Blades, Sweat and Tears

Why chef Bill Knott called time on the kitchen and hung up his apron for good

By Bill Knott

February 14 2023

Post-pandemic, what’s keeping many restaurateurs and head chefs awake at night is not a shortage of willing diners, but the lack of people to cook for them. Many chefs have vanished back to Mexico, Romania or Taiwan, while others have abandoned the industry altogether.

But why, you might ask, would anyone want to be a chef in the first place? They face long and unsociable hours, dismal working conditions, and lousy pay. Yet the role can easily become an addiction – I should know, because I put up with it for a decade or so, before seeing the light and earning my living writing about food instead of cooking it.

My first job was in a Cambridge pizzeria, knocking out Margheritas by the dozen for a boisterous crowd of Italian students from the nearby language school. After a few weeks, I was having regular nightmares involving floods of orders, a dearth of plates, malfunctioning ovens, and uncooperative dough. Once, I woke in a cold sweat at three in the morning, my jaw clamped round the edge of my pillow.

My next job was as the in-house chef for a post-production video company in Soho. It was the late Eighties, and the golden era of the pop promo: Aha, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Prince all came through the doors – and Michael Jackson, although he didn’t eat. I did feed his chimpanzee, though. The budget was very generous. I would wander along Brewer Street, stopping at Richards the fishmonger to buy a couple of lobsters or a few scallops; Slater, Cooke, Bisney & Jones for some fillet steak; Lina Stores for extra-virgin olive oil and fresh pasta… Whatever the client wanted, the client got. Kate Bush wanted fettuccine with wild mushrooms; Wendy James from TransvisionVamp wanted Heinz tomato soup. For five days running.

Gamekeeping definitely beats poaching, and, for that matter, frying, grilling and roasting
Gamekeeping definitely beats poaching, and, for that matter, frying, grilling and roasting

My last job, before I left to set up my own catering business, was to hire a chef as my replacement. We had advertised widely and I had a pile of CVs to choose from. Our receptionist was somewhat startled when a succession of fearsome Chinese chefs from Gerrard Street arrived, meat cleavers in hand.

I had one killer question for my shortlisted candidates: How many types of mushroom can you name? (I eventually gave the job to a woman who reeled off a whole list, ending with “magic”.) One callow chef, who had a stack of City & Guilds qualifications and a sheaf of references, looked baffled. “Button,” he said; then, after a little prompting, “field”. He wasn’t going to get the job, but I pressed him for just one more variety. He thought for a moment. “Tinned!” he said, triumphantly.

My catering business fell victim to the recession of the early Nineties, and I tried my hand at a few other jobs, but the siren call of the kitchen lured me back to the stove, this time cooking at a louche Mayfair club. It was frequented by Young British Artists and was awash with cocaine. Hardly anyone touched the food, other than to rearrange my plates aesthetically and send them back to the kitchen. I had joined as a sous-chef, and the head chef’s idea of a staff meal was to empty the fridge and mix it with pasta. After the third case of food poisoning, the staff revolted and he was sacked.

The opportunity to write for a new food magazine made me come to my senses. Was I really going to keep working in a subterranean hellhole, dishing out food to ungrateful punters, stuck in a classical kitchen hierarchy modelled on the French military, when I could make more money scribbling? Sod that for a game of soldats.

I have had a few relapses over the last 25 years – cooking bacchanalian Sunday lunches at Black’s Club in Soho, consulting for a few restaurants, and lending a hand in my wife’s kitchen (yes, I married a chef) – but I think I have finally kicked the habit. Gamekeeping definitely beats poaching, and, for that matter, frying, grilling and roasting.