Time flies when you’re having fun, so my year in the hospitality school was over very soon. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to give up my pretty decent salary, so I kept working as an IT professional on weekdays and as a kitchen hand on weekends. My first gig was with a teacher who owned a catering company, mostly for weddings. I learned that catering is a very stressful job, where part of the success depends on the facilities that the venue provides. You must be extra careful with temperatures, and extra accurate with timing. The worst thing is that you are not in your fortress, but in the client’s side of the court. I felt a bit like when I used to travel to the client’s office to develop or deploy software there. I worked a couple of times with this teacher, and was paid a modest amount of money which basically covered transportation.
The second gig I had was for one of the most important seafood restaurant chains in Lima. I worked there on some weekeds in October and November 2006. They operate in the most important bullring in Lima – Plaza de Acho – during the yearly October – November bullfight season. In my opinion it’s one of the things we shouldn’t have inherited from Spain, but the fact is that people love it. The bullring is full during the season, even when tickets can cost hundreds of dollars. It’s more of a social thing, you can see well-known politicians, journalists, actors, etc., with their best clothes in the dusty venue, which by the way is located in one of the most dangerous districts in the city. Of course is a great opportunity to make money feeding people, so this restaurant offers a three course menu for 70 soles (around US$ 23), that would normally cost a third or a half of the price. The venue is old (it was built in 1765, and it’s the oldest in America and the second oldest in the world) and so are the facilities used by the restaurant. Pair that with the lack of hygienic control from management and you get a not very germ-free lunch at a way too high price. But the restaurant’s got its reputation so it’s packed at lunchtime. It was a very good working experience for me, I learnt how to be fast in stressful situations with a fouled-mouth boss yelling at everybody. We even learnt how to sneak beers and desserts when he was not around. Again, the pay was extremely low, even for full time staff of the owner’s other restaurants who went for extra cash on weekends.
I got my third and fourth gigs through my friend Lucy. She had a bar and managed a restaurant and let me gain some experience in both of them. The bar was located in the most touristic district in Lima, but was not very busy. It had a more intimate atmosphere. Of course, the main thing there were the drinks, so there were only two people in the kitchen. I went on Friday and Saturday nights to help them, this included chores from mise en place to dish washing, and everything in between. The food we served (mostly appetizers, plus some carpaccios and dishes like lomo saltado arranged in a platter) was good, except for the sushi. The lomo saltado (stir-fried beef tenderloin, red onions and tomatoes with vinegar and soy sauce, served over yellow potato chips) was spectacular when head chef Maldonado was working there. Usually the kitchen was not very busy, so it was more like a relaxing thing to do on weekend nights, considering also that half of the bar staff were my friends (the owner had a phylosophy of trying to hire people she knew and trusted).
I stayed there for some months, and then came to Sydney to activate my visa. When I returned I asked Lucy if I could get some work experience in the restaurant she was managing, she spoke to the head chef and the owner and they agreed. That restaurant, located in the same district, is big and pretty well-known. The main theme here is Mediterranean cuisine, with some Peruvian influences. At that time there were 7 people working in the kitchen: chef, sous-chef, pasta chef, salad chef, dough maker, dessert chef, plus one all-rounder and two dish washers. It’s the biggest and best organised kitchen I’ve ever worked in. You could tell that the owner is a chef herself because everything was really well planned and controlled, from portion weight to plating pics and instructions. I got there after work and didn’t stop working until around 11 pm, when we had a dinner break. After that I helped a bit more with some things for the next day and left the place around midnight. More than knowledge, I gained practice working in a very busy kitchen, this time for a boss who treated staff with respect.
Sadly, that was my last cooking gig. Working for others, anyway. From April 2006 to August 2007 I sold desserts in my office (sometimes I doubled the quantity because my sister sold some in her office). The two things I really enjoyed about that were planning which desserts to prepare for the following week (I usually made a batch of muffins and one of cakes/mousses/cheesecakes or pies each day) and receiving feedback from the customers. I learned that the best feedback was non-spoken: it was the amount of time that I had the desserts sitting on my desk. Sometimes they would dissapear within 30 minutes I arrived to the office, sometimes I had to do a bit of marketing (emailing or calling people to offer the desserts of the day), and this helped me analyse the behaviour of clients. Good stuff.