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Kitchen Diaries: “After the storm, you don’t sit with your workmates; you sit with your friends, your family”

Writer, waiter and part-time chef Iago Castro Charlon pulls back the culinary curtain, detailing what it’s like working for a small independent restaurant on a busy weekend shift.

How many times have you passed by a small restaurant and barely even noticed it was there? I know – hundreds. Often unnoticed, sometimes ignored.

Away from the bright lights, the fancy town centre, the flashy trends and designs. But often full of special flavours, experiences and fighters. And my story starts in one of those places.

It’s almost 2pm. I’m worried about being late again. I’m Spanish, I gotta set up a different standard; people love to remind us of stereotypes.

Here we are, in front of a long – but surprisingly exciting – Saturday shift.

I’ve been working in a kitchen for years, and I still don’t know what to expect of a Saturday night; the stories I could have filled a book. But I’ll make do with this column for now.

Anyway, I made it on time. Daniela, my boss, is already there. She’s the closest I have to a mum in England, but she doesn’t like me to say that. She thinks I’m calling her old.

Proud of her Latin-American heritage, she’s been bringing those vibes to the heart of Abbeydale Road for more than ten years with great success. A “hola” and a hug, as usual, and I walk into my “office”.

Andy, the head chef, is getting changed. He’s from Meersbrook, but he can cook better than any Latino chef while speaking the truest Yorkshire you’d ever heard – “You reyt, love?”.

Indeed I am, let’s cook.

The writer mid-shift on a busy weekend service.

Small kitchens have a soundtrack. Something chill to start the shift, maybe Oasis. It never fails. But we’re approaching 3pm. Blades are playing on the radio, and Blades are religion. From ‘Morning Glory’ to the ‘Greasy Chip Butty’.

The whistle blows and, at the same time, Nelson, the kitchen porter, walks into the kitchen. He’s a big guy from Honduras and is the pure, calm character every kitchen needs.

Daniela has prepared all of us a glass of gazpacho. “Gazpacho” is a humble term to refer to a Bloody Mary made by Latinos. It’s a Saturday opening tradition, and we must keep it.

I’ve been working in a kitchen for years, and I still don’t know what to expect of a Saturday night; the stories I could have filled a book. But I’ll make do with this column for now.

Nelson gives me a hand prepping as much food as I can; yesterday was a really busy day, and we need to get ready for another hectic shift.

We’re still quiet. A couple of tables walked in and they’re now having a quick bite. The kitchen shakes in celebration for a couple of seconds: Blades are 1-0 up.

There’s another little earthquake in the restaurant, as Dani’s two little children and husband run in to briefly visit and wish her good luck. As mentioned, family is at the very core of these places.

The first bookings start to arrive, and we’re almost ready for the battery; shouts emanate once more from the kitchen. Foderingham saved a penalty in the 92nd minute. Some people asked questions; others just celebrated. If it’s a great day for Sheffield United, it is for us too. An unwritten rule.

We’re starting to get busy. I need caffeine to work, and I already had a couple of cans of Monster so I’m awake but nervous. And this is the exact point when somebody asks for the saltshaker.

Top tip: do not do this at any restaurant. Believe me, we get paid to season your food. Please, don’t ask for a shaker; don’t make us feel useless. And please, please, please don’t ask for ketchup either. That’s even worse.

Whatever will happen in the next two or three hours is the closest to our personal Vietnam: stress, violence, swearing, fire, PTSD. You aren’t really conscious of how you can actually get it done.

Until you get it done. Then, the peace after the storm. The kitchen seems to be crushed by a tornado. And you feel drained, hungry, thirsty… but satisfied. Very satisfied.

After a massive plate of food (a weird feeling, to eat the same food you’d been serving and hating for hours) and finally approaching the end, we sip a well-deserved pint of Mahou.

We’re planning the orders, getting ready for the next week. There’s just enough time to sit after, enjoy a drink or two, and totally forget about it for a couple of days.

That’s the key. After the storm, you don’t sit with your workmates; you sit with your friends, your family. The bond is so strong, so different to anything you would experience anywhere else.

There are no artificial personal relationships; you must make it work by coming together. We’re in the same boat, even though we’re looking to reach different ports.

So, any time you pass by one of those restaurants, remember this letter. And have some food, a drink and a chat, or just look at them and smile. If you need a job, think about asking.

Because those places are the key to understanding this city. Real people offering true experiences. Real people being themselves and making you part of their journey.

Sheffield being Sheffield.

La Mama being La Mama.

lamamalatin.co.uk




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