But how could this possibly have happened? The first piece was a healthy crimson with no stench but I had purchased them at the same time from the same place!
A hot tear trickled down my face as I wrapped up the offending meat and disposed of it in the outside bin. I was quite prepared for the third parcel of meat (which I purchased as back up) to be in the same putrid state. But praises be! It was intact! I said a quiet prayer, tidied up and went to bed. It was already dawn but I knew that if I didn’t get some rest, I would be incapable of driving much less cooking.
By 8 am, I had finished most of the work and started assembling the meals and the tools that I needed to work with. I was scheduled to arrive at 11 am as the lunch service was to commence at 2pm.
The cleaner arrived at 9am and just as we were about to load up the car, we heard a thunderous clap from above and I looked outside puzzled; and of course it was pouring. Not drizzling, not light showers, a thunder storm. It wasn’t even possible to reach the car without getting drenched.
In order to maximize the time I decided to prepare the Thai Style Spicy Jollof Rice. On a good day, I can make this recipe in my sleep and it turns out perfectly every time but of course today, Murphy’s Law set in and the rice was over cooked and mushy. I knew that I would have to make it again at the venue and I didn’t relish the prospect.
After an hour, we decided to brave the elements. We loaded up the car and I set out but I was an hour behind schedule. My phone had been ringing non-stop and when I checked I realized that my friend/assistant for the day, Ogo, had been calling when I called her back she sounded a bit cross as she explained that she had arrived at11 but had been unable to reach me. I apologized and assured her that I was on my way. The drive to Ikoyi was slippery but I made it, by now hideously late.
As I entered the premises of the Spa, I felt a sense of tranquility, there was an ornate water feature by the entrance and the place was beautifully done up. The light tinkle of glasses being set on the banquet table lent itself beautifully to the aura of the place.
Yes, I could work out of a place like this; everything is going to be fine. I just needed to find the kitchen. I saw a waiter hurry by and I stopped him to inquire about the location of the kitchen. He pointed to a door to the right of the dining area and rushed off. Ogo and I strutted confidently towards it and pushed the door open.
Nothing could have prepared me for the sight before me. The kitchen was dimly lit and looked run down. There was clutter on every surface and as we proceeded into the kitchen I noticed a display refrigerator groaning in a corner filled with dead fruits, vegetables and other indiscernible objects. There was only one sink and it was overflowing with dirty dishes and pans.
It was as if I was in the twilight zone; I could hear Vangelis’ “Heaven and Hell” playing loudly in my head – a very apt sound track.
There were three men idling in the kitchen and I locked eyes with the one who seemed to be in charge of this disaster zone.
“Good afternoon Ma, welcome.” He greeted me amiably although he was staring at us quizzically.
“Good afternoon, we are here for Krystal’s party; we are the caterers. We were told that you would be expecting us.”
“No one told me about any caterer but I know about the party.”
I was sure that he misunderstood me so I explained patiently how I needed to use his kitchen and cold storage etc.
He shrugged and said he needed to make a call to confirm my claims. He returned a moment later and surrendered himself and his colleagues to my service. He introduced himself as Chef Tayo. I could scarcely believe my ears. Chef? In the midst of this carnage? More like “Demolition Man.”
Keen to get started, I asked him to show me his refrigerating facilities and he pointed to the fruit graveyard in the corner. At this point I snapped.
“Do you expect me to put my desserts and fresh produce in that?”
“That’s the only fridge we have Ma”
By this time I am exasperated and on the verge of hyperventilating so I ask him to clear it out and clean it up. It would have to do.
Ogo, made a clearing on one of the work tops, she “Lysoled” it within an inch of its life and laid out our things. I asked for a worktable and was met with blank stares.
“This is a spa! Surely there must a table somewhere!”
“Madam we will look for something you can use Ma, please don’t be angry.” One of Chef Tayo’s cronies said as they scampered off. They returned moments later hoisting a table with one wobbly leg and a tabletop that had more pockmarks than a dartboard. At this point, I put my head in my hands muttering, “this is a disaster, it’s never going to work” and like any good friend, Ogo gave me a good shake and told me to snap out of it.
I looked at the time and there was only 30 minutes until the first course was due to go out. Apart from the dips nothing else was ready so I swung into action and started on the vertical pear salad. As I sliced through the 3rd ripe pear, my ceramic knife snapped in two. I stared at it stupidly for a second, not entirely comprehending what had happened. The only other knife I had was serrated and Ogo was using it to prep the heirloom tomatoes for the Caprese. So I called out to Chef Tayo, requesting a kitchen knife.
He came forward tendering a table knife; I scratched my head and repeated slowly,
“I need a k-i-t-c-h-e-n k-n-i-f-e”
He shifted uncomfortably and said,
“This is the only knife we have”
In that moment I suddenly understood with startling clarity what was really going on; this was the set of Candid Camera! I started looking around for the cameras for there could be no other explanation! This was a practical joke and in a minute, my friends were going to tumble out of their hiding places laughing and telling me to smile.
A minute elapsed, no friends, no cameras and the clock was ticking….. So I continued working, using the broken blade that was still attached to the handle and Chef Tayo and his men returned to their position a safe distance away from me and my broken knife.
A few moments later, a neatly dressed, bespectacled, diminutive lady staggered in, carrying a stack of boxes and plates.
“My name is Jumoke, are you Nkem?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s me.” I answered
“Oh good. I am Krystal’s PA. She asked me to give you these platters” She set them down and left.
We plated up the starters which looked so exquisite that the 3 “stooges” left their safe zone and jostled around to get good shots with their camera phones.
The easy part was over and now it was time to get the heat on; literally. I asked Chef Tayo to ignite 3 burners on the range as I needed to commence cooking the rice dish, the potatoes and the Scampi.
I noticed that he hadn’t moved but was studying the tips of his shoes rather intensely.
“Chef Tayo, please it is really important for us to work quickly, could you please turn on the burners?” I say beyond exasperated at this point.
“Errrr Madam, it’s just two burners that work; the big one in front and the small one at the back”
“But there are six burners! How is it that only two are working?”
He doesn’t answer and I am convinced that, by now, his gaze must have penetrated the floor, reached the earth’s core making new discoveries in the molten center.
“Okay! Just turn them on! Let’s get going! Please turn on the oven; we need to reheat the chicken dishes as well”
I hear snickering from his cronies in the corner and then a sickening realization came over me. So I asked,
“The oven doesn’t work, does it?”
“Madam, please no vex, na so we dey manage the kitchen since.” He blurted; clearly no longer able to express himself in English and resorting to Pidgin English.
Ogo and I exchange bemused looks. Trying to calm me down, she asks the Chef-turned-Geologist,
“Can we use this microwave instead?” pointing to a big white unit on the worktop. Chef Tayo takes a step back and whispers,
“E no dey work”
At this point I start laughing hysterically and I am thinking to my self, “The gods must be crazy.” This kitchen is the perfect set for Gordon Ramsey’s show; I must write to the producers of the show and inform them of this discovery.
“But you can use this one instead.” Crony 2 piped up, pointing to a hitherto unnoticed microwave. It was tiny and couldn’t take anything larger than a saucer. So Ogo began reheating the chicken saucer by saucer as I busied myself with the rice and potatoes.
Just when I thought that I couldn’t handle any more distractions, the kitchen door swung open and the kitchen was filled with a feminine musky perfume. I looked up and saw a tall, dark, pretty lady wearing a long, mauve, lace dress. She had even longer hair and wide eyes and the only thought that went through my mind was, “I didn’t realize that Rapunzel had African descendants”
“Please who is in charge here?” She asked looking around the kitchen frostily.
From Chef Tayo’s body language, I sensed that he was about to beat a hasty retreat to China so I spoke up and said,
“Good evening Madam, is there a problem?”
“Yes there is. I see Sushi on the table and there wasn’t any on the menu; I would like an explanation!”
“Yes there was!” I shot back a little tersely. Then the penny dropped; this must be my client Krystal. So, I said,
“Krystal? Hello, my name is Nkem”
“Oh hello” she said curtly, “it’s nice to finally meet you. Was there sushi on the menu?”
“Well, it isn’t really sushi; they are vege-sushi rolls. It’s all part of the mezze”
“Oh I see….Sufficiently mollified, she gushed, “I love the caprese though; I could eat those for days. It reminds of my summers in Rimini and I really do love….Now it was my turn to cut her off mid-sentence
“We are really pleased that you are enjoying your starters but we really need to finish off the main courses and serve them.”
Mercifully she swiveled around and disappeared leaving a trail of musk in her wake. After her departure, Chef Tayo, came forward and said,
“Madam, please, I just got a call from the hospital, my daughter is sick and I need to leave”
Funny, I didn’t hear the phone ring. They must have a special direct wireless connection to his ears from the hospital. I must look into this groundbreaking technology; it could be very useful for receiving calls in the kitchen.
“Really?” I hear myself say. “I hope she gets better”
“Thank you Ma” and he’s gone.
I beckon to Crony 1, “Are you a trained Chef?”
“Yes Ma” He nods a little too enthusiastically for my liking.
“Where did you train?”
With a broad grin, he responded “Na Chef Tayo train me Ma”
In that moment, I knew that I needed a massive miracle to survive the rest of the evening.
“Have you ever sautéed anything before?”
Looking completely flummoxed he mumbled, “I no sabi wetin be surtay”
Holding unto the last vestiges of my patience, I explain,
“Sauté means to cook quickly in shallow oil”
His eyes light up, “Oh! Frying! Yes I sabi that one.”
“Great! Could you sauté these cooked potatoes”
“Yes ma, I go fry them well, well”
Potatoes sautéed, herbs applied and rice cooked and plated; the meals were going out in quick succession. Reports filtering in from the dining room were that the guests were happy and were going back to the buffet table for seconds.
Buoyed by this bit of positive news, I prepare the chicken for the Marsala dish and ask crony 1 to shell and devein the prawns. I catch him from the corner of my eyes, chopping the prawns in half shell and all, and then tossing them into the prep bowl. Thankfully Ogo’s reflexes were quick and she wrestled the knifed from his grasp and finished the task professionally.
I needed to commence cooking the linguine so I beckon to crony 2 and ask that he turn on the electric kettle so that I could have boiling water on demand. He obediently goes to get water from the tap but as he turns it on, the tap gurgles and spits out a drop of water. Then I heard him say,
“The water don finish inside the tank”
I looked up sharply knowing that this spelled doom. A kitchen without running water is a nightmare. This kitchen without running water was a disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Thankfully, just as I left home, on a whim, I had decided to grab a carton of bottled water; I can’t remember why I did this but I did. Well as it turns out it was a wise move. Ogo fetched the water from the car and we finished cooking the meal.
After dessert was served, a few guests spilled into the kitchen squealing their delight at the meals they had eaten and this helped to take the edge off the fatigue that had enveloped me.
My back and feet were sore from standing for 9 hours but I had survived Hell’s Kitchen and it was an incredible feeling! I strode away into an imaginary sunset with a sense of achievement knowing that I could conquer anything. I felt like a Spartan warrior headed home to a hero’s welcome, my people were cheering me on every side, wreaths and bouquets were being thrown at my feet…………then it hit me! I was scheduled to cater for a Board Meeting the following day!
I faltered for just a second and then marched on knowing that nothing could compare to Hell’s Kitchen; I say, bring it on!
Please note that although this is a true life account, I have changed the names of some the characters and locations to preserve their privacy.
The featured image, pictures of the rainy wind shield, water feature and 3 stoogies have been pulled off the net and I claim no proprietary rights to them. All other pictures are mine.