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03.07.2013. Le Sirenuse
as told to Antonio Sersale
I stride into the Sirenuse at 8.45am after a fast 15-minute commute on my beloved Triumph motorcycle, with the wind in my face, the deep-throated rumble of the engine in my ears.
I have to lead a fish market tour before long so I’m in a hurry. Breakfast is being served, and the kitchen is already buzzing with activity. Francesco, the sous chef, rushes up to me as soon as I walk in. “Buongiorno chef! The fishmonger called to say he has no branzino today, he’s suggesting pezzogna instead”. Before I can answer, two more of my team dive in. “The deep fryer is not working properly!” hollers Giuseppe in his usual brusque style. And here comes Andrea, brandishing a carrot. “Look at the state of this”, he complains. “How am I supposed to make a carrot salad?” Then I notice the washer-up trying to catch my attention: it seems there’s a problem with the dishwasher. I take a deep breath, steer Francesco away from the chaos, and take him for a coffee.
While sipping my espresso I brief Francesco. “Get on to the deep fryer maintenance people and tell them to hurry up or they’ll be hearing from me. Pezzogna is fine instead of branzino, but tell the fishmonger I’m not paying a cent more; also, we need a couple of lobsters for Mr G who’s here with his mistress, he likes to impress her. Call the fruitmonger and tell him his carrots are a disgrace, he’d better replace them or that’s the last time he does business with me. Oh, and ask Andrea to have a look at the dishwasher. I want the kitchen to be perfect when I get back”.
I rush into the dining room where seven guests are waiting for me to accompany them on a visit to the fishmonger. The tour goes well today. The fish is fresher than ever and the guests are appreciative and fascinated. Plus it’s always fun to see their reactions when head fishmonger Michele – who also happens to be the mayor of Positano – nonchalantly hands them a fresh squid!
I walk back into the kitchen with my guests. Just as Mrs F begins to ask me a question, Giuseppe trips up with a large tray of pastries in his hands. Time stands still, mouths fall open, but just as all seems lost, Francesco reaches out to catch him. Feigning calm, I turn to Mrs F with a cool “So as you were saying…”.
Just before lunch, Vincenzo, the maître d’hôtel, tells me that Mr G has reserved a table for two that evening. I tell him that the lobsters have already been ordered, then ask how many dinner reservations we have. “Forty-five”, Vincenzo replies. “Don’t take more than twenty more”, I tell him, “and make sure they’re well spread out over the course of the evening”. Just at that moment, the phone rings. “It’s a yacht party”, Vincenzo whispers, covering the mouthpiece: “they want a table for ten, but they don’t want the set menu”. “You know the rules”, I hiss back: “if there are more than six around the table, they have to opt for the tasting menu”. “So what do I tell them?” he whispers back. I’m close to blowing a fuse, but I force myself to stay calm. “Right, I say, take the reservation, but keep the total number of covers down to 60”. Vincenzo takes up the phone again with a big grin on his face: he knows he’s won this battle.
Lunch is busy but not frantic. Afterwards, around 4.30pm, I change, rush out, jump on my Triumph and head for the beach. I have to be back at 6.45pm but in the meantime I have two hours to swim, sunbathe and chill out. It’s at times like these that I remember why I left Poggibonsi.
At 7.30pm the kitchen is finally ready for the dinner service. All the work stations are in order, with two cooks at each station: Gennaro and Giuseppe deal with the first courses, Francesco and Carlo look after the garde manger or cold kitchen, preparing everything from antipasti to salads to salumi platters, while Giovanni and Vincenzo are responsible for second courses. All are eager to start. Our other Vincenzo, the maître, comes in and tells me that the waitstaff are all ready for action. I follow him back out for a quick two-minute briefing with all the waiters, explaining the day’s menu.
It’s not long before the orders start rushing in. The cooking range is already bustling with activity when Vincenzo walks into the kitchen and tells me that Mrs T doesn’t like anything on the menu. “She wants spaghetti alle vongole”, he tells me. “Can we do spaghetti alle vongole?” “Gennaro”, I shout out, “una vongola!” and Vincenzo runs back into the dining room to break the good news to Mrs T.
Just as things are at their most frantic, the kitchen phone rings. It’s Robert, the head barman, asking how much caviar we have left, as they’re running out at the Champagne Bar. Lorenzo the waiter on table 2 is pleading for his order as his guests are in a hurry, Francesco the waiter on table 3 is asking me if I can delay the second course a little as the man who ordered it is proposing to his girlfriend. “Proposing?” I shout. “Who’s going to propose to my fish when it’s overcooked?”.
There are moments when I wonder why I ever decided to become a cook. And yet nothing else could bring me such pleasure. There’s nothing like the adrenalin rush of the dinner service, the satisfaction of a brigade de cuisine working together like a well-trained army, the satisfaction of creating a perfect dish.
At 10pm the orders begin to slow down and I realise that the yacht party hasn’t yet turned up. I summon Vincenzo and ask him for news. “No sign of them”, he says glumly, and walks nervously back to the dining room.
I steel my tired troops for one more push. “Siamo pronti?” I holler. “Pronti, chef!” they all respond.
At last, they’re here. Vincenzo runs in with the order. I grab it and bark out the dishes.
“Two baby squids”. “Yes chef!”
“Three roasted imperial prawns”. “Yes!”
“Three tuna bellies”. “Yes!”
“One baked lobster with peach”. Silence.
“I said one baked lobster with peach” “Yes chef!”
“One beef carpaccio”. “Yes!"
“One saffron John Dory”. “Yes!”
The kitchen is a whirlwind of activity once more. Pans fly from range to range, steam hisses, oil sizzles and knives are wielded. The precision choreography would be the envy of any corps de ballet.
I check on the cooking times. Gennaro tells me his will be ready in eight minutes, Francesco needs ten, so I ask Gennaro to slow down. Soon all the orders are coordinated so we can serve in unison.
With two minutes to go, I shout for Vincenzo. A final inspection, and the disks are whisked away onto the candlelit terrace.
After the high tension, there’s a palpable sense of relief in the kitchen. But there’s no time to rest: the desserts haven’t been ordered yet, and the kitchen needs cleaning so it’s spick and span for tomorrow morning, when everything will start again.
I know what I need now. Not a drink, no: what I need is to feel the wind in my face and taste the tang of salt on the air as I speed around the curves of the coast road on my motorbike. No sooner thought than done; and then I’m home, and asleep almost before my head hits the pillow.