There was never really any doubt Zack Deakins, of Bury St Edmunds restaurant 1921, would become a chef when, as a teen, he took a job in the local pub. He explains why. . .
I was 13 when I first walked into a professional kitchen. A mate of mine was washing dishes at a local pub and he got me a job there. Well I say local, it was about six miles from where we lived but most of the villages around us no longer had their pub.
I was nervous – although I was to be working with Mike, I had no clue what to expect.
I was due to start at 10am but I got dad to drop me off about 9.45. Being late, well no, being anything but early stresses me out. Always has. Better to be an hour early than one minute late is a motto I still live by.
Walking into the kitchen I was instantly hit by the heat. It was a shoebox kitchen with two enormous stoves and a couple of large stand alone fryers at one end. Even though the sink where I would be working was at the other end of the kitchen there was no escaping the ferocity of that heat.
The chefs were all joking around as they finished off their prep for Sunday lunch. Flirting with the waitresses and discussing how much they had drunk and how little sleep they had had the night before. They were rude, they swore prolifically, they were completely the opposite of day-to-day life at Colchester Grammar School. To me they were cool.
There wasn’t much washing up to do at first. So Mike and I chatted away. He had already been there a little while so he was showing me where things were and where things went. Simple enough I thought.
It was such a relaxed jovial atmosphere I couldn’t for the life of me work out why I had been nervous.
At about 11.45am the chefs went out for a cigarette, almost all chefs still smoked back then, and the remaining waiting staff started to arrive
At the time, The Victory Inn or Wickham Ship, as it is often called, was a very busy place. We would easily do 100-150 covers on a Sunday lunch. It was run by husband and wife team John and Julie Bowers. John was in the kitchen and Julie was out in the restaurant. There were two other chefs, Little John and George. Trevor was behind the bar, but other than that the rest of the team, waiters, waitresses and kitchen porters, were all kids from the surrounding villages. I recognised a few faces and this only added to my feeling of relaxation. It just seemed like it was going to be like hanging out with friends.
Other than that searing heat I was feeling pretty comfortable.
“Check on,” Julie belted as she came charging through the kitchen door.
“Two potato skins, one breaded mushroom, one broccoli soup, followed by two beef, one shank and a sea bream,” barked John.
The switch had been flicked.
Suddenly, this tiny room was a hive of activity. Everyone was moving. Noise everywhere. Clanging pans, searing meat, fridges doors banging.
“One prawn cocktail, one waldorf salad, to follow. . .”
And John and Julie shouting instructions to each other and everyone else.
Pans came flying at Mike and I. He would frantically wash them and throw them at the draining bored never really taking his eye of the sink. I frantically tried to dry them and get them away before the chefs needed them again. This was by no means an easy task – dodging waiters, chefs and hot pans flying across the kitchen. One thing I learnt that day and I would say is true of every kitchen I have worked in since. . . there is never enough pans for the rush!
All the chit chat was gone, no one had time. You wouldn’t have been able to without shouting at each other anyway.
“Six lamb for table eight,” and only John was shouting.
I just tried to keep my head down and move as fast as I could.
By the time it was all finished it was about 5pm. I was soaking wet from sweat and dishwater. I was exhausted, somewhat overwhelmed by the assault on my senses I had just experienced.
As I was leaving, John said: “You did well today, wanna come back for more?”
Want to come back for more. . . I couldn’t wait. I was instantly hooked on the energy of a busy kitchen and I hadn’t even picked up a pan or a knife yet.
Twenty-three years later I still feel the same. . . I can’t wait to be back in the kitchen.
Zack Deakins is chef patron of 1921 Angel Hill in Bury St Edmunds
Call 01284 704870