|With the owner and the co-worker who helped
make salads and taught me the most
A few months earlier, I had walked into the small, vegetarian cafe and got myself a job cooking Indian food once-a-week. Tired of being at home alone all day and being unable to go much further in my limited German I had yearned for some work, any work. And this was the one that was available to me. The pay was low but the experience would make me rich, so I signed up. Some people who came to know of my decision were surprised by it. They could not understand why I would do something low-paid like cooking when I could spend my time gallery-hopping or at the spa or going skiing during the week. Why would I put myself through such rigorous work for such little returns? I couldn't come up with a convincing enough answer, so I stopped trying to convey to them how it was so much more than what I was making (peanuts, since you wonder) and how much I was growing personally when faced with challenges of the sort I had never encountered up until then.
You see, cooks at our cafe did not just cook. We served, cleaned and manned the till as well. So every week I cooked a soup and a main course for forty customers till noon and spent the afternoon serving them. It was physically demanding work and I would return home barely able to muster enough energy to string two words together. But it gave me an opportunity to try something I had not done before - cook for a paying crowd that would often be merciless in its criticism. So I stuck with it. Here are some things I learnt along the way:
- I realised that how you feel on the day somehow feeds into the food. If I was nervous about getting the recipe right, it would reflect seamlessly on the plates. If I was particularly relaxed on the day, I would see the customers smiling, chatting and complimenting me on the food. I taught myself to relax (I would sing along to whatever was playing and that would have an instant effect) and to enjoy and savour the experience. As the months went on, I grew a steady clientele who would turn up Friday lunch time for their curry fix.
- It is important to experiment but more crucial to deliver. The small cafe had a regular clientele who came there for good, honest homespun food. They did not expect Michelin star, instagram-styled food. They did not care for the little drizzles or the fancy decorations on the plate. So long as it tasted delicious and looked half-decent, the cook could take her fancy garnishing elsewhere. The crowd came to be fed so they can then return to work, they did not give two hoots for swirls of this or droplets of that.
- Plan ahead but also be flexible enough to throw it out of the window. The cafe was mainly there to use up the veg that the owner could not sell in her organic veg shop because they were mangled and a bit sorry-looking. With that in mind, any recipe should be adaptable enough to accommodate whatever veg was there, lying unsold. Some weeks I have been met with a glut of pumpkins past their prime, waiting to be used up for me. I had to be inventive and quick to come up with a recipe. To my credit I don't think any German cafe has ever served Erissery before.
- Don't take it personally. This was a hard one for me to accept and one that I have to constantly remind myself of. When an old German lady tells you that yes, she is there to pay, but no, she will not hand over the money to you, don't take it personally. When a very pregnant customer shouts at you for not feeding her quickly or feeding her enough for the money that she is paying, don't take it personally. When in your eagerness to get it right precisely, you've let things burn and now it is beyond redemption and there are eight orders pending and the owner is apoplectic, do apologise profusely but don't take it personally.
- Savour the experience. To be given a chance to feed people and watch them tuck into something that you have worked to create and have them thank you for their lunch, what a priceless honour it is! It is tempting to reduce value of everything to monetary returns and to wonder if all the effort was worth the few paltry quid at the end of the day. But I find it vital to recall that it is a privilege accorded to few and one worth cherishing.
If I were to plot my personal growth on a chart over the past two years, it would show a vertiginous incline. What I have learnt about myself and what I am capable of is not something I could have imagined just two years ago. And to be accorded the opportunity to learn as an adult is a precious thing and I am enormously grateful for it.
In a few short weeks my family and I return to our old life and last week was my last working day at the cafe. A few customers shook my hand, took photos with me, handed me handwritten good luck cards and hoped that I would return one day to the cafe to cook for them. Now, I don't know about you but this is not something I can ever put a price on and charge at the till.
Serving Erissery To Germans - part 1 here