A return to old labour
The Gay Hussar is the left’s favourite dining room. Lifelong socialist Nick Cohen samples the sweaty life in its foreigners-only kitchen
Sunday October 21, 2007
Observer Food Monthly
When I appeared in my hairnet and apron in the kitchen of the Gay Hussar, the cooks were less shocked by the sight of a customer choosing to roll up their sleeves by than by my nationality.
‘I’m Nick,’ I said cheerily.
‘Your name is Ick?’ asked one.
‘That’s it. N-I-C-K. Nick.’
‘Nick. You’re saying you’re English?’
He looked bewildered. Everyone else looked at me as if I was lying.
Zoltan from Hungary tried to clear up the matter. ‘Are your parents English?’ he asked as if trying to make an inexplicable phenomenon understandable.
‘Yes, they’re English, too, from Manchester. You know: Bobby Charlton, Alex Ferguson, Wayne Rooney …’
I ground to a halt, as baffled as my new colleagues. Only later in the morning did I work out the reason for their surprise. Most had never met an Englishman or woman in a London kitchen. One old hand said he remembered an English cook at the Gay Hussar, but he had left some time in the Nineties. Since then, they had talked about how to prepare food and handle picky customers in a kitchen pidgin English used across London by every nationality, except the English.
Maybe, I thought, Conservatives had a point when they laughed at Gordon Brown’s pretence to believe in the Protestant work ethic, and decried his BNP-ish slogan of ‘British jobs for British people’ as so much flam. Perhaps Brown has created a welfare system so riddled with poverty traps that millions were better off drawing benefits and stewing at home than going out to work.
The Gay Hussar was not the best place for such Tory thoughts. If you’ve never been, you’ve missed an Old Labour institution. Of course it is not only the Left who eat at this remnant of Mitteleuropa in the middle of London. All kinds of strange people who have never argued about the reasons for the Russian Revolution’s descent into tyranny come here. Actors from the nearby theatres, Soho admen and tourists looking for a good night out are attracted by the echoes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The faded red wallpaper, book-lined dining room, wood panelling and framed pictures of long-dead politicians aren’t only for the politically committed.
Nor do you have to be a left-wing politician or journalist to eat here. There are no entrance tests. John Wrobel, the Polish maître d’, whose dry wit is a large part of the restaurant’s appeal, doesn’t check that you support reversing the ban on secondary picketing before finding you a table. He won’t ask you to leave if he overhears you carelessly saying to your companion, ‘Let’s face it, entrepreneurs are the real wealth creators’, while tasting the wild-cherry soup.
Upstairs from the main restaurant are private rooms in which politicians of all parties have plotted. The Conservative ‘Wets’ met in one in the early Eighties to discuss their doomed conspiracy against Margaret Thatcher – on the day I was there the staff were mourning Lord Gilmour, who had died earlier in the week. The Eurosceptic ‘bastards’ followed in the Nineties to conspire against John Major. Tory, Labour, Right, Left, Wet, Dry … everyone is welcome.
Yet when all the caveats have been made, the restaurant still belongs to the vanishing world of the 20th-century Left establishment. Martin Rowson has covered one wall with cartoons of the regulars, and they are overwhelmingly Labour politicians, or Labour journalists – nearly all old, nearly all men. This is the nearest they have to a Pall Mall club: a mixture of a drinking den and canteen.
The Gay Hussar was opened by Victor Sassie, a Hungarian refugee in the Fifties, but there was a leftish restaurant on the site long before then. John Wrobel tells how Michael Foot told him that he had taken the Soviet ambassador to its Serbian predecessor in 1939 and begged him to tell Stalin not to form an alliance with Hitler. Somewhat naively, the future Labour leader didn’t understand that if the Soviet ambassador had said a word out of place, Stalin would have murdered him and everyone associated with him.
John becomes melancholy as he talks, and for good reason. The Hitler-Stalin pact that the naive young Michael Foot had tried to stop carved up his native Poland and started World War II. His father’s parents had to flee advancing German troops who burned down their home, and his mother’s parents had to flee advancing Soviet troops who burnt down their home.
Most of the people who have worked here were caught up in the catastrophe of European totalitarianism, and it’s the sense that history lives here which attracts me. When I knew I was coming for the day I dug through political biographies and found stories of the energetically homosexual Labour MP Tom Driberg organising a lunch in the late 1960s during which WH Auden leaned across to Marianne Faithfull to ask if she hid her drugs ‘up her arse’. And there were plenty more where that came from.
I don’t know about you but I find the appetite for tales from old Bohemia and old Labour of the last century a specialist taste these days. If people only went to the Gay Hussar because it’s a living fossil from a lost London, the restaurant would be all but empty. It’s packed most days and not only by nostalgics who can still remember Nye Bevan in his prime but customers looking for a virtue that restaurants with far higher profiles and prices can’t supply: conviviality.
Before I go on I’d better say that I’m a guest writer at OFM and don’t want to insult the crack team of style-setters who fill these pages. But in my experience if restaurant critics have a fault it is that they overestimate the importance of food.
I’ve been to two Michelin-starred restaurants. The first, Juniper in Altrincham, was like a laboratory. I felt as if I should have put on a white coat before entering, and couldn’t wait to leave. In the second, a Gordon Ramsay joint, the atmosphere was not as clinical but it was no less stifling. Diners sat in devotional silence, as if they were praying in a cathedral rather than enjoying themselves in a restaurant. If anyone had roared with laughter or raised their voice in a friendly argument it would have seemed like blasphemy.
The Gay Hussar prospers even though its Hungarian cuisine is fantastically unfashionable because there have been too many drunken lunches over the decades for it to succumb to prudishness or chef worship. Even the hearty Hungarian food – the salamis, pâtés, pickled herrings, roast geese and ducks, Wiener schnitzels, dumplings, stuffed cabbages and strudels – is only unfashionable to the minority who take food faddery and dieting seriously. Most people, other than the inspectors for the Michelin guide, would consider it a feast.
‘In French restaurants, the plates look like a work of art, but an hour after you’ve eaten, you’re hungry again,’ Carlos the head chef explained as he sighed about man’s infinite capacity for folly. ‘What’s the point of that? Eat here, and you know you’ve eaten.’
Well said, I thought, as I followed him down to the kitchen.
It hadn’t occurred to me until I got there that, at 6ft 1in and with a paunch, I was too big for the job. Space is tight in most restaurant kitchens for the brute economic reason that the owner needs to pack in as many tables as possible for paying customers. In the Gay Hussar it’s not only profit-maximisation but the demands of Georgian builders that cramp the cooks. Land has always been expensive in central London, and 18th-century developers cut costs by building tall, narrow houses. There wouldn’t be much room to cook whatever floor the kitchen was on. As the only plausible floor for it is the basement, a low ceiling intensifies the claustrophobic atmosphere.
If you can imagine a narrow rectangle packed with appliances, you will get an idea of the design. An oven with hot plates fills most of one side and a large sink fills much of the other. Down the middle is a run of surfaces for chopping and preparing, a kind of extended butcher’s block. It forms two narrow corridors down the length of the kitchen overhung by storage cupboards that have been hammered into every available space. When hot pans are moving and sharp knives whizzing the last thing a head chef wants is a lumbering innocent waving his arms about.
Carlos put up with my intrusion with good grace. I offered to wash up, but he was happy for me to experiment with a sweet-pepper salad. I didn’t think I’d have any difficulty. I’ve cooked for 25 years. Not lunch and dinner every day, but four times a week, often more. I halved a pepper and took a knife to the seeds and pith with what seemed to me to be the delicacy of a brain surgeon. After three, perhaps four, seconds, Carlos intervened and showed me how to really chop peppers. He halved 10 and put them in the sink. I was to run water over each half, stick my hand in, yank out the innards in one movement, flip over the pepper and slice it horizontally into perfect pencil-thin strips that would melt into the dressing.
‘Like this … see … easy.’
Blink and you missed it. The kitchen knife which I had handled with nervous respect flashed up and down a fraction of an inch away from his fingers. I couldn’t do it. After 40 minutes of chopping I was faster than when I started but still 10 times slower than Carlos. Also my strips were – erm – not quite comme il faut. Put it like this, if during a recent visit to the Gay Hussar, you found the sweet pepper salad to be on the clunky side, then that was one of mine. It was the same story with the onions. Again I had several decades’ worth of what I assumed to be hands-on dicing experience. Again I couldn’t match the speed or the consistency of a proper cook. As for trimming veal, by the time I’d finished with it the fatted calf looked anorexic, so much meat had I thrown away with the gristle.
All around me the kitchen went through its daily rhythm. Preparation and cleaning begins at 8am and carries on until midnight. The peaks are between 12.45pm and 1.30pm, and 7.30pm and 8.15pm, when nearly all the meal orders come one on top of the other. The kitchen goes quiet then and everyone concentrates.
For all their resistance to nouvelle cuisine and nouvelle labour, the customers are not without their eccentricities. ‘Number two wants to know where our veal is from,’ shouts a waitress. ‘It’s all right. It’s from Holland,’ he tells her and turns to me and says, ‘They’re worried about foot and mouth. We get asked all the time.’
‘But humans can’t catch foot and mouth,’ I mutter.
I checked with the waitress. They were worried about foot and mouth. And bluetongue.
When the pressure was on, I got out of the way. But I watched from a corner of the kitchen and was glad that I did. ‘Never work for a liberal newspaper, they’ll sack you on Christmas Eve,’ runs the old Fleet Street wisdom. But seeing the cooks and waitresses at the Gay Hussar, I could see that working in a left-wing restaurant was about as good as it gets in the drudge’s trade of catering.
I don’t want to romanticise it. Just before the lunchtime rush everyone put their pounds in for the Wednesday lottery. Like low-paid workers everywhere, they were clutching at a 14-million-to one chance of escape. They asked me if I wanted to join the syndicate. I didn’t think I could. I’ve dismissed the National Lottery as a tax on the stupid and the desperate so often that I could recite my stock piece in my sleep. But Nick, they said, there was a cook here who won. Not the big prize, but £67,000 – enough for him to retire. The story of his good fortune had kept the others going, and inspired me. This was a lucky kitchen!
I duly put my pound in, and we duly lost.
However gratefully its staff would seize the chance to escape the grind, the Gay Hussar remains a happy workplace. Everyone has known everyone else for years. John Wrobel confessed to occasionally shouting at the waitresses, but, he said, ‘they just shout back at me’.
They’re lucky that they can. I recommend that anyone who eats regularly in restaurants should spend some time in a kitchen. Obviously, every decent person already knows that you should never be rude to waiters and always leave a tip. (The tip should be bigger, incidentally, if you are not happy with your treatment: bad service is a sign of an understaffed and therefore overstressed kitchen.) But it is only when you see catering from the other side that you realise that the media’s celebration of the chef as thug is sickening in its cowardice.
While I was working I heard the story of an acclaimed chef who branded a young member of staff with a hot knife. He had to lie low for a couple of years, but he’s back running a celebrated restaurant and no one minds about his past. People in the business told me that in his kitchens Gordon Ramsay doesn’t behave like the foul-mouthed yob of his TV appearances. He just plays the bully for the cameras to please the watching mob. But whatever their behaviour in private, chefs such as Ramsay and Marco Pierre White have rubbed in the idea that in order to be a culinary genius you must abuse your staff. So successfully has this kind of hounding been marketed in various ‘reality’ documentaries that the leader of one of the teaching unions said her members were finding it hard to say it was wrong to bully in the playground when children were seeing that ‘celebrity status and money can be acquired on the basis of shouting at and swearing at and humiliating others’.
At least in a school, factory or office, there are places to hide. The kitchen by contrast is a near-perfect environment for the sadist because there’s nowhere to run to until a temper tantrum passes. Cooks are not allowed into the restaurant. If they’re in a basement, there isn’t even a back door onto the street.
Add to that the fact that the workforce is overwhelmingly poor and foreign, with little English and low union membership, and you should understand how kitchens become hells.
Last year the GMB and TGWU unions issued reports on conditions in the catering industry. Along with the normal stories of poor pay and long hours there were accounts from cooks of incessant abuse. One worker at a five-star London hotel said bullying, harassment and racism were an everyday experience. ‘You fuckers!’ his manager would scream. ‘Don’t be stupid like the Poles!’ He had come to Britain for a new life but found that the hotel was a state within a state: a closed society where the writ of the outside world’s rules didn’t run.
The old Left that used to dine and drink in the Gay Hussar can be criticised on many grounds but it would never have put up with today’s giggling endorsements of culinary tyrants; it would never have said that the price of a good meal should include the humiliation of underlings who can’t answer back. It would have protested, and so should we.
· The Gay Hussar, 2 Greek Street, London W1.