Sunday, 15 April 2018

Jake // Kitchen Assistant

From when I was fourteen until I was eighteen, I worked in a small café in my hometown, as a kitchen assistant serving lunches and stacking the dishwasher. The place was called “Café Espresso”—which I suppose is the same as calling it “Café Coffee”, or even “Coffee Coffee” if you really boil it down—and it was owned by a man called Phil. Phil was in his forties, had a mop of blond hair and wore sandals. He was an ex-hippy, this being the South West of England, home of Glastonbury and other such mediocre remnants of the British counterculture (Phil very much included). He was a perfectly nice guy basically, but that made him all the worse as a boss. One minute he’d be droning on about his acid flashbacks, or the origin of his coffee beans, and the next he’d be flipping out at you for having your hands in your pockets during a busy Saturday lunch crush (when you were only indulging in the kind of lackadaisical approach that he claimed to want to cultivate in his little establishment). And then he would dutifully apologize for having lost his cool, and you’d have to accept his apology, since how could you not?

I never did too much to annoy Phil, except take advantage of his basic decency. I always showed up on time. The only thing I really did was I resolutely refused to improve as a worker. He always wanted me to learn to carry three plates, one balanced on the wrist, the other two in your hands, like every competent waiter can do. Since the café was over three floors of a tall thin building—the kitchen in the basement and most of the tables on the top floor—there wasn’t much room for error up and down those windy staircases. But I never learned, and nor did I honestly try. Mainly I was scared to try. The one time I did make an earnest attempt, bread went cascading down the stairs behind me, and I slopped soup everywhere. Phil left me alone about it after that.

The other thing Phil insisted was that I learn customers’ names. He prided himself on the community feel of the place. So the checks would come down to the kitchen, and sometimes instead of saying “table three”, or “outside”, it would say “Susan and John” or something. I would usually know who these people were, but I would always insist on having Phil point them out to me, just to embarrass him, and to make it clear I wasn’t there to learn names, only to deliver the food. “You don’t know Susan? She comes here all the time.” “Yeah sorry Phil, I only work here Saturdays. what does she look like?” And repeat.

I held nothing much against the guy, but he always seemed to have enough money (I suspected inheritance) so I never felt too bad taking advantage of his basic decency. He’s the template for nearly every boss I’ve ever had, infuriating in their exterior of tolerance and easy-goingness, when really they know what you’re there for, and so do you, and your respective interpretations of the employment relationship don’t really reconcile themselves.