In praise of KPs

Mazid Diallo, kitchen porter at The Quality Chop House

Nick muses on a life without restaurant-going in an article that is also published by the Financial Times.

I can still recall my last meal in a restaurant. It was Sunday 15 March and we were in Glasgow at Crabshakk, one of my favourite restaurants. We ate extremely well: scallops with anchovies; tempura squid with a delicious coriander dipping sauce; John Dory with black-ink paella and, just to prove that we were in Scotland, a deep-fried skate wing with a mushroom ketchup.

Since then I have visited neither a restaurant nor a food shop as we have both worked at being model citizens. And thanks to our bossy children and deliveries from them we have eaten very well. I am not a bad cook and our wine cellar needs to be raided every evening, two advantages that definitely help with this lockdown business. Also, perhaps as a function of age, our appetites are not what they used to be. Few meals have been more than two courses.

If, therefore, I have not missed the thrill of a trip to a restaurant for a slap-up meal, what aspects of the business that I have now been a part of for 40 years have I most missed?

The first is an aspect of every restaurant in the world and one that has been prevalent ever since restaurants first evolved in Paris in the early nineteenth century. At that time, once Napoleon had been deposed, the city was full of British troops, many of whom were considered not worthy of a social invitation to the salons of the leading Parisians. The recently opened restaurants therefore became their home.

And it was there that the British were able to watch the French relax, at play in the only milieu that was available to them. In those days, restaurants became the playground for the French and British to mingle in and for the British to enjoy the kind of food, wine, service and experience of a way of life that was not available to them back home. In fact, then the only place in the world all this was available was Paris.

This restaurant voyeurism continues and has been, until recently, an added excitement to any trip to a restaurant. I do not mean by this that customers and their overheard conversations are ripe to be reported upon. This is an approach I have never adopted in my writing and hope that I never will. But people-watching; observing the different eating habits of people in different countries; looking at the exceptional, and very different, ways of treating young children in restaurants, for example – these are legitimate and wonderful ways of enjoying sitting in a restaurant.

But there has been one other aspect of being a customer in a restaurant, rather than the chef in my own kitchen, that I am missing during this lockdown. And that is having to peel all my own vegetables; to clean my own pots and pans; and do all the washing up after we have finished eating. [Thank you so much, Nick – JR.]

These are the tasks that are normally included in every restaurant’s prices; tasks that fall not to the better-known members of any chef’s brigade but to the far less well-known team known as kitchen porters. KPs, as they are known in the trade, are a group of individuals who, like so many in today’s world, go under-appreciated and underpaid and today may be suffering the most from their restaurants’ closure. (I took this picture of Abdoul Mazid Diallo at our son's Quality Chop House in happier times.)

As a restaurateur in the 1980s I dreamt up a solution to their under-appreciation. My menu would offer two prices. The first would be the normal price with the normal service. The second would be a menu discounted by 30% but would necessitate any customer who wanted to avail themselves of this lower price go downstairs into the basement kitchen and doing their own washing up. I never imagined that this second pricing would be hugely popular but it would underline all the services that a restaurant’s kitchen provides – thanks to its team of KPs.

Doing the washing up is only one of the many duties of a reliable kitchen porter. Others will include: carrying in all the produce the kitchen receives, including the wine; peeling all the vegetables; mopping down the outside of the restaurant, possibly twice a day; making sure that the chefs are continually supplied with ultra-clean frying pans and other necessary items to cook the food; keeping the kitchen floor clean and tidy; and making sure the rubbish bins, when full, are taken away and emptied.

Kitchen porters are as indispensable to any successful restaurant as its much more widely admired and revered chefs. In this they play a similar role to the nurses in today’s overstretched hospitals and the care workers in today’s care homes. They suffer the same discrepancies of pay, with KPs earning the official London living wage of £10.75 ($13.40) per hour while the average for a reasonably experienced head chef is double that.

Perhaps the most high-profile KP is Ali Sonko, the 65-year-old Gambian at Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. Having started at the restaurant when it opened in 2003, Sonko went up to receive Noma’s Best Restaurant in the World award in 2013 at the awards ceremony. This was three years after he had not been allowed to travel as part of the restaurant team when Noma first won the award in 2010. In late 2017 Rene Redzepi, Noma’s chef and founder and himself the son of a KP, passed over ownership of the restaurant to Sonko and a couple of other members of the team.

Now, excuse me. I have a pile of potatoes to peel.