Being a kitchen porter is one of those culinary jobs that most people think they understand but, when pressed, struggle to define. Everyone knows that a chef cooks and a waiter waits, but a porter? Well, a porter... ports, of course.
I was no exception. So, blissfully ignorant of what porting meant in this (or any other) context, I showed up at Loch Fyne's Restaurants' Covent Garden branch. After chatting with the assistant managers (an Albanian and a Kosovan) I watched a video with a lot of striking Scottish scenery. This showcased the company's environmental and staff-development credentials.
In the robing room, I was given a fetching pair of baggy trousers, an apron and a hat. If the hat was meant to prevent hair falling in food, it was surplus to requirements in my case. I went down to the shopfloor and was introduced to Taty, busy with the day's fish delivery. He checked it for discrepancies, while I noted down figures and tore open boxes. Conversation was limited, as Taty's first language was French - which is probably my ninth or tenth language, somewhere after Esperanto and Klingon.
After an hour, I was thinking: why, there's nothing to this porting lark. Then we started preparing the fish, and it became pungently clear that working as a porter in a seafood restaurant is not a job for sensitive types who think salmon grows in polystyrene trays at Tesco. Luckily, your reporter is a dyed-in-the-wool omnivore who would continue to eat chicken even if he had to battery farm it himself, so a load of dead (or in the case of the lobsters, about-to-die) seafood seemed unlikely to give me ethical problems.
I spent the next 20 minutes snipping the fins off trout, whose tiny scales make them devilishly slippery. Then on to the sardines, and even my cast-iron constitution began to waver. This is a particularly visceral job. First, you pick up the sardine and rub off its scales - along with blood and any other adherent crud. Then the fun begins. A sardine is too small to clean with a knife so you press behind its gills with your index finger until you break the skin. You run your finger down its body cavity, pulling the aromatic string of guts out as you go. For a neophyte like me, they rarely come out cleanly, so there are always plenty of tenacious innards that require more dedicated extraction.
I did about 40 - the smell was really quite something - before moving on to bearding mussels: that is, removing the bivalve's stringy anchor. After my bravura performance with the sardines, I figured this would be a cakewalk. But mussels are tricky little customers. My bearding was either too vigorous (ripping meat out of the shell) or too limp, leaving beard in and necessitating attention from the scissors. And I was way too slow. The lunchtime crowd was arriving, and they couldn't be kept waiting; Taty busted me back down to peeling parsnips.
For someone whose idea of life below stairs in a restaurant was informed by Gordon Ramsay effing and blinding on the telly, the reality came as a pleasant surprise. The restaurant was busy but, backstage, the staff were calm, measured and genial. Nobody was yelling 'fuck', 'big boy' or 'bollocks', but on the plus side, kitchen staff really do say 'Yes, chef' a lot. I chatted with my new colleagues about celebrity regulars. These include Michael Palin, Paul Merton, Ian Hislop and the cast of whatever happens to be on around the corner. The Producers has just ended its run and next up is Lord of the Rings, so sometime soon Loch Fyne will be full of orcs, wizards and hungry, hungry hobbits.
Finally, I did a bit of bussing. Going front-of-house was a surprisingly nerve-wracking experience. Tables are close together and the fluid ease with which your waiter cruises between them, often with a drinks tray angled like a tilting train, is nowhere near as easy to achieve as they make it look. My one 'live' interaction with customers was pouring water and, well, I haven't found a group of 20-something women so intimidating since I was a teenager. I splashed it all over the table.
And that was it for my shift. It had been fishy, but fun. Now I knew exactly what a KP does, and that it's a pretty hard way to earn £5.05 per hour plus tips (these typically add another £40-£50 a week). Some of the staff were, like me, doing a single stint. Others had a two-hour break and then got to repeat the entire lot again. I was tired and glad I wasn't one of them. I suspect that down on the mussel station they felt the same way.