First Chef is the title given to the first chef to enter the kitchen in the morning, running the breakfast shift. As in,
“Who’s the First Chef tomorrow?”
“I am, Chef!”
“Well, don’t be F&^%king late like last time.”
It was Oxford, 2001 and I was a Chef De Partie in a well-known French bistro and bar. We used to pump out 300 + meals a night, everything from chicken liver pate to crab tarts to cassoulets. I was on grill section – steak frites, grilled chicken, Toulouse sausage, tuna, salmon – there was a lot to manage. I also didn’t have control of the final dish; I was just a part to the end product. The sausage, for example, was served with pommes puree, which came from another station, and my seared tuna had to make its way to the salad section for the Tuna Nicoise. As my items usually took priority, all other chefs had to work to my schedule, making the pressure that much more. However, the general rule of thumb was don’t overcook or undercook anything, and you’ll live to cook another day.
Our first chef was a young Egyptian French guy called Atif. I remember distinctly his arms and hands were covered in scars and old burn marks that told his story of behind the kitchen line. As the First Chef, he would arrive at 5 in the morning, to prepare for his breakfast shift. Breakfast wasn’t too busy, but we did serve as the breakfast room for the small hotel that was directly above us. There could be around 80/90 people coming down for breakfast on some peak days, plus some random walk-ins.
I used to arrive around 10 am for my shift and would always catch the tail end of his. He would often help us out with mis-en-place for the lunch shift. Atif took life at a certain pace. He was a big weed smoker, often chopping his buds on the same chopping board and with the same knife as he would chop the mushrooms for a full English breakfast order. He was unhurried and chilled about most things, but also acted with brutal efficiency and precision. It was almost as if he never wanted to exert any energy that was not absolutely essential. Atif was a pretty talented chef but never wanted to be anything other than the First Chef. The general consensus was because he was so lazy that he didn’t want the stress and high pace of a busy Friday night.
I recall he was helping me pour a large stockpot of boiling water down the sink. I lost my grip on the handle as we raised it to the sink. Boiling water drenched my apron across my entire groin area. Within surprising speed and accuracy, Atif somehow grabbed a small paring knife and sliced the apron strings and pulled the boiling hot apron fabric off me before it soaked through to the skin. In hindsight, he could have stabbed me instead, which would have been a really bad day – third-degree burns and a small vegetable knife hole in my back.
However, the best story I remember about him was when we were expecting to be particularly busy for breakfast. I took the early shift to support him and learnt a very valuable lesson in laziness.
I watched in amazement as he meticulously set up the continental breakfast buffet in the restaurant. I had never seen such attention to detail and high-quality food. The fruit in the fruit salad looked as if they had been sliced by a computer guiding chopping knife. The bakery section was generously filled with croissants, pain au chocolat, and Danishes, all baked to golden perfection. Artisanal breads, warm bagels, jams, soft French butter all shone under the restaurant lights.
The cold cut meats were individually rolled, folded and stacked like some origami black belt had been bored. The cereal boxes were aligned with military precision. Fresh from the oven granola sat in polished glass bowls. Ice in the orange juice jugs tinkled gently, as drops of condensation slowly trickled down the glass.
The aroma of hot fresh coffee percolated the air. Creamy home-made oatmeal sat in a warmer, honey, cinnamon powder and chocolate bits tempting you to take a bowl. Ribbons of bright yellow scrambled eggs, folded with crème fraiche, sat in a polished chafing dish.
And there was Atif, the chef famous for doing only the bare essentials, creating this masterful display of a truly outstanding continental breakfast buffet. I was speechless; it wouldn’t have been out of place in a royal palace.
As the first customers entered the restaurant, Atif grabbed his kitchen towel and walked back to the kitchen.
“I’m going for a smoke – call me if you get busy with orders.” And just like that, he disappeared down the stairs and out the back of the kitchen.
I jumped behind the line and waited for the al-la-carte orders to come flooding in, anticipating the whirl and buzz of the kitchen printer. Nothing happened. Ten minutes went by, then twenty, and then thirty minutes, and the only order was two medium poached eggs.
I stuck my head into the dining room and grabbed a waiter as he rushed by.
“How busy is the restaurant?” I asked
“We’re full,” He replied, hurriedly.
“Then, why is no-one ordering anything?” I asked
“Because they are all going for the buffet.”
The whole breakfast shift went by with a minimal amount of orders. By the time breakfast had finished, I had cooked maybe six orders and a refreshment of the scrambled eggs – hardly enough to break a sweat. I turned off the hot lamp and went in search of Atif, who hadn’t made a single appearance. He was in the break room, feet up, cigarette in hand, watching breakfast TV. He looked at me with a little smile on his face. “Busy?” He asked.
He knew exactly what he had done, and it slowly dawned on me, the sheer brilliance of his laziness. By making the buffet look irresistible, he knew no one would order al la carte, preferring the buffet instead. By spending 45 minutes in the morning, making it look good, meant he could spend the next 2 and ½ hours watching TV and drinking coffee.
“Remember,” he said, “lazy people will always find the best way to do something. I go home now.”