Arguably the best job I ever took took on, albeit a short lived one, was the role of a chef in a school, much to the chagrin of my father. Having himself been a chef for 40 years, to this day my father fails to see the logic in my so-called ‘madness’.
I was hired by Cucina Restaurants who provide contract catering services for schools and the Head Chef who interviewed me, now some two years ago, said to me at the time, “If you can cook Indian, you can cook anything!”
So armed with Cucina’s recipe folder and a whole load of enthusiasm I embarked on what was to be the most enlightening three months of my life. Working with a small team of catering assistants, I had the privilege to delve into a diverse range of cuisines, including Italian, Mexican, Asian, and of course, British and the inevitable Indian where undoubtedly I came into my own.
Cooking for over 200 covers a day, looking back now, the experience seems almost surreal, given the circumstances under which I worked at the time. With a shortfall of staff, I was not only prepping and cooking, but also cleaning up with my team which meant I always stayed back in the kitchen long after my staff had departed in order to prep for the next day.
Now, those who know me will understand my physical limitations – hence my father’s objections – at least in part. Being of a very petite frame (in both height and width!) my will often outweighs my physical capabilites. So I persisted with the job, chopping relentlessly, stirring 7 kilo curries in the deepest pans, lifting enormous mixing bowls, lugging hefty serving dishes and flitting between steamers and ovens at light speed. Needless to say, it wasn’t long until the physical injures afflicted took its toll and I felt compelled to call it a day. NOT because I didn’t like the job.
What I did take with me from those few intense months was some invaluable learning. Catering for large numbers has never been a daunting thought since then and I am always cooking up different dishes for my family as in last night’s Chicken Arrabbiata. The chicken was prepped similarly to how I used to make Wednesday’s Roast Chicken, with of course a few added ingredients. It wouldn’t be Najma’sotherwise 😊