Tough and tougher

Kitchen confidential: The secret chef reveals that physical toughness helps with making tough decisions

I used to have soft hands. Writer’s hands. Delicate fingers that would flit over a keyboard tapping out recipes and other sundry thoughts about food. Looking at them now I see the hands of a different person. Hard calluses litter the fingers of my knife hand. Carbonized grime from cleaning the stove nests under my nails. Dry palms, messy hangnails and little scars jostle for attention. I think nothing of handling meat and vegetables straight from a hot pan. The aches and pains associated with a working life lived arduously and vertical are a dull white noise, not the raw screams they used to be. In short, my body has changed, it has had to adapt and desensitize itself to cope with the nature of what I do day in day out.

But some days are exceptional. At the end of last year I fired my assistant restaurant manager. He has a small child under one and, unbeknown to me at the time, his partner had left him a few weeks prior. He was good at his job. A calm and professional career waiter, who the customers liked and returned for. Aside from the occasional, but inevitable, clash of heads with the GM, he was admired among the staff too. I fired him anyway. And I did it just before Christmas, the busiest period of the year when charity and goodwill sit in the air like heavy clouds.

Five years ago I wouldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have done it. The spiritual warmth of season would have got to me, the baggage of his circumstances would have weighed on my conscience and I would have been terrified of the impact on December sales. Moreover, I simply wouldn’t have had the stomach for a confrontation.

But my job doesn’t just leave the fingers gnarled and tough; those calluses erupt on the soul too. The reality of the job toughens the spirit, leaving it with a rough-hewn armor of many tiny scars. I realized this only after I saw him walking off, a pitiful sight with his small box of possessions and tear stained cheeks. Did I really just cause that?

Of course I did. I had to. He may have been accomplished at his job, but more importantly he was a thief. Cash sales were being rung in as void on the POS, which ensured the till balanced, but also that his pockets were lined. Going back through the sales log just four weeks yielded enough evidence to prove that upwards of $1,000 had been stolen by him over the previous month. It was a short meeting. I was well prepared and he couldn’t even muster a defense. An admission came quickly. That was followed by apologies, tears and an assurance that he had always had every intention of repaying me, he never intended to steal, he was just going through a bad time. I could have believed him, a few years ago I might have done. He looked broken, sadder than anything I had seen and accepting of a fate that he had created for himself.

But looking at his blotched and puffy face, his glassy eyes staring downward at the floor, told me more than his words did. The money was long gone. As were the highs it provided. The comedown was biting hard alongside the realization that the dominoes of his life had toppled in rapid succession, each one cutting painfully and deeply as it fell.

As I watched him walk off I felt sick but I knew I had made the correct decision. Only he was responsible for what happened and only he had power over what happened next. Either those fresh wounds would fester and remain open and sore, eventually taking over his life, or he would let them heal allowing them to create scars and calluses of their own, scars and calluses that one day he would be as thankful for as I was for mine right then.

The secret chef