The next time you are out for breakfast, spare a thought for those unsung heroes, the breakfast chefs. Often, to be sure, their rank has not even risen to the title of chef
– they are cooks, behind-the-scenes and rarely seen. They have probably been in their kitchens since 6am and have already put in several hours of prepping before you have even begun to saunter, newspaper under arm, to your seat.
They rarely achieve anything resembling celebrity status – who does, after all, rhapsodise over a poached egg? It’s hard to find an ambitious chef on the breakfast shift given the limited opportunities for creativity. On the contrary, this is when the work-horses come into their own, although work-horses of the speediest kind, capable of keeping an eye on grill, stove-top, toaster and oven all at the same time. Exceptional organisational skills are required, in order that the multi-tasking can be one seamless flow. And then it’s a matter of pumping out, machine-like, dish after dreary dish of breakfast foods, usually involving eggs (whose timing is crucial), to a General Public which is tentatively moving into its particular day. And as most of us know, people are often not at their loveliest in the mornings.
I remember the hours spent in composing breakfast menus for the Avalon cafe I co-
ran. I was determined to offer imaginative and inspired dishes which diverted from the standards – the Benedicts and the Florentines, the banana bread and the friands. Very few of our customers, however, were interested in sage-seamed rosti topped with laboriously simmered caramelised onion, slow-roasted thyme- fragrant tomatoes, pickled eggs and made-from-scratch taramasalata – all they ever wanted was scrambled eggs. Worse, they wanted their wretched scrambled eggs – and Sunday mornings were a veritable nightmare of scrambling – at a time when all I really cared about was ‘creating’ a gorgeous new cake, or pickling eggs, or whizzing roe, milk-soaked bread, a little garlic and olive oil into a creamy puree of grey mullet’s eggs. Clearly I was never cut out to be a breakfast chef.
In another cafe a chef taught me how to perfectly poach two dozen eggs at a time, dropping them in to a deep pot of simmering water and scooping them out at exactly the right time before settling them into buckets of cold water, ready for the orders to come in. It was intensely stressful; I spent the entire time hovering anxiously over the pot with implement poised to scoop, never completely sure the time was right, anticipating disaster.
I was recently in a local cafe waiting for my takeaway coffee. Harried young cooks weaved in and out of each other’s way in the narrow space which served as the semi- open kitchen. There were four breakfasts lined up, all variations on Eggs Benedict, it appeared, waiting for collection. When the waitress materialised she asked which was the well-cooked egg, (‘The customer insists it be hard!’), which the medium and which the soft. There seemed to be something flinty, or did I imagine it, in the eyes of the head-chef as he pointed out which was which – and the possibility occurred to me that he may even have spat on top of the offending ‘hard’ egg before smothering it in the forgiving hollandaise. Or certainly been tempted to. Demanding, fussy, precious customers bearing an entitlement that their most outlandish requests be met; they are, after all, paying are they not? Most modern breakfast menus offer a bewilderingly wide selection of choices – and then along comes someone who only wants a slice of toast with jam. Haven’t these people got toasters at home?
Perhaps, next time you are breakfasting out and have really enjoyed your Big Breakfast or your Tofu Scramble or your mile-high slice of toasted banana and raspberry bread, you could send your compliments back to the kitchen, back to that nameless faceless person who created it.