played a mean game of Petanque. During this period of my life I had had several girlfriends all without commitment on my part. Back then, It was unusual for an English chef to survive more than a week in a French kitchen, I had been here for nearly five years. I hadn’t just survive, I had flourished and was now Sous chef at the highly renowned Café de la Paix. The Café de la Paix had been opened for over one hundred years serving the residents of the Grand-Hotel. It has been a popular high class eatery ever since, feeding visitors from all over the world. At the time, Pierre Louise-Rue was the maitre chef de cuisine. He was a huge man, slightly greying and the hairs on his moustache bristled when he was furious, which was often. He ran his brigade with military precision. He would use a frying pan as an extension of his fist. Ruthless. We worked hard. Every night after a hard service became party night. I loved it - the banter, the pressure, the sense of achievement in pulling off a great service. It was like a drug all by itself. 

During this time, we had achieved the highest accolade in cookery, winning three stars from Egon Ronay. Life in a Paris Kitchen in the mid 1960s can only be described as a way of life. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t have to deal with drunkenness or someone burning or cutting themselves. Not that there was any sympathy. Bullying was prevalent and almost encouraged as a means of toughening up new recruits. In fairness for the majority of chefs there was no bravado about the way they cooked. They cooked because they loved it. We were creating luxurious dishes such as langoustine and truffle ravioli and slow-cooked pigeon with foie gras. But one of his most famous and beloved recipes was for the humble mashed potato - or pommes purée - which, was a 60 to 40 mix of potato to butter. 

I had just moved into a sheik attic room on the top floor of a town house overlooking Paris streets, just off the affluent Avenue de Champ Elysees. Looking out across my balcony gave me a clear view of the lined oak trees, chic restaurants, shops and boutiques. It wasn’t long before I caught sight of a young woman dressed in a floral mini dress entering the main entrance of the house. As our eyes made contact, she smiled. She was very beautiful. Very Parisian. Fine boned and slender with bold blue eyes, shining wavy black hair and a smile that would brighten up your day. Over the next few weeks we exchange pleasantries as our lives crossed paths.

“Bonjour, Mon nom est Suzanna...

I can still remember our first meeting as if it was only yesterday. She was so full of life. So impulsive. so full of energy. I soon learned she was married to the owner of the apartment, my landlord Monsieur Gabriel Dupont. They lived in the Penthouse below my room. Gabriel was a successful corporate lawyer who was often away on business. I would occasionally meet whilst whilst waiting for the lift to arive. This lead to him inviteing me in for drinks and canapé. He was a short stocky man with a  large bald head and brown protruding eyes. He looked much older than his wife. He was always impeccable dressed in bespoke dark tailored suits with a pink and sometimes white carnation. Whilst he had a Stern french demeanour, I always found him friendly. Suzanna and I continued to exchange friendly gestures. “Bonjour, comment allez-vous?”

Then one morning to my suprise, she invites me to join her for a light supper in the evening. She insisted I joined her; not that I took a lot of persuading. On arriving, my eyes nearly popped out of my head. Suzanna was wearing the most tantalising outfit I had ever seen. A black see-through dress with just one row of pearls around her neck. She looked so alluring and attractive. I sat at her table as she fetched the charcuterie starter. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her, black panties, black bra. She was looking at me and her eyes were sparkling. Well, we have been in each other’s company for about ten minutes when she said, “Would you rather fuck me now, or can we have supper first?”

It transpired that Gabriel libido had wained to virtually zero. She had tried many times to rekindling their sex lives but he alway seemed to find an excuse. For Suzanna who was only in her late twenties and with a rampant libido this was a big problem. She was frustrated. She had needs and they were not being met. Our secret affair played out between her husbands and my work commitments. 

Our relationship soon became full on. I was even becoming jealous of her husband even though I was the predator. Suzanna had made it very clear from the start that she would never be prepared to leave her Husband. She was not waning in her decision. Gabriel held the purse strings to the life she had become accustomed to.

I would return to England once or twice a year to visit my parents. And a couple of years ago my parents holidayed in Paris. We all had a wonderful time. I was proud to show them the sights. I even managed to stay off the Booz and pot most of their stay. But in truth Holiday times were spent checking out the opposition to get inspiration and ideals for the restaurant. Last year Pierre and I Traveled nearly 300 miles to Lyon to check out the highly renowned L'Auberge de Collonges. Paul Bocuse’s reputation was becoming part of the gastronomic gossip columns. He had just gained three Michelin stars  for the high quality of his restaurants and his innovative approaches to cuisine. 

Having recently taken charge of his fathers village inn restaurant ‘L'Auberge de Collonges-au-Mont-d'Or.’ His innovation had taken the restaurant to the highest level. One thing I had leaned from the French is if you want to stay at the top of your trade you must eat and drink in all the best Restaurants and Inns. Born into a family of cooks since 1765, Mr Bocuse started in the kitchen at 14 and was renowned for his epicurean appetite for fine wine, food and women. One of his favourite dishes was the classic ‘pot-au-fur.

I remember, one early autumn morning Suzanna and Gabriel had gone away on holiday in Mont Blanc Chamonix. I was sat in cafe Maxim’s (Not the now famous Maxim’s restaurant with all its Art Nouveau interior decor - but a small insignificant cafe just off the Eglise Saint-Eustache) enjoying an expresso coffee and a smoke before work when I heard a voice from the past. Isn’t it strange how as we get older our appearances change with age but our voices rarely do. “Michael how are you, all these years. Unbelievable. What are you doing here in Paris?”

I turned. It was Brenda. I know this is becoming a bit of a cliche, but I didn’t recognise her. Not at first.

Although we hadn’t spoken in nearly five years the moment I knew it was her my feeling returned. I was struck for words, not that that mattered,  as she had plenty to say. “Let’s catch up, have dinner with me tonight.”

That morning, I call in a few favours and managed to arrange to get the evening off. I waited for Brenda outside the hotel lobby. The sun had already begun to set, its final rays fading into the variegated shimmer cast by a long procession of dim Art Nouveau lamps and bright storefront neon. I lit a pre-rolled joint and inhaled. Flashbacks of our time together in London gave me butterflies in my stomach. It wasn’t long before she arrived in a smart looking Mercedes-Benz. She looked very elegant as she walked towards me. Like royalty. She wore enormous Chanel glasses, the chic lace headscarf, a tailored dress, preened gloves and fitted coat. Yes, I had been infatuated by her. I still was. I had never felt like this about anyone else. I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes. We embraced and kissed. Within minutes both of us had decided to skip dinner and headed straight to the hotel suite. We quickly shed our cloths. Our love making was tender and passionate. It was as if we both knew every part of each other’s body. Our primal instincts took over as we shared each other throughout the night and into the early hours of the morning, only stopping to smoke a joint or snort a line of coke. I had never tried Cochin before but I have to say it was good. Breda said she regularly used, it just made her feel so right. As I woke up, I rolled over and reached for her.  I felt so happy and excited. She wasn’t there. I called, but no reply. My heart began to sink.

I went down to reception to find her. I was informed she had left in a limousine two hours ago. I was handed a letter.

Dear Michael, 

I hope your expectations of me have been fulfilled. It was wonderful finally having our night together. 

It is hard to say goodbye to someone who you think could be so right for you. Sometimes life just gets in the way. I didn’t wake you.

I had to go. I have a flight to catch.

Maybe one day our lives will cross paths again.

Love B x

That was the last time I saw Brender. Looking back, My emotions hit an all time low. I’m a man and men don’t do emotions. Right. Well not back then in the sixties. By now, I had become quite good friends with Gabriel DuPont. He was forever inviting to join him for a glass of wine. One evening, not long after my encounter with Brenda he asked to speak to me. He came straight to the point of the invitation in a somewhat aggressive manner "I want you to stop fucking my wife". He wasn't asking me he was telling me. To be honest, the affair had all but ended and our meetings were platonic. He then went on to tell me to find new digs as soon as possible, adding that he and Suzanna were planning to start a family.

Like a bolt of lightning everything seemed to hit me at once. The realisation that the drugs and drink had caught up with me. I felt empty. I had nothing left. The problem with habits is at first you make them then before you know it they are make you. Drinking and smoking is what I did from daybreak to day’s end. It never occurred to me the damage I was doing to myself. I can remember quite clearly is the dual emotion of crying and laughing both simultaneously and between each other’s bursts. Everything in my head had become empty to a point of pointlessness. I felt a pain so empty, so piecing, so harrowing, you don't won’t to come out of it alive. A darkness was so deep in the abyss, I couldn’t see a way out. Suicide wasn’t an option it was my mindset.

I was not sure how long I had been asleep. When I awoke the room was strange to me. The curtains had been draw open and there sitting on a chair in the corner, legs stretched out before him, was a man ruddy of cheek with tousled white hair and hands steepled together to the posture of someone comfortable in the surroundings.

Hello Michael, my name is  Patric McGreggar. Where am I? I asked. How long have I been here? You are in the Priory Hospital, Roehampton. Your in London. You have been her three days. I am your consultant. You are burnt out, maniacly depressed and reliant on alcohol and Marijuana. You want to edit it out of your life somehow, to start again, to disappear. But it is there, it is done, and it cannot be undone. The first thing that came into my head and the question I asked was, How did I get here and who is paying for all this? ‘Ahh Monsieur Dupont’  Doctor McGregger replied in a solemn voice.

 


Submitted: September 12, 2019

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AdamCarlton

What did I think of the story? It reads like a "I was there" memoir. So a great act of immersive imagination, as I assume you weren't.

Ideas for improvement? It's a bit one tone throughout, could do with a little more emotional roller-coaster. Stir in a little Lee Child or Richard K. Morgan, perhaps.

Hope you find these suggestions useful. It's good: held my attention.

Thu, September 12th, 2019 6:52pm

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Thanks for advice. Would you mind having a quick read of A Gamblers tale - Part fiction part true event.

Kind regards
Peter

Thu, September 12th, 2019 11:59am

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