I Carabinieri

I remember I was just washing some spinach and talking to one of my colleges on a very hot day of July. The restaurant was empty because it was low season for Florence; at least that’s what they told me at work although soon I would find out it was for another reason.

The thing is, having a business in Italy is kind of complicated. I’m not going to talk about mafia because I have no bigger knowledge about that but basically everything has to go through some big guys and if they don’t approve yours plans, they will find a way to knock you down – not in a physical way but they will ruin your career.

Back to my very boring day, it was before lunch service when it all happened. It took me a while to understand what was going on but all of a sudden the restaurants Maître d´ came inside the kitchen and said the Police were in and asked us all to go upstairs to our lockers and bring down our documents. Immediately I ran and got mine (because I was more than sure that I had every single document I needed to be working in Italy) and gave it to him. All of us did. A few minutes later I get a phone call from the Head Chef telling me to get out of the restaurant from the back door. I told him I couldn’t because the Police already had my passport; they already knew I was there.

So that’s when the trouble began. After a few more minutes the Police called me and the pot washer. He was from the Philippines. They sat me down and started asking me a lot of questions like where I was from, when did I arrive in Italy, how did I get my passport, how did I start working there and the most important question of all: how long had I been working there. I was shaking and very nervous with my very basic Italian and not understanding why the fuck was I being investigated like that.

I lied, and I signed underneath it. Even though I had no idea what was going on, I thought that saying I was there for 4 month would make it worse, so I said it was my first week. And that was it, I lied to the Italian Police. Me, a just-born Italian was already in trouble. I was shitting myself. But that’s not the end.
After the Police left, I went back to the kitchen in shock, angry, crying and yelling to the only responsible around that was the Maître d´, asking what the hell was all that about. Not only was I confused but I noticed the Sous Chef and the other Japanese guy that we had in the kitchen had disappeared before the Police arrived.

The head Chef called me again. This time I answered and said I’m never coming back to work. I said, with my very poor Italian, that what happened was unacceptable, that I shouldn’t have gone through that, that I signed documents on my first day so that everything up to date.

He said the Sous Chef was hiding around the corner and that he wanted to talk to me. I got changed, picked up all my knives and went to talk to him expecting an explanation, an apology. All he did was laugh because I was crying and told me to stop crying that this was nothing. That he had been illegal in Italy for ten years and that he got used to running and that that happened all the time. I didn’t want to hear. I just wanted to get home.

Finally, after all, the Head Chef tried to call me for three days and I just texted him saying I didn’t want to know about him or the restaurant anymore. He understood but still tried to cover his ass. He said that I should have never given my documents to the Police, that I should have escaped like the others and that now they had to pay a fine because I was irregular on the papers. I just gave up on them.

In the end, days after what happened, all of us from the restaurant staff got together for a farewell. They found out what happened that day and they explained to me. Apparently the owner of the restaurant had broken a partnership with the big guys so they called the Police on him, saying they knew he had irregular people working there. Not only that, but they also knew neither the owner nor the Head Chef would be there that day to cover things up. It was all planned, and it worked. After that the restaurant shut down for ‘refurbishment’. It re-opened one year later.

Italian Lemons

I was staging in Florence at a fine dining restaurant. They didn’t let me touch the pans, I was working for twelve hours a day just washing salad and cleaning after the chefs. I also had the very important task of squeezing fresh lemon juice to dress the salad. For three weeks I was doing it as normal – grabbing the hand squeezer.

One day when it wasn’t so busy, the chef looked at me and asked how I was doing the lemon juice. He said it was wrong and he showed me how. He grabbed three pots and said there were three different ways of extracting the juice, it all depends on how you want the end result to be.

I was astonished by it, I couldn’t believe there was such thing. Other apprentices gathered around, they were all as curious as I was.

The chef sliced three halves and said that you can squeeze it normally, you can squeeze it sideways and you can squeeze it upside down. The first juice came out fresh, but slightly bitter. He explained it was because when you rub the sides of the pulp and the inside of the skin it mixes the citric juice with the bitterness of the skin. If you want that, great.

If you don’t want that, if you just want the citric taste you should just push the sides of the half lemon into the squeezer, so you extract purely the juice. It tasted just as he had said so.

The last and most important way of doing it was surprisingly amazing. He said, if you want the sourest taste of all, you do it upside down, because when the juice drops out of the lemon, it carries with it all the essencial oils that come out of the outside of the skin.

It may sound so silly, but with that simple share of knowledge, a tear drop came out of my eye. It was one of those eureka moments where I realized why I wanted to be a chef.

The smallest details can change everything, even a tiny drop of Italian lemon juice.