My classmates at teacher’s college had assured me that waiting on tables was easy. Although, as a naïve country girl, I’d never so much as walked into a high-class restaurant before I needed money and applied for the first job that came up within walking distance of my flat. Josef and I liked each other on sight. Later I learned that his wife usually did the recruiting, and she was extremely put out that I had arrived for my interview early as Josef had hired me on the spot. It didn’t make for a peaceful working environment in the beginning, but she soon realised how enthusiastic I was and made good use of my slavish eagerness to learn. I quite liked and admired her; she could be good company.
But Josef was my hero. How could I have known, when I timidly phoned the ad number, that I was about to enter a world that had been waiting for me all my short life, one which I would never leave again. I fell head-over-heels in love with restaurants and all the fun and drama that went with them. I loved the camaraderie and bitchiness of the people in them, in front of and behind the scenes. The1970s was a bumper time for trendy restaurants in Brisbane, and Josef’s was the trendiest of all. If I’d known more about restaurants I’d never have been game to call.
Behind the glamour and affectation was a solid base of excellent cooking. Josef was a Hungarian refugee, born into a family of restaurateurs and food lovers. The only thing he wanted to do was open a restaurant in Australia, with him cooking and his beautiful wife charming the diners.
‘Cruelly handsome’ was a favourite look for male leads in the early movies, and it exactly describes Josef’s face. Brilliant blue eyes were his most outstanding feature. When he was annoyed they turned to grey ice. He had the regular features and fresh complexion of many middle-Europeans. His mouth was full and mobile, always talking, tasting or arranged in an exaggerated expression of his mood. When he was angry it became a narrow red line, with a cruel downward slant on the left side.
That anger was usually, but not exclusively, directed at his kitchen staff. One memorable day I suggested that he arrange the dumplings in the centre of the plate instead of on the edge, and suffered the sting of his sarcasm for days. The simpleton was telling the genius what to do! Determined to win back his approval I scoured the libraries, second hand shops and friends’ houses for cookbooks; reading everything I could find about food, cooking and the art of fine dining. I itched to air my new found ‘dangerous little knowledge’. I watched Josef dress a salad with garlicky oil and vinegar.
‘Did you know,’ I began confidently, ‘that to add a hint of garlic to a salad you just rub the bowl with a cut garlic clove?’
‘What a good idea,’ he replied. I had impressed him at last! He continued, ‘But only if you intend to eat the bowl.’ Stung to tears I started to leave the kitchen.
Josef stopped me with a fatherly hug. ‘Look, if you really want to learn about cooking, I’ll teach you. But I can only promise you one thing - it won’t be easy. You’ll have to come in on your nights off; The other wait staff are already complaining that you spend too much time in here instead of the dining room.’
I began to understand about food. When to improvise, when to be precise; when to contrast, when to blend. I ate everything and learned to taste what I ate. Josef ate with me, criticising, commenting and gulping down huge glasses of dark red wine. That taste would take me a little longer to acquire. He talked about food and sex, love and cooking, hate and death. I learned to make all the dishes on the menu, and I began to learn about life, love and most of all the mysteriousness of people and how they suffered incurably from the curse of being human.
I was sad when I finally had to leave, but Josef had taught me about more than cooking. He had taught me how to live; how to anticipate and cope with the joys, the unexpected pain, the fearsome and the fabulous - all the riches that life would hopefully offer.