Some career ambitions are still-born.
A future in fine arts dwindles the first time somebody you respect tells you what your painting is really like.
I learned my limits as a chef the day I had to cook a lobster.
Actually no. Disillusionment began earlier than that. It began at six o’clock one morning at the fish market – a hub of activity around which every fishing port rotates, and the place to buy straight from the boat. A cold place where doors are dispensed with as unnecessary luxury and the floors are largely made up of crates of fish: whole fish, with exquisite silvery skins and wide, staring eyes – beasts of the sea that were proud and graceful in life – you can see where this is going, can’t you?
In the wind-scoured entrance to the market, beyond the reach of the auctioneer’s plainsong stands a cluster of individual weighing scales. And squatting in each of these, on a good fishing day, will be the lobsters. They are not dead. They are very much alive, and they are seriously pissed off.
Like little boxers, they fix their eyes on each new adversary that passes close to them and their claws come up in peekaboo stance as they turn to face you. Pass too close, allow yourself a moment’s negligence and they will latch on!
I had been cooking seafood for a while. I knew that, eventually, to call myself a chef of any kind, I would have to add lobster to my menu. I never bought one. No, not once. Though I brought all sorts of exotic fish back from that market I could never bring myself to return with a lobster. Why? Because to do so would mean committing myself to cooking a living thing.
Put them in the fridge, I was told. That will stun them. Then straight into the boiling water. Alive!
I know if you put me in a fridge I wouldn’t be stunned. I’d be quite surprised, because I probably didn’t think we had that kind of a relationship, but I wouldn’t be stunned. I’d be cold. Dropping me straight into hot water certainly wouldn’t be any less painless; it would hurt. I suppose I would have to offer my cook the satisfaction of whistling as my insides boiled, though if it were too loud and persistent I would be embarrassed, I think.
You see, that’s when you learn that some things are just not meant to be. The moment when you have that game little creature in your power, and you have to decide: will you bring it to the table, or will you chicken out? And what humiliation will there be if you are caught – at the very moment you drop it back into the sea?
The truth is, at the interface twixt man and beast I am the unreliable guardian, the soft-hearted sentinel. Given an intimate moment with a tiger I would want to stroke it and make it purr: if a bear offered to hug me I would take it as a gesture of affection.
I am not a vegetarian – no, far from it. I am, though, like most carnivores, deliberately hypocritical.
I know this animal whose raw flesh I fashion into food was living once, but it is sufficiently far removed from its living state to allow me the illusion it is something else. I will behead and eviscerate the whole creature as long as I am secure in the knowledge it was not I who killed it. I am absolved of responsibility thereby. Its death was inevitable and nothing to do with me.
The normal de-sensitising influence of time has worked in reverse upon me; the older I become the more sentimental, the wiser I become the more sensible to the suffering I cause. Where for me? A downhill slide into vegetarianism? No, I like my food too much. I enjoy cooking it too much.
I’m just glad that, at a certain stage, I decided – or fate decided for me – to turn my back upon a professional pursuit of the culinary arts. It took the martyrdom of one brave lobster to save the lives of a thousand. I hope his brothers remember him!