A Chef’s Revenge

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The food industry has been good to me over the years, providing me with many experiences, some good, some bad and some worse. I’ve been chef on a Murray River paddleboat, a casino, a department store, a Queensland resort and various other pubs, clubs & cafes. Food is like fashion. It’s influenced by what’s poplar at the time, just as my career has been. I have been fortunate to run kitchens at three popular St Kilda locations. It’s time to spill the beans.

SteveTV SteveAnderssen opyright2010A chef career is for the hard working and dedicated. There are times when it’s gruelling torture and other times when you can really enjoy experimenting with food and performing your craft. The official pay is generally not in line with other tradesmen such as plumbers or electricians. A casual barman can walk in off the street and earn the same as a chef, without the 4 year apprenticeship, the training and experience required of a chef.

Some employers cut corners to survive, while others are like family and treat you as the heart of the business. You will be expected to perform sick or without breaks when it is busy. Don’t even mention the germs that are spread during those times. The hours can be long, inconvenient or just down right unreasonable. You will always seem to be working while everyone else is out enjoying themselves. Some customers appreciate your talents while others can be demanding or fussy like self-proclaimed ‘micro-Master Chefs’.

Not to be too bitter, there is an upside, as in other parts of life it’s about the people you work with. There are those that I am still friends with many years later and those I wish never to see again. I have had some amazing times in kitchens. As I’ve fed the masses, I’ve loved and laughed as much as I’ve ranted with anger. My own criteria for a good job requires the right money, hours must suit and responsibilities must satisfy my need to create and produce, (oh, and no chef uniform but t-shirt jeans and apron).

In the late 80’s and early 90’s I worked at Bella Roma in Fitzroy St. What an eye opener that job was! Fitzroy St was host to a nightly circus back then, with hookers, junkies, social misfits and all other walks of life included. The menu was simple pizza/pasta/bistro and we home delivered everything from Oysters Kilpatrick to panty hose from the 711. Our clientele was mainly locals and tourist and we delivered to homes in the area, as well as seventeen of Melbourne’s sex parlours.

What people didn’t realise was that the place was also infested with cockroaches. There was an ongoing battle between me, the bug world and occasionally with the life on the street too. Bella Roma is long since sold and the building demolished. A nice bookstore is now there on the site.

In the late 90’s, after working in the city, I returned to St Kilda to work at the original Café Vibe in Acland St. This was a much more relaxed environment, situated in the heart of the latte belt. I got a chance to work and have fun with a young vibrant staff. In those days Acland St was always pumping on the weekends and I was regularly feeding as many people as possible, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. There were cockroaches there too but not as bad.

This is where I got an opportunity to create a floor mural from tiles, broken plates, flotsam and jetsam. It was a unique artwork proudly executed by myself and Belinda De Vries, at the expense of Eden Baker (the owner).

We had a lot of fun at Vibe. I remember my camp waiter friend Andy mincing between the tables, like you do. As he seated a couple of ladies they asked, ”Can we smoke?” “Sure” he said, “If you rub hard enough”. It was that kind of place. It was sold and renovated a couple of times over and a completely different café stands there today. Our mural was dug up years ago but I bet the cockroaches still remain.

I believe to be a good chef it is important to gain experience working in as many different situations as possible. My own resume is testament to the many establishments I have personally influenced or affected, depending on conditions and my mood.

Throughout my career, I have been witness to many mishaps, disasters and dim-wits behind the scenes. You should also be aware that real life is not like Master Chef. I’ve seen lost band aids in food, mould, mice, rats, countless bugs and hairs. Ask any foodie and I’m sure they will have a few stories that will shock.

Whenever I have interviewed chefs for employment I have been amazed that 9 out of 10 have proved to be idiots. I’m certainly not perfect and I’m sure that even when I have been overly busy and unreasonably worked to the limit, mistakes have been made. I apologise now, get over it.

In the early ‘naughties’ I went for an interview in a little café called MilkToast in Carlisle street, East St Kilda. It was owned and run by twins Maria and Kia Maketakis. I worked happily with them for seven years before it was sold (so the girls could go for a well-earned overseas holiday). Although we all worked hard as a team, I reluctantly admit that these were some of my happiest years cooking. I was able to present a healthy selection of fast café meals. I was also known for my home-style cakes, cookies and all day breakfasts, among other things. It is still there but under new management.

Somewhere along the way my chef experience seemed to become focused to a point where it became easy and second nature. My old Hungarian Executive Chef that trained me as an apprentice used to say, “Mister, the first 20 years are the hardest”. I now know his words to be very true.

In my time I have also been thrilled to cook for many celebrities, television and movie stars. I remember one occasion coming chest to face with Wesley Snipes looking for the toilet, as he accidentally entered my domain. He had to be the smallest action hero I have ever met. Neighbours stars have eaten my muffins. Olympians, footballers, comedians and radio personalities have all enjoyed eating my food. Most send compliments to the kitchen but I never did get Russel Gilbert’s eggs right!

Being a chef is both physically and mentally stressful. After 30 years I refuse to torture myself any longer. Cooking is merely a hobby to me since I have moved into journalism and graphic design but I will always be a producer of some description. I love the feeling you get when you take a few ingredients and produce something completely different from it and I especially like making things rise in the oven but nothing beats the enjoyment of watching someone devour your meal with gusto and appreciation.

Outside of work, I used to share my joy and knowledge of food through community television. I had a cooking show on Bent TV, Channel 31 with Paul Eglinton. Some episodes of the bitchin kitchen can still be viewed on my youtube channel, sven4men (all one word). “the bitchin’ kitchen“(all lower case) only exists now as a page on facebook, with 800 friends many years later. It is a place to share ideas. If you would like to check out my recipes, go to the notes section and scroll through the many healthy recipe entries there. I also publish recipes in the Q News in Queensland, so I am uploading new ones fortnightly, for your enjoyment.

My 30 year career has supplied me with knowledge of nutrition and constant employment but the best thing that I have gained from it is that I always have my own personal chef with me where ever I go.

Words & artwork by Steve Anderssen

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