Jay Rayner before starting his shift working as a Kitchen porter at the Ivy restaurant in Covent GardenThe Observer restaurant critic is used to life on the other side of the kitchen door. So how would a hard shift on the hottest day of the year work out?I am standing in another man's shoes, and those shoes are moist. It's nothing to do with the other man. Most of me is wet by now: there is sweat running down the small of my back and dripping down into my eyes; my trousers are clinging to my thighs, and the pads of my fingers have wrinkled, as if I've been in a bath too long, which is curious given they are inside elbow-length black rubber gloves. But the water they are plunged into is so hot my hands, like everything else, are sweating. I am pulling a shift as a kitchen porter at The Ivy, and I am quickly coming to a stark conclusion: these are shoes I am not fit to fill.
The kitchen porter " KP for short " is the foot soldier in the restaurant kitchen brigade that you never see. When camera crews go in to professional kitchens they focus on the polished, spot-lit pass, not the roaring sink tucked away in the corner. It is the chefs in their crisp whites at the front they care about, not the men " and it almost always is men " in their rubber gloves at the back. And yet without them the kitchen would collapse. A head chef could dispense with half the brigade or more and the food would still get to the table, slower than usual, but it would get there. But without the KP to make sure there are clean pans for it to be cooked in and clean plates for it to be served on, those diners would stay hungry.
"The KP is vital," says Michel Roux Jnr of Le Gavroche in Mayfair, who did the job as a teenager to pay for a record player. "Good food starts with a clean pan. I look for experience as a KP on the CVs of people applying for jobs in my kitchen. It means they understand the way it works." Raphael Duntoye, head chef of nearby La Petite Maison, who also worked as a KP before training as a chef, agrees. "Everything's connected. If the plates are not clean it doesn't matter how good the food on that plate is. It's coming back to the kitchen."
Not that it's a job which has always garnered respect. In Down And Out In Paris and London, George Orwell's account of life lived at the very bottom of the economic heap and first published in 1933, the writer describes working as a plongeur or pot washer in a Parisian restaurant called the Auberge de Jehan Cottard. Being a plongeur, he writes "is a job which offers no prospects, is intensely exhausting and at the same time has not a trace of skill or interest". If anything, his view only hardens as time goes by. "A plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world "... he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art."
Today it can be a way to advance up the kitchen hierarchy. At La Petite Maison, Duntoye has two cooks who started with him on the pot wash. "It starts with me wanting them to do some small jobs like peeling carrots or prawns and quickly you realise they can do more." Mouctar Doukoure from Ivory Coast is now a chef de partie here, after starting as a KP. I ask him for advice for my own imminent shift. "You need to listen to the chef," he says with a grin. "Because they get upset very easily."
Like Mouctar, most of the kitchen porters in London appear to be from West Africa. I ask Bunmi Okolosi, maitre d' of Arabica Bar & Kitchen in Borough Market, whose family is Nigerian, why this might be. "Firstly, it's a very strenuous job," he says. "These guys seem able to do it. Secondly, it's very hot by the sinks and they are able to take those conditions. And then there's the fact that many are academics." It transpires that, as with too many of the toughest jobs in the urban economy, some of the most educated people in the restaurant kitchen are the ones working the sinks on the lowest wage. "The hours fit in with their studies."
Bunmi sends me to meet Lanre Falese, who runs a crew of KPs and who supplied Arabica with theirs. ("We didn't interview him," I am told by James Walters, who co-owns the restaurant. "He interviewed us for our suitability to employ his boys.") All of Falese's team are West African though he has no particular theories for why this might be, save that, "if you are not fit you cannot do it". His job, he says, is to make sure that the working conditions are good. "I want to check the kitchen is conducive, that it's safe, that the floors aren't slippery." Are all chefs today aware of the importance of good KPs? Lanre shakes his head. "Too many chefs don't care," he says. "But without them the kitchen would be nothing." And the money? "It's not that good, it's not that bad," he says. Essentially this means they get paid minimum wage or slightly above.
So what is the worst job in the kitchen? He doesn't hesitate. "Cleaning the deep fat fryer," he says. "Oil goes everywhere." And his advice for me? "It is all about health and safety. You need safety shoes and gloves. Check there is a constant supply of hot water and that the space is ventilated."
Easier said than done. By chance, the day I am to work the 4pm to midnight shift at The Ivy is the hottest of the year, with outside temperatures north of 35C. What's more, while The Ivy has recently re-opened after a major refit, they are still dealing with certain snags, including a blast chiller on the roof which keeps tripping the electrics. Three or four times at the start of the shift the kitchen drops down to emergency lights and the air conditioning fails as the electrics cut out. Later, they decide to drop the air conditioning down to reduce power usage and the chance of tripping the system again. (All these problems have since been rectified.) It all means I am to work in the kitchen on the hottest day possible. The main walk-in fridge here is stacked with bottles of water and we are told to take them whenever we need them.
In the chef's office, a glass box that looks down over the shiny new basement kitchen, I am briefed by Gary Lee, head chef of The Ivy, who also did the job as a kid. "You learn about self-discipline and self-motivation from being a KP," he says. He has a team of nine in his kitchen, working shifts to cover all 14 services. "They're extremely committed and extremely loyal and they've got this killer work ethic. Here, everyone knows the KP is as important as the chef." He introduces me to Ghanaian-born Peter Ofori, who has been here since he was 17 and who at 25 is now the head KP. He is too polite to put it this way but, quite simply, I am now his. He looks at my leather shoes with disdain and hands me instead a pair of rubber safety shoes.
The way Peter describes it, he and his three other colleagues on this shift are the restaurant's last line of defence. "If the council [environmental health officers] close us down it is because of the porters not doing the job," he says. "Everyone comes to us to have problems solved." And then, like a philosopher of the kitchen sink, he says: "It is a hard job but life is not fair. Life will give you what you fight for."
He puts me to work alongside Kwadjo, also from Ghana, on the pot wash: two sinks in a small enclosed space up some stairs from the main kitchen. "Hot water is everything," Peter says. "You must have hot water." Industrial strength detergent is kept in a highly concentrated solution in a bowl to one side of the sink. My weapon is sponge overlaid by a separate scourer. Immediately the metalwork starts piling up: endless oval metal "flats" of various sizes on to which items are placed once cooked; bowls and pans; oven trays, some with caramel-based sauces cooked into them. All must be scrubbed to a mirror-like cleanliness; the sort of staining and tarnish which your pans at home might carry as a mark of service, is here a mark of failure. I scrub away and throw them into the rinsing sink to my left, only to have Kwadjo chuck them back to me because they are not clean. From the stoves behind us come the constant shouts of cooks who need flats and pans collected or delivered.
The first stint is half an hour, but the heat and the effort and the sheer speed are staggering. This, the hours just before evening service, is the fiercest part of the daytime routine. Metal trays arrive by the second. It is not the hardest job I have ever done; that was the pig tank in an abattoir, dragging hog carcasses through tanks of hot water. I lasted just 90 minutes on that. But this is meant to go on for eight hours.
Peter sees me sweating and takes me instead to the fridge, shoving pieces of thick clean blue material in my hands which I am to use as rags. I am told to stow the extras inside my apron so I "look pregnant", or more pregnant than usual. I am grateful for the cool in there. "We clean the fridge every day," he says. "Sometimes three times a day. If the inspectors come and find dirt here we are closed down."
I am to lift off every Tupperware box and clean every shelf and every patch of wall behind, and then get the boxes back in the right order. I end up playing fridge Tetris, as a constant stream of cooks come and go looking for boxes of ingredients. Peter returns after half an hour. "You are too slow," he says. Am I? "This is too slow. We have other jobs." I have disappointed Peter. I am gutted.
Suddenly there is a shout. The rubbish truck is outside. Together we must shift everything from the rubbish room " sack after sack of putrefying material, huge compressed stacks of cardboard " up four flights to the street outside. It takes two of us to get the cardboard upstairs and I fear my back might go. I point out to Peter that he is almost half my age. "I am an old man," I say. He tells me to stop complaining. The rubbish truck does not hang around for long.
The whitewashed stairs twist up and round and at one point pass the door into the dining room, where the early tables for dinner have just started being seated. Occasionally, as I pass, it flaps open. I glimpse the glitter and shine of the newly refurbished dining room; the endless bubble and warmth of chatter. Out here it is all strip light and hard surfaces. In there it is all soft banquettes and "Would madam like another glass of chablis?" Usually that is my world; not today.
As we head back downstairs, Peter tells me to grab some food. It is 5pm. I tell him I'm not hungry. "If you do not eat now, you will not eat." There is some perfectly serviceable roast lamb, chips and carrots. I eat standing up by the stoves in about two minutes, before being told to fetch a bucket of soapy water and more blue cloths. I am to do the doors and stairwells all the way down to the staff toilets. "And then you clean the toilets." I am beginning to suspect Peter is enjoying having me under his command. And so it is that I clean the staff bogs at The Ivy. Halfway through, one of the cooks comes in. He takes one look at me and says, "I'll try not to miss the urinal." I tell him I'm touched, but that I'm sure he'd enjoy the knowledge of who had to clean it up if he did.
The late afternoon becomes evening becomes night, though there is no daylight down here so it's hard to tell. For a while I am on crockery. It's the easiest job: stack the plates in the rack, spray them down, into the industrial dishwasher and out. Together Peter and I do the drains in front of the stock pots, cleaning out all the clammy vegetal matter that clings to the grids above them, and the coagulating fat below. He hands me a small chrome shovel and tells me to empty out the drained fish-stock pot, full of long simmered bones and tails and heads. I think about the sauces to accompany glistening sole and plaice dishes served upstairs in the restaurants that caused this foul job.
It is the second stint on the pot wash that breaks me. This time I manage well over an hour. Sweat runs everywhere. For a moment I stand in the fridge and watch myself steam. And then back in. I ask the others if this is the worst part of the shift. Apparently not. That's at the very end, when the entire kitchen has to be cleaned down. This is just average. The theatres have just come out. The wife of Richard Caring, who owns The Ivy, is in the dining room. Actress Sandra Dickinson is in there, apparently. The night before I was too. Tonight though I am here, as far backstage as it is possible to be, draining my bodily fluids away into my clothes.
And then my fingers begin to cramp. I need my fingers. I type with them. I play the piano with them. They are important to me, and they have stopped working. I lift my hands out of the sink. The Spanish Ghanaian guy to my left who has only a smattering of English, looks baffled. I tell him I have to stop. I cannot do this. I am not worthy. It is just gone 10pm. I managed six hours of an eight-hour shift. Outside, in the street, Peter says, "You tried your best." I thank him. He adds, "Some guys do what you do and they never come back." This is meant to make me feel better, but suddenly I realise: I'm not coming back either. I have done just one shift of the hardest job in the restaurant kitchen and I have survived.