Whack! I can still remember the sting — and my surprise — as the female customer’s fist connected with my face.
An unfortunate mix-up by one of my waiting staff meant the phenomenally expensive bouquet of roses her fiancé had planned to hand her at the end of the evening — delivered by him earlier that day and placed in one of our fridges to maintain their freshness — had been handed out instead, one stem at a time, to other diners at the end of the Valentine’s Day service.
The intended recipient was furious when she realised. Not even my offer to waive the bill and the promise of a fresh bouquet the following day could mollify her.
Our fine wine had only heightened her emotions and the punch, as I tried to help her into a taxi, was her parting shot.
I spent two days with an inflamed ear and a bruised cheekbone — souvenirs of life in a high-profile restaurant, where the drama in the kitchen is often matched by that unfolding in the dining room.
Boiling Point, with its intense depiction of the action in a fashionable London venue on a single busy day just before Christmas, left my nerves jangling with recognition
That is why watching the new film Boiling Point, with its intense depiction of the action in a fashionable London venue on a single busy day just before Christmas, left my nerves jangling with recognition.
Shot in a single take, it follows head chef Andy — played by Line Of Duty star Stephen Graham — as he navigates an endless carousel of obstacles. These range from misplaced orders to a rogue’s gallery of diners, among them a gaggle of ‘influencers’ insisting on ordering off-menu, an arrogant patriarch hosting a family dinner, and a man hoping to propose to his girlfriend.
To cap it all, there is a celebrity chef dining there with a much-feared food critic.
One critic called it ‘an anxiety attack on film’. But as the credits rolled, I turned to my wife Michelle and said it was all too reminiscent of just another day at the office.
I exaggerate, of course. While I have never experienced on one night all the dramas that confront Andy and his team, I have coped with many variations of them.
Andy reminded me of myself in my early days as a chef. He is more overwrought and takes his stress out on others in a way I never did, but the film beautifully depicts the pressure he is under.
Andy reminded me of myself in my early days as a chef. He is more overwrought and takes his stress out on others in a way I never did, but the film beautifully depicts the pressure he is under
The biggest problem is timing. In a fine-dining environment, one table arriving early can tilt the whole evening into disaster.
I could work fast — but you can’t do in an hour something that needs twice that time.
Back in the late 1980s, I was installed by the late, great Keith Floyd as chef-patron of his pub-restaurant the Maltsters Arms in Totnes, Devon.
Keith, a hugely popular TV chef, was wonderful but erratic — within days of my arrival he disappeared to South Africa for four months and communicated only by fax.
I remember my horror when, months after his return, I found Keith was not going to be there on a day the entire pub was being taken over by a wedding party.
So it was down to me to give the arriving guests the Keith Floyd experience. But as I greeted them, I was aware of the sous chef trying frantically to attract my attention. He anxiously informed me we had run out of bottled gas.
In a fine-dining environment, one table arriving early can tilt the whole evening into disaster.
Or rather, someone had forgotten to order it. That meant no cooking, and no food other than sandwiches. The bride — understandably — wanted to kill me.
In restaurant-land, the customer is king, and the film vividly captures the exhausting gamut you must run to keep them happy.
I have been asked to do everything from baking an engagement ring into a chocolate soufflé — she nearly swallowed it by accident — to proposing to a woman on a man’s behalf, for reasons that were never made clear.
Sometimes, though, you simply cannot oblige. I recall one incident from my early days as a head chef, working in a restaurant with a tiny kitchen above a snooker hall. Funded by the brother of nightclub impresario Peter Stringfellow, it attracted a rowdy crowd.
One evening, I created a series of precision-carved meringue swans, with chocolate decoration. They sold out quickly — just in time for a table of very drunk men to demand their own serving from an increasingly stressed waitress.
I emerged from the kitchen to reason with them and was greeted by a barrage of bread rolls and potatoes. I called the police.
Our efforts to provide a personal service can backfire. On another Valentine’s Day evening, we hosted a man who our system flagged up as a regular lunch guest.
He arrived with his wife, whom we believed was a lover of a particular brand of gin, and the head waiter offered to mix her a G&T. Alas, it was the preferred tipple of the man’s mistress, as his wife quickly realised, and a massive scene ensued.
No chance of them, at least, taking their amour to our customer toilets, where I once came across a couple having noisy coitus.
Most people are charming, although occasional rudeness is par for the course. I teach my staff to tolerate it — but if they are insulted, I consider a line to have been crossed and will intervene.
I did this a few years ago, asking a quartet of diners who had been offensive to my head waiter to leave. When they refused, I removed everything from the table, including the tablecloth.
Of course, turning customers away is a last resort. The financial circumstances of even the finest restaurants are often precarious, even before you factor in Covid.
In the film, Andy is in debt after opening his own restaurant — just as I was 25 years ago, when I walked away from my position as head chef at the Four Seasons Hotel in London to go it alone.
Getting there had been a dedicated slog — I learnt my passion for food at my mother’s knee in my native France, arriving in the UK aged 22 and penniless.
I started as breakfast chef at Chewton Glen Hotel in the New Forest, then the only place outside London to have a Michelin star.
Later I built up a seven-restaurant empire, a staff of 200 and two further Michelin stars, though some bumps in the road followed. Today I run a successful cookery school and have a partnership in Novelli at City Quays in Belfast.
Still, you can never rest on your laurels. As the film shows, you must please not only customers but environmental health officers, food inspectors and critics.
All chefs live in fear of their arrival. Back in the 1980s, if a man was eating on his own, we would often assume he was a critic or an inspector and treat him with the reverence we hoped would secure the desired thumbs up.
We didn’t always get it right. Once, we treated a lone diner like royalty, only to later find he was a local man who had been stood up by his date. Meanwhile, several tables away, a dining duo were from the AA restaurant guide. Luckily, they loved us anyway.
If I had encountered the chaotic scenes that greeted Andy on his arrival, I would have put a ‘Closed’ sign on the door
But all this high-octane activity takes its toll on your personal life. As a young chef I missed many important occasions, immersed in a love affair with my kitchen that took so much of my energy. By the time I entered my 40s, two marriages had ended in divorce.
Yet I kept fit and was never a drunk or on drugs — though many chefs have travelled that road.
The film gets some things wrong: the team hadn’t achieved anything like the level of preparation required to get a restaurant ready for service. If I had encountered the chaotic scenes that greeted Andy on his arrival, I would have put a ‘Closed’ sign on the door.
But it captures wonderfully the precariousness and sense of drama that prevails — which, of course, is what makes it so compelling. Despite all the stress, I would never want to do anything else.
My wife jokes that I will draw my last breath in a restaurant kitchen. And if I do, I will die a happy man.
Boiling Point is in cinemas now and available on digital platforms including Amazon Prime, Sky Store and Rakuten TV.
Source: Daily Mail