When I moved to Sweden I lived alone in a studio apartment. Being alone made me learn how to take care of myself. Laundry, cleaning, cooking, the whole mumbo jumbo. Stockholm was a very expensive city and eating out everyday was draining my budget. So I started buying stuff to cook at home. I literally didn’t know anything about cooking. I could hardly make you an omelette. So I started from the bottom. I was learning very quick and it didn’t take long before I became pretty good at it. Soon I was making gourmet meals and having friends over for dinner. But the best meals I cooked were with Ingela.
Ingela and I shared a common passion which brought us together in friendship. Food! She got me into wine and taught me the difference between a good wine and shitty wine. Her hobby was to go eat at Michelin star restaurants with menus designed by Michelin star chefs. After tasting my food and convinced of my potential to become a great chef someday, she started taking me to these restaurants to show me what Michelin standard food tastes like.
That’s when I started the blog and “West’s Kitchen”. I wanted a platform on which I can display the foods I cooked and a network where I can write about it. I would sit for hours preparing one dish, all for it to be munched down in less than 10 minutes. Even though I like my cooking, I prefer getting cooked for. I don’t mind doing the cooking, but sometimes I like sitting back and letting others take over. Once I eat the food, i’d think to myself, “How could it be better?”. When I started my blog “fatchefwest”, the only readers were my parents and Ingela. Now it’s people from all over the world. Sometimes I think they just get lost and end up in my website. Regardless, it’s good to be in touch with people that share the same interests as I do. To be honest, I didn’t even care whether people read it or not. Writing for me is like therapy. I speak to the empty pages and let out what’s in my heart. Just like i’m doing now writing this book.
After all this inspiration and this new-found passion for food, I had an epiphany. That I had to do something about this. I had to become Chef Francesc West. My dad wanted to become a chef at some point when he was young. I felt the urge to have to do it for the both of us. I come from a family of great cooks. From my both Grandmothers to both of my parents, to my aunt and now me. I’m number one. Just so we are clear on that, Dad.
Growing up my mom would do the cooking most nights of the week and my dad would sit at the dinner table and give her a rating of the meal on a scale of 1 to 10. Let’s not get into the times where my dad would give her a low rating and my mom telling him exactly what she thought of him. It was always special when my dad cooked. Not because he was better than my mom, but because he did it with love. He would make things that my mom just couldn’t be bothered make. She is easy-going when it comes to food. My dad, not so much. And me? Well, let’s just say I’ll eat anything. Specially if i’m high. I honestly cannot decide who between the two is the better cook. I have learned my traits from both sides and I often seek their advice when it comes to cooking foods I’m not familiar with.
I remember a very special culinary memory from New York. Back when I was a kid my dad and I used to go to different Steakhouses often. We both loved steak and had a taste for the best of it. So we always tried different steakhouses. I remember one day we went to one of the finest steakhouses in New York City . We just wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So we took a drive down Long Island.
We got there and walked in having a reservation. Once we sat down we immediately knew what we wanted to order. I remember he had the Porterhouse and I took the New York Strip. Our expectations were very high considering each steak was about 70-100 dollars. It wasn’t an everyday thing for us so it was okay. We know better to pay that much for something that costs 1/4 of the price in the market. So came the long-awaited steaks. We were hungry as hell. My dad had ordered his steak to be cooked medium and I ordered mine rare. However, what we both got was a quite a well done steak. Now look, if you pay all that money for a steak then you kinda expect the level of taste to be high up there too. We spoke to the manager and said we just wanted to leave. They offered to redo the steaks but we were too hungry to wait another 45 mins to eat and kindly declined. After all it was a long drive. So then they offered the steaks on the house. Oh come on, what would you do!? Of course we sat back down. Steaks on the house from one of the most famous steakhouses in the city!? Hell yeah! So we started eating the second steaks and my goodness, it was cooked to perfection. It was the best steak I have ever had. The meat was aged and the texture was stunning. And because it was free, it tasted better.
Once we got home we told my mom what had happened and our rating of the steak, (9 out of 10). She didn´t show the same enthusiasm as we did though. My mom was never into steak as much as us men were. She enjoyed a good steak here and there but it wasn´t her favorite meal. My dad and I never understood that. This is a memory I keep very close to me because my dad has always been my number one inspiration in cooking. Most of the things i’ve learned I learned from him. So going to Steakhouses with him was always special. He would learn new things and make his own style of the dish. Of course he would be the head chef when we cooked together and I was just the helper. Sometimes I was not even good enough to help. He would just tell me to watch him. I think the tables have turned now, dad.
After deciding to go after becoming a Chef, I left Stockholm for good in search of a culinary school around the world. I went to check out schools in Paris, New York, and even Italy. Ingela had come with me to Paris on a short culinary trip. I must say even though we had a great time, the food could have been better. We expected more. Maybe we just went to all the tourist traps. Maybe our expectations were too high. Le Cordon Bleu in Paris was a school renowned for producing the best chefs around the world. But it cost 40 grand, and besides I wasn’t about to move to freaking France and live with Le French people. The “French Culinary Institute” in New York cost even more. A whopping 50 grand for a six month course in which YOU worked for THEM, besides paying them a cool 50 grand. Hell no! My parents were willing but there was no way I was gonna make them spend that money on that kind of education. I wanted to do it the old fashioned way. Get a job at a real kitchen and live the kitchen life. Learn on the job. That would be better than what any school had to offer. At the time, a friend of mine mentioned he knew a chef that may be able to give me a job in his kitchen. I ended up meeting him and he told me that he was going to start working in the kitchen of a 5 star hotel in Bodrum, Turkey during the summer of 2012 and that he could make a spot for me as Line Cook. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. By then I had visited a culinary school in Istanbul called MSA, that was a fraction of the cost. So the plan was I would go work the summer in Bodrum then head to the school in Istanbul in September when the season would end.
When I got to Bodrum, the kitchen was so dirty, we spent the first two weeks just cleaning. Ive never experienced that before, just cleaning. Getting my hands dirty taught me a valuable lesson and it was a good humbling experience. I got a bit taste of the kitchen life, and the cleaning life. After that summer I headed to Istanbul for the school. I absolutely hated the school. A total waste of money, full of dumbass people who call themselves “chefs”. So I dropped it like it’s hot.
I learned how to make my own salad sauces, how to poach an egg the right way, the temperature at which certain foods should be kept, how to handle a knife, how to carry a knife across the kitchen floor, how to cut meat, how to debone a chicken, how to chop herbs properly, when to use more olive oil, how not to over cook things, making croutons, how to chop an onion, a tomato, peppers the proper way, how to cook vegetables the right way, which pans to use when, the substitutes for certain methods , how to stuff a chicken, cooking steak rare & medium. You name it! The kitchen for me was a new world open to discover and explore.
I always dreamt about opening up my own restaurant. Fuck that! After working in one and seeing how it’s run and what it takes to keep one going, no thank you. But if I was to ever open one up, I know I can make it a success. I know I can create a fantastic menu, a nice ambiance with a great concept and delicious food of course. I know people would love my kitchen. Location is very important, maybe sometimes more than the food itself. Restaurants lose their ways and go off track when they think quantity over quality. Profits over taste and value. Money talks though. If I had the cash to invest who knows maybe I would. My uncle keeps wanting to open a restaurant. He got involved with one in London that ended up in complete failure. I mean seriously, what is a half Turkish man working with carpet in New York doing opening up a Mexican restaurant in London? He still talks about opening one up. Again in London. I told him it wouldn’t work because he was in it with people that are after making a quick buck. Opening a restaurant is tough business. You have to be passionate about your food and deliver the best customer service. The money comes only after this core foundation is established.
I can cook almost any cuisine. I don’t specialize in one. I dipped my finger in all kinds of foods. I tend to mix and try different cuisines. Just like everything else in life, I like to get out of my comfort zone and try new things in the kitchen. I make great Indian dishes. My pastas are also pretty amazing, i’ve been told. Then again I do make a killer kung pao chicken. I’ve worked with almost every cuisine except for Turkish and Arabic. It’s hard but extremely delicious. My mom and grandma are the maestros at that. I tend to leave that to them. They can have that one.
Working in a kitchen really made me appreciate Personal Training. I met so many amazing people though working in the food industry. Humble people who earn their money by sweating in the heat for 10 hours straight. Even though it was tough days work, and at the end of the day we would get together to cook up a meal or go out for drinks after our shifts. If you had the night shift you were likely to clean up at the end of the night. We would re-pack the meat in the fridge, clean the floors, take a break, smoke some weed and wipe down the grills. It was all for $12 an hour, but at the end of the day you always had the feeling of earning your money the hard way. Some people work 9-5 don’t do shit all day. They go to work just to show up, and get paid. The kitchen is no envoirment for slackers. Even though I tend to slack at times. If one person was behind, it would make the rest of the kitchen look bad. If one person did something wrong or misplaced something, we all had to make sure we corrected it. After all, you’re in a race against time. Tickets came flying, and the dishes that leave the kitchen had to be perfect. There were no room for mistakes. Morning shifts were a little more relaxed. You’d come to a clean kitchen in the morning, prep, stock up, refill, and open the kitchen for lunch service. Which would never really be a full house. The kitchen life is no joke. A simple mistake can lead to the dish coming back. That’s money lost. What’s worse is people were looking for excuses to give you a low rating on the internet. Everything had to be perfect, every time, no excuses. Hence why it’s the job with the highest level of stress and drug use.
There is absolutely nothing like cooking in your own kitchen. My kitchen, my food, my way. Thats what cooking is about for me. Not working in some restaurant. In restaurants, you cook someone else’s menu, under someone else’s rules. I remember the days I would sit and peel carrots for 3 hours. Once I was done with them carrots, I would have to peel and clean shrimp. I learned the hard way, but im glad I did. Cooking for people I love is what I enjoy most. I love my cooking and so does everybody that gets the chance to try it. Let me tell you, only a few people get that privilege. I learned a form of art and in return it has improved me as a person. I will always be the Chef of my kitchen. Though I pray to God that I am never put in a position where I have to work in a restaurant kitchen again. Unless it’s my own. Who knows, if i’m ever in a financial position to be able to open one up and if am still as passionate and motivated about food, then like I said who knows!? You may just be sitting in one of my tables watching me cook your dinner over the kitchen counter.
“The First Half” by Francesc West