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The PATRON had engaged me as kitchen PLONGEUR; that is, my job was to
wash up, keep the kitchen clean, prepare vegetables, make tea, coffee and
sandwiches, do the simpler cooking, and run errands. The terms were, as
usual, five hundred francs a month and food, but I had no free day and no
fixed working hours. At the Hotel X I had seen catering at its best, with
unlimited money and good organization. Now, at the Auberge, I learned how
things are done in a thoroughly bad restaurant. It is worth describing, for
there are hundreds of similar restaurants in Paris, and every visitor feeds
in one of them occasionally.
I should add, by the way, that the Auberge was not the ordinary cheap
eating-house frequented by students and workmen. We did not provide an
adequate meal at less than twenty-five francs, and we were picturesque and
artistic, which sent up our social standing. There were the indecent
pictures in the bar, and the Norman decorations--sham beams on the walls,
electric lights done up as candlesticks, 'peasant' pottery, even a
mounting-block at the door--and the PATRON and the head waiter were
Russian officers, and many of the customers tided Russian refugees. In
short, we were decidedly chic.
Nevertheless, the conditions behind the kitchen door were suitable for
a pigsty. For this is what our service arrangements were like.
The kitchen measured fifteen feet long by eight broad, and half this
space was taken up by the stoves and tables. All the pots had to be kept on
shelves out of reach, and there was only room for one dustbin. This dustbin
used to be crammed full by midday, and the floor was normally an inch deep
in a compost of trampled food.
For firing we had nothing but three gas-stoves, without ovens, and all
joints had to be sent out to the bakery.
There was no larder. Our substitute for one was a half-roofed shed in
the yard, with a tree growing in the middle of it. The meat, vegetables and
so forth lay there on the bare earth, raided by rats and cats.
There was no hot water laid on. Water for washing up had to be heated
in pans, and, as there was no room for these on the stoves when meals were
cooking, most of the plates had to be washed in cold water. This, with soft
soap and the hard Paris water, meant scraping the grease off with bits of
We were so short of saucepans that I had to wash each one as soon as
it was done with, instead of leaving them till the evening. This alone
wasted probably an hour a day.
Owing to some scamping of expense in the installation, the electric
light usually fused at eight in the evening. The PATRON would only allow us
three candles in the kitchen, and the cook said three were unlucky, so we
had only two.
Our coffee-grinder was borrowed from a BISTRO near by, and our dustbin
and brooms from the concierge. After the first week a quantity of linen did
not come back from the wash, as the bill was not paid. We were in trouble
with the inspector of labour, who had discovered that the staff included no
Frenchmen; he had several private interviews with the PATRON, who, I
believe, was obliged to bribe him. The electric company was still dunning
us, and when the duns found that we would buy them off with APERITIFS, they
came every morning. We were in debt at the grocery, and credit would have
been stopped, only the grocer's wife (a moustachio'd woman of sixty) had
taken a fancy to Jules, who was sent every morning to cajole her. Similarly
I had to waste an hour every day haggling over vegetables in the rue du
Commerce, to save a few centimes.
These are the results of starting a restaurant on insufficient
capital. And in these conditions the cook and I were expected to serve
thirty or forty meals a day, and would later on be serving a hundred. From
the first day it was too much for us. The cook's working hours were from
eight in the morning till midnight, and mine from seven in the morning till
half past twelve the next morning--seventeen and a half hours, almost
without a break. We never had time to sit down till five in the afternoon,
and even then there was no seat except the top of the dustbin. Boris, who
lived near by and had not to catch the last Metro home, worked from eight
in the morning till two the next morning--eighteen hours a day, seven
days a week. Such hours, though not usual, are nothing extraordinary in
Life settled at once into a routine that made the Hotel X seem like a
holiday. Every morning at six I drove myself out of bed, did not shave,
sometimes washed, hurried up to the Place d'ltalie and fought for a place
on the Metro. By seven I was in the desolation of the cold, filthy kitchen,
with the potato skins and bones and fishtails littered on the floor, and a
pile of plates, stuck together in their grease, waiting from overnight. I
could not start on the plates yet, because the water was cold, and I had to
fetch milk and make coffee, for the others arrived at eight and expected to
find coffee ready. Also, there were always several copper saucepans to
clean. Those copper saucepans are the bane of a PLONGEUR'S life. They have
to be scoured with sand and bunches of chain, ten minutes to each one, and
then polished on the outside with Brasso. Fortunately, the art of making
them has been lost and they are gradually vanishing from French kitchens,
though one can still buy them second-hand.
When I had begun on the plates the cook would take me away from the
plates to begin skinning onions, and when I had begun on the onions the
PATRON would arrive and send me out to buy cabbages. When I came back with
the cabbages the PATRON'S wife would tell me to go to some shop half a mile
away and buy a pot of rouge; by the time I came back there would be more
vegetables waiting, and the plates were still not done. In this way our
incompetence piled one job on another throughout the day, everything in
Till ten, things went comparatively easily, though we were working
fast, and no one lost his temper. The cook would find time to talk about
her artistic nature, and say did I not think Tolstoy was EPATANT, and sing
in a fine soprano voice as she minced beef on the board. But at ten the
waiters began clamouring for their lunch, which they had early, and at
eleven the first customers would be arriving. Suddenly everything became
hurry and bad temper. There was not the same furious rushing and yelling as
at the Hotel X, but an atmosphere of muddle, petty spite and exasperation.
Discomfort was at the bottom of it. It was unbearably cramped in the
kitchen, and dishes had to be put on the floor, and one had to be thinking
constantly about not stepping on them. The cook's vast buttocks banged
against me as she moved to and fro. A ceaseless, nagging chorus of orders
streamed from her:
'Unspeakable idiot! How many times have I told you not to bleed the
beetroots? Quick, let me get to the sink! Put those knives away; get on
with the potatoes. What have you done with my strainer? Oh, leave those
potatoes alone. Didn't I tell you to skim the BOUILLON? Take that can of
water off the stove. Never mind the washing up, chop this celery. No, not
like that, you fool, like this. There! Look at you letting those peas boil
over! Now get to work and scale these herrings. Look, do you call this
plate clean? Wipe it on your apron. Put that salad on the floor. That's
right, put it where I'm bound to step in it! Look out, that pot's boiling
over! Get me down that saucepan. No, the other one. Put this on the grill.
Throw those potatoes away. Don't waste time, throw them on the floor. Tread
them in. Now throw down some sawdust; this Hoor's like a skating-rink.
Look, you fool, that steak's burning! MON DIEU, why did they send me an
idiot for a PLONGEUR? Who are you talking to? Do you realize that my aunt
was a Russian countess?' etc. etc. etc.
This went on till three o'clock without much variation, except that
about eleven the cook usually had a CRISE DE NERFS and a flood of tears.
From three to five was a fairly slack time for the waiters, but the cook
was still busy, and I was working my fastest, for there was a pile of dirty
plates waiting, and it was a race to get them done, or partly done, before
dinner began. The washing up was doubled by the primitive conditions--a
cramped draining-board, tepid water, sodden cloths, and a sink that got
blocked once in an hour. By five the cook and I were feeling unsteady on
our feet, not having eaten or sat down since seven. We used to collapse,
she on the dustbin and I on the floor, drink a bottle of beer, and
apologize for some of the things we had said in the morning. Tea was what
kept us going. We took care to have a pot always stewing, and drank pints
during the day.
At half-past five the hurry and quarrelling began again, and now worse
than before, because everyone was tired out. The cook had a CRISE DE NERFS
at six and another at nine; they came on so regularly that one could have
told the time by them. She would flop down on the dustbin, begin weeping
hysterically, and cry out that never, no, never had she thought to come to
such a life as this; her nerves would not stand it; she had studied music
at Vienna; she had a bedridden husband to support, etc. etc. At another
time one would have been sorry for her, but, tired as we all were, her
whimpering voice merely infuriated us. Jules used to stand in the doorway
and mimic her weeping. The PATRON'S wife nagged, and Boris and Jules
quarrelled all day, because Jules shirked his work, and Boris, as head
waiter, claimed the larger share of the tips. Only the second day after the
restaurant opened, they came to blows in the kitchen over a two-franc tip,
and the cook and I had to separate them. The only person who never forgot
Us manners was the PATRON. He kept the same hours as the rest of us, but he
had no work to do, for it was his wife who really managed things. His sole
job, besides ordering the supplies, was to stand in the bar smoking
cigarettes and looking gentlemanly, and he did that to perfection.
The cook and I generally found time to eat our dinner between ten and
eleven o'clock. At midnight the cook would steal a packet of food for her
husband, stow it under her clothes, and make off, whimpering that these
hours would kill her and she would give notice in the morning. Jules also
left at midnight, usually after a dispute with Boris, who had to look after
the bar till two. Between twelve and half past I did what I could to finish
the washing up. There was no time to attempt doing the work properly, and I
used simply to rub the grease off the plates with table-napkins. As for the
dirt on the floor, I let it lie, or swept the worst of it out of sight
under the stoves.
At half past twelve I would put on my coat and hurry out. The PATRON,
bland as ever, would stop me as I went down the alley-way past the bar.
'MAIS, MON CHER MONSIEUR, how tired you look! Please do me the favour of
accepting this glass of brandy.'
He would hand me the glass of brandy as courteously as though I had
been a Russian duke instead of a PLONGEUR. He treated all of us like this.
It was our compensation for working seventeen hours a day.
As a rule the last Metro was almost empty--a great advantage, for
one could sit down and sleep for a quarter of an hour. Generally I was in
bed by half past one. Sometimes I missed the train and had to sleep on the
floor of the restaurant, but it hardly mattered, for I could have slept on
cobblestones at that time.