The private chef

April 18, 2014

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.

mansion in penangThere is a very old colonial mansion situated on the sea front in Penang which is one of my favourite places to be when it’s very hot. I sit today looking out to sea and watching the antics of some naughty boys who have obviously skipped off school, as they play chase and dunk each other in the water! There are huge trees which shade you and the fans whirr above you. I am the only person here so have all the attention of the waiter (just how I like it!) and I listen to old tapes of dreamy music. Am feeling a bit peckish so I’ve just ordered satay dressing on my salad  and Penang crab cakes…..are you dribbling?

This trip I have decided not to do much shopping. Instead I’m smelling the roses… or should I say frangipani. I’m imagining what it must have been like in 1860. I’ve just  wandered round the Protestant Cemetery and seen so many familiar names on gravestones. People died so young. What struck me was how many estates there must have been. There are family graves holding, perhaps, three generations at the same time. Quite a lot of sailors – I suppose their ships put  in to Penang to bury them. Again so young.

Penang has  managed to keep  a lot of its heritage houses. Many are in the most awful condition and I fear the Chinese owners are just playing the long game and hope they will fall down eventually. Then they will be valuable building sites. But it is particularly nice when entrepreneurs do them up, especially when they keep the character of the place.

Last night I hosted a dinner party. My old school friend (OSF) had found a chef to cook for me. It’s too hot to cook  here and be a hostess. Anyway I hate cooking. I invited ten people for dinner.  Two of my guests are a delightful  New Zealand couple who are thinking of going to Morocco so, in their honour and because this chef seems to come from somewhere in North Africa, I asked him if we could have tagine as our main dish.  And make it a Moroccan evening. He  seemed extremely confident and assured me he could do everything.  A tad too confident perhaps in hindsight.  Anyway I took him on. The next thing was we had to do was go and get the food.

cecilFirst we went off to the market. It was my first time driving in Penang and the traffic is terrifying, thousands of motorbikes weave around you, passing on both sides.  He didn’t know the way. Fine cook I thought if he doesn’t know the way to market. After a few U turns we found Cecil Street market. An entire square  – covered but with open drains – selling every conceivable vegetable and fruit. Live chickens wait to be slaughtered, and chicken livers are fifteen pence a pound! The fish counter was piled high with the day’s catch. The coldest fish are at the bottom where the ice is and also furthest from the flies! The veggie stall seems to have everything that you grow in the garden plus all the weeds… I was assured everything was edible. The Chinese are so creative, they will find a way to cook anything. Our menu for the dinner is  baba ghanoush, huumus and tzaziki for starters; lamb tagine and coriander cous cous with salad for main; and orange compote with mint for pudding. Yet again the chef assured me he knew how to do everything.

The next morning he was supposed to arrive at 10am to prepare the food so that he could have a break before 7pm when my guests were arriving. He did not turn up until twelve thirty. I was relieved to see him as I had not the slightest idea how to cook any of it.  I left him to it. Four hours later the kitchen was  a zone of mass destruction.  It looked as if he had used every pot and pan, but there were good smells wafting  around so I felt quietly confident. The dining table wasn’t laid – he assured me someone else was coming to do that. Chefs don’t lay tables.  The living room is upstairs in my friend’s house so we had decided we would have the starter upstairs, as it was a dips and would work well with people mingling, and then go downstairs to the table for the main course and pudding.

muppet chefA lady arrived to lay the table and serve drinks. She got on with her job and was excellent. I wish I could have said the same for the chef. What I hadn’t clocked was that since early morning he had been supping beers from the fridge. Unbeknown to me he was well pissed even before my guests arrived. I hasten to add it didn’t make any difference to his food which was excellent, pissed or not . It was just the serving of it. We waited and waited for the starter to arrive upstairs. My OSF had realised that he was drinking and went into the kitchen to try and hide the beers.  She returned upstairs to say the starter was on its way… but there was no sign of it! Downstairs she goes again… he’s found another can of beer and is devouring that!

Finally, somewhat unsteadily, our North African Fawlty Towers lookalike staggers up the stairs with the starters …. all on large platters.  The dips were so thinly spread it was hard to scoop them up. He had made melba toast with French bread and butter… I had told him to use oil!  They were soggy. Still I suppose I was lucky he hadn’t fallen up the stairs and dropped the contents down them. We trooped downstairs for the next course. We waited…… and waited. Our lovely girl who had laid the table was very attentive and filled our glasses assiduously.

orangeI then went into the kitchen to see why we were having such a long delay. Chef is now glassy eyed and is pouring the tagine onto platters again – nil points for presentation. It looks like dog’s poo.  The couscous is at least in a bowl… so why couldn’t he have used a bowl for the tagine? The salad is lying limp in a pool of yogurt dressing with a sauce so hot that it only has to touch your lips before they Botox out. I take another can of beer out of  his hand and rather than risk him serving us I suggest my guests go into the kitchen and serve themselves! Actually the food was delicious – if you could survive the salad dressing. By this time my guests had realised that all was not well in the back regions as my granny used to say and entered into the fun of it. We finished our main course and waited… and waited. My OSF  marched into the kitchen fulling expecting to find the chef had passed out under the sink. Instead she found him with – of course, another can of beer –  and two bowls of neatly cut up oranges, with the peel on, about to be served as you do on a  hockey pitch at half time. No juice … just bits of mint decorating it!

wine bottles“No no no” I heard her cry.  From the kitchen. “You take the peel off and make a syrup.”  Thereupon there was a lot of banging and crashing and the serving lady came out with coffee saucers for our pudding!  It was about then that I lost the will to live. My guests thought it was the funniest thing ever. We had waited so long that we had also consumed a lot of wine. When we counted up the bottles later it was a bottle each!  Finally the pudding arrived with sliced quarters of orange in a gooey drink laden sauce which didn’t fit on the coffee saucers, but boy it tasted good!

My guests left saying it was the funniest dinner party they had ever been to.  I paid the chef, waved goodbye to him… and redid all the washing up the next morning!

I shan’t be hiring a chef again.

More news soon, BPG

Get the latest ideas, advice and inspiration

No spam. Just useful and interesting stuff, straight to your inbox. Covering jobs, finance, learning, volunteering, lifestyle and more.

By providing us your email address you agree to receive emails and communications from us and acknowledge that your personal data will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions. You can unsubscribe at any time by following the link in our emails.

Enjoying Rest Less? Help us reach more people like you

Leave us a rating Want to tell us something?