Fresh is Best

The following story was first told at The Moth in Melbourne. The theme of the night was "Fresh".

When I was growing up, I loved cooking. It wasn’t because I was always in the kitchen with my mum or anything like that; she was a terrible cook. 

My school lunch was usually a Vegemite sandwich she’d prepared in advance and frozen in bulk. Sometimes, in winter, I’d get to lunch-time, and that sandwich would still be semi-frozen. I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten a semi-frozen Vegemite sandwich. 

It’s not very nice.

If I wanted to eat well, or at all, I had to prepare food myself.

So I started watching cooking shows. Gabriel Gate, Geoff Jansz, Iain Hewitson: these guys were my heroes. 

Later in life, cooking was a great stress reliever for me. I’d get home from a crappy day in the office, I’d cook, and I’d feel happy again.

About ten years ago, after going to uni and working at a consulting firm, I ended up in the public service. I’d just moved departments and found myself with the manager from hell; awful communicator, arrogant, rude, and the tiniest bit dumber than me.

Not even cooking after work was providing much relief. 

One day, my manager ended a meeting with me by throwing some documents on the floor, storming off and yelling, “ahh, do whatever you want.”

I drafted a resignation letter on the spot. Went up to her in this big, open plan office, handed her the letter, told her she had no respect for my skills or expertise, and I couldn’t work for her.

The whole office went silent, but I still heard the random tapping of “f’s” and “j’s” and “k’s”. Probably even the odd "g".

My manager took me into a meeting room. Persuaded me to stay. 

And I did … for another miserable week before resigning again, this time with just a polite letter.

They had a going-away morning tea for me. I’d been there all of three weeks, so it was pretty awkward.

“I mean nothing to you. You mean nothing to me ... Thanks for the cake.”

I told them I was going to start an apprenticeship as a chef. 

I’d been thinking about it for a few months, but it was such a dumb thing to do. I was in a safe, secure, cushy government job. Decent perks, pretty good pay. But working in the public service, I’d often get home and think, what did I achieve today? If I hadn’t turned up, would that have made a difference to anyone, anywhere, to anything? 

At least as a chef I could get home and say, “today I peeled five onions and ten carrots. Today … I achieved something.”

The night after I quit I couldn’t sleep. It was about 4am and I went for a run around Brunswick, where I was living at the time.

It wasn’t “Eye of the Tiger” going on in my head though, it was Oh shit, what have I done? Oh shit, what have I done? I am such an idiot!

My first job was at the Rathdowne Tavern in Carlton. The head chef was this big guy called Roger. He was the first Swedish person I’d ever met. First thing he said to me was, “take out the beans.”

I said, “the beans? Sorry, which beans?”

“Not the beans. The beans.”

“I’m sorry, I've just started, I’m not sure which beans you mean?”

“Take out the beans! THE BEANS.”

We went on like that for about five minutes.  Turns out he meant, “the bins”. He hated me from that point onward. 

It was great, cooking, though. I felt so alive. I was part of a team and I got to meet some really strange, wonderful characters, the likes of which you don't come across in an office. 

Yes, there was the constant abuse, and it was stressful, backbreaking work. After a couple of years, I had to have carpal tunnel surgery on both wrists.

The pay was terrible. My first two employers, for two years of work, didn’t pay me a single cent in superannuation. Not to mention any weekend penalty rates.

The hours were awful. I went from working 7.36 hour days in the public service, to working 7.36 hours before I'd even get a break in the kitchen, then working another 7.36 hours on top of that.

It was hot, sweaty, dirty work. 

But I loved it. 

I loved it, till my carpal tunnel syndrome came back, and it got to the point where I couldn’t even pick up my six-month-old little boy because my hands were so wrecked.

So I gave it away. 

That little boy, he’s five now, just started school. 

The other day, he said to my wife, as she was packing his lunch: “Daddy says ‘fresh is best’.”

No frozen sandwiches in our household.