"The Worst Job I Ever 'ad?"

In England in the mid-seventies, the late Peter Cook and the late Dudley Moore released a comedy album called Derek and Clive Live . Derek and Clive were fictional public restroom attendants distinguished by their total lack of manners and by their filthy mouths. The album was little more than a collection of deranged conversations on improbable subjects peppered with the most obscene words and phrases you can imagine. Peter had this plummy, aristocratic voice with a rich Cockney accent and Dudley was an out-of-control leprechaun drunk.

The album had a limited cult status mostly among the snickering, dope-smoking, long-haired teenagers, but it gained more public recognition one Christmas season when some unfortunate mail order company shipped by mistake, thousands of cassettes with Derek and Clive affectionately calling each other “You shtupit, shtupit cunt" packaged as Uncle Bulgaria and the Wombles: Live from Wimledon Common; kids' cartoon characters wildly popular at the time. Just picture that scene under many a Christmas tree: "Here's your present, Timmy, oooohhhh, it's the Wombles, luvly, go n' put it oan...".

Among the dozen or so sketches, titled Reading Farts, One Leg Too Few, Valerie's Hymen, and so on, was a little gem called The Worst Job I Ever 'Ad. The unlikely job description, given by Peter in gross anatomical detail, involved retrieval of lobsters from Jayne Mansfield's bum.

Well, one of my worst jobs also involved lobsters.

Culinary London in the early seventies was in the midst of a dramatic makeover. The stuffy and formal French restaurants that doubled as high-end English cuisine would continue to prosper, but it was at the low end that London was witnessing dramatic changes. The dominant fast food chain at the time was, and I kid you not, The Wimpy Bar. It featured leathery, paper thin, overcooked hamburgers and assorted griddle-cooked mystery meats. Then along came The Great American Success. It was an informal eatery serving American-style food; big hamburgers, pastrami, fried chicken, all served with generous portions. The Great American Success lived up it's name and many duplicates and variants quickly followed. In a small way, I was part of that revolution because I worked as a chef in some of the new wave restaurants.

My career in the food and beverage industry almost ended early when Pablo the Crazy Spaniard, chased me through the kitchen with a meat cleaver, lisping murderous threats in sibilant-rich Castilian Spanish. Pablo was the Pastry Cook in a small restaurant in Earl's Court, inexplicably called The Hungry Years and technically I was his superior, the Head Chef. More like Head Cheese - I was 21 and knew next to nothing. I came to The Hungry Years after flipping burgers at the original Hard Rock Café on Piccadilly - a highly desirable position because it involved a microphone that one could use to breathlessly broadcast “Patsy-y-y-, Your Order is Ready-y-y-” in the deepest of voices and repeating twice. Yes, the right job benefits as I saw it.

The Hungry Years in Earl's Court Road was a dimly lit, wood paneled shoe-box space, featuring large sepia images of the Great Depression and the Grapes of Wrath stills on the walls. Evidently hunger, poverty and the general misery as experienced by the Joad family was the visual appetite enhancer and the patrons wolfed down the enormous beefy hamburgers as if the
Great Depression was just around the corner. Anyway, Pablo did not kill me that day; I got fired instead - something about lacking the ability to enforce proper discipline in the work place.

At that time I was with Maureen, a Scottish model whose achievements included coming second in a Miss Scotland contest and being one of the Tennent's Lager girls featured on cans of beer in Scotland. Can you imagine buying a six-pack and your girlfriend is on the cans, wearing plaid hot pants!? A proud moment, but kind of hard to explain to your friends:

"Hey, that's my girlfriend on the can."
"Suuu-uure she is, have another beer, Karel."

But Maureen was disillusioned with modeling.. Something to do with horny photographers and greedy agents, she said. We had no real ties in London and we wanted to go somewhere warm, but because of my adventure in France the year before (see: Lost in the Pyrenees - on the Way to Jerusalem) going abroad was out of the question, but we ended up on the Riviera anyway. The Cornish Riviera - in Penzance, Cornwall.

Cornwall is the Western-most tip of England. It's mostly a rural county, with quaint fishing villages along the coast and a strong mining tradition inland. The Cornish mining engineering techniques were used during the California Gold Rush in 1850's. Words like
lode and assay have Cornish origins. The Riviera part is mostly wishful thinking, “sitting in an English garden, waiting for the sun” sums it up. Cornwall is a seasonal county, winters are bleak, but summers are busy with tourists in search of sunshine, as Cornwall can sometime be the warmest, and driest, place in England.

We arrived in May, just before the start of the busy summer season. In Penzance, we stumbled on a brand new restaurant that overlooked the harbor, and asked for jobs. Maureen became a waitress and I got hired as a Commis Chef. The restaurant had a fancy name, something like Maison L'Auberge Provençal, and was owned by two partners, Klaus and Bill. Klaus von Wall, who's real name turned out to be Kevin Biggles, was the chef and a passionate Nazi. Klaus did not bother to hide his declassée affiliations and proudly wore baggy jodhpurs tucked into polished jackboots, and on his upper lip he sported a tiny cookie-duster dyed jet black. His proudest possession was a signed photograph of Enoch Powell, the maverick British politician who advocated wholesale deportation of the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Jamaicans and other non-whites to a desert island. Nevertheless, Klaus was a Swiss-trained chef and I looked forward to learning something from him while ignoring his world domination aspirations and his absurd Hitler-esque moustache.

From the start there were problems. The restaurant was on the upper floor of a converted warehouse and had no actual street level frontage beyond a lit menu box beside the door. The menu was a classic
Cordon Bleu/Brillat-Savarin; Lobster Thermidor, Coq au Vin, Duck L'Orange and priced accordingly. Expensive. But the people who passed by were looking for a chicken-in-the-basket with chips, or steak-and-kidney-pie; basic food, none of the fancy French stuff. We were not very busy. After a while, deliveries of beer and produce stopped and one day we came in and the furniture and lights had been repossessed. Gone. We scrambled and got some rickety card tables and chairs from Woolworth's, but it showed and the few customers who came in, looked around and left. So Klaus and Bill had to think of ways to attract more customers. They added snake-and-pygmy-pie and some finger food to the menu and splurged on some advertising in the local cinema.

They believed in gimmicks. Most elaborate was the
Live Lobster Catch. It worked like this.

Maureen's job is to greet the customers in the bar area that overlooks the harbor and push the daily special. This is almost always fresh lobster. If an order is placed for lobster, my job is to sprint from the kitchen, through the restaurant, outside, cross the street and climb down the slimey harbor wall where a little yellow inflatable dinghy bobs in oily water surrounded by polystyrene cups and empty beer cans. Decked out in my kitchen whites and a chefs hat, I jump into the dinghy and furiously row into the middle of the harbor, where we previously anchored a few lobster pots just below the surface and planted a good sized lobster in each. I pull up the lobster pot, reach inside and liberate the captive crustacean. I wave the lobster to the customers who are watching all this from the bar, to show how fresh the poor thing is. Having accomplished all that without capsizing the dinghy, I furiously row back, race through the restaurant and ceremonially pass the lobster to the waiting Klaus who will cook it to order while humming "Deutschland Über Alles".

The whole process took a long time and often the customers got fed up waiting and headed to Admiral Benbow Restaurant up the street to get a mediocre chicken-in-a-basket instead. Maureen and were always happy when that happened...we got a lobster to take home – to our tent.


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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions