Almost 20 years ago I was a waiter at a suburban steakhouse, serving palaeolithic slabs of flesh to sometimes Neanderthal diners in exchange for Victorian wages.
The iconic franchise prided itself on being a “family restaurant”, but the view I got of family was powerfully contraceptive: parents, blotchy with resentments, sniping at each other over food that wasn’t making them as happy as they’d hoped; gyrating urchins mainlining on sugar; grannies with faraway eyes, remembering a more elegant time, gumming their way through a baked potato with extra salt in the hope that it would give them a stroke and take them away from all this .
Given the mood of the place it wasn’t surprising that few of my interactions with diners were pleasant. But the customer was always right. Which was why when I brought one woman a bowl of warm water and a slice of lemon to help her clean up her gory mug after she’d finished gnawing her way through a ribcage, and she snapped at me, “No man! I didn’t order soup!”, I simply bowed and said, “I’m so sorry, ma’am” and took the offending bowl away, leaving her to mop at her fat-splattered jowls with her sleeves.
It was also uncomfortable being an accessory to the small social crimes people commit every day. Some were intriguing and a little sad, like the Muslim wives who would whisper into my ear to bring them an empty Appletiser tin and a tumbler of white wine so that they could unwind without the judgment of their husbands and friends. The strange thing was that everyone at the table knew that they weren’t drinking Appletiser. It is an odd feeling to be intimately drawn into the denial of people you don’t know.
Others were simply depressing, like the mild-mannered bloke from last week suddenly treating me like shit in front of his new girlfriend so he could show her that he was an apex predator. I was tempted to step out of character; to kneel down next to her, to take her hand in mine. “Firstly,” I wanted to say, “he’s brought you here on a first date. Here. So that’s the first thing. And secondly, if he thinks you’ll be impressed by him bullying an undergraduate earning minimum wage by endlessly finding fault with meat-by-the-yard non-cuisine, is this really someone you want to have sex with?”
But I didn’t, because as bad as it was out on the floor, in the kitchen it was worse. The delicious sauce that stood in a jug on every table needed to be put into those jugs, which meant kneeling on a floor made slick by the leftovers ditched into a central open drain, rolling up your sleeve and plunging your arm into a vast plastic bucket of the stuff, a gallon of primordial ooze.
Other special memories still linger, such as the gigantic lady tenderising chicken breasts with a mallet, pounding away like a bad-tempered, underpaid Thor, and seeing a cockroach run down the wall next to her and head for her counter. She wouldn’t, I thought. She couldn’t. But she did. Without missing a beat she sent that cockroach straight to Viking hell and then continued pounding on the chicken, mashing bug and bird together into an unholy new dish – cocken – years before anyone dreamed of turducken.
I was remembering those days this week as I read that Cambodian rat meat is becoming the snack of choice in parts of Asia. The move away from cows to creepy-crawlies has begun. Soon roach-pounding will be a culinary art rather than something that claws at your eyeballs. But I’m okay with that. My time at that steakhouse cured me of food snobbery forever. I like food, and I like those who care about it and cook it well. But to be precious and sneering about food, which is meant to be a simple pleasure, seems silly.
Which is not to say that food snobs won’t try to pretty up the goggas we’ll be eating in 20 years. Instead of being honest and saying that the rat roast left them underwhelmed, they’ll celebrate the “minimalist elegance of the rodent fillet, the tiny T-bone (drizzled with a cheeky jus of grasshopper) a triumph of the bonsai cooking”. We might have made peace with eating jellyfish cooked in burning fracking run-off but the pundits will insist that we’re enjoying “the ocean’s bounty brought to the table in a swirl of colour (grey, beige, white, off-grey, off-white, beige-grey) and then flambéed in locally sourced fire-water”.
It’s certainly food for thought. Then again, I prefer food for stomach. And on second thoughts I don’t think I’m ready for this future. Waiter, how’s that wine and Appletiser tin coming?
First published in The Times and TimesLive