In 1991 I was 20 years old, in my third year at The Feathers Hotel, Woodstock, outside Oxford, a year away from venturing to London to do a tour of Michelin-starred restaurants. I was among a brigade of seven serving breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner in this grand 23-bedroom boutique hotel. We’d take it in turns to do the breakfast shift, starting at 6am. One chef and one waiter would do breakfast. Breakfast orders would come in slowly, with the bulk around the time when the other four chefs arrived at 8am. I started the stoves and casually set up the buffet, then set up my corner of the large 10 by 10 metre kitchen for cooked breakfasts.
About 6.30am it was total darkness outside. Cory, a young chef about my age, turned up in casual clothes. He beckoned me to the back door of the kitchen. ‘Can you stash this?’ he whispered frantically, thrusting a twisted carrier bag towards me. He ran off before I had time to reply, so I put the carrier bag in the chef’s office and continued setting up.
As the morning light brightened over the tiny town and the kitchen was set, curiosity got the better of me and I opened Cory’s mystery carrier bag. Inside were half a dozen mobile phones, individually far too expensive for a chef to afford back then, and a large semi-automatic pistol. We were all so tired all the time that nothing fazed us, and in years to come I would become all too familiar with chefs rubbing shoulders with the criminal underworld, working solitary unsociable hours.
I heard my thoughts in the dry monotone typical of my demographic: ‘Oh… that’s unusual’. He hadn’t worked there for very long but clearly he had ambitions in another career. I lifted the gun out of the bag and examined it closely, the waitress Lucy buzzing in and out in the background, waiting for guests to slowly emerge from their slumber.
I read BERETTA 9.0 down the side with a good understanding of what I was holding. I pressed a button on the handle and the magazine popped out, full of large brass bullets with strange crimped heads. Slightly confused I looked at the writing on the side again and spied REPLICA. Ah, it was full of blanks; at least he hadn’t shot anyone. I stepped into the small courtyard outside the kitchen back door, surrounded by cool rooms, sheds and bins. I cocked the pistol, pointed it straight up to the sky and stupidly pulled the trigger.
I think it was the loudest thing I’d ever heard.
I instantly panicked and rushed back into the chef’s office. With ringing ears I hurriedly concealed the gun and phones then raced back to my section.
Lucy emerged from the restaurant. ‘Did you hear that noise?’ she asked. ‘What noise?’ I replied, unnecessarily beginning to chop some chives. She disappeared back through the door to the restaurant and emerged a few minutes later with two breakfast orders in her hand. ‘Cheque on!’ she said. I started cooking but a few minutes later she burst through the door with more orders. Seemingly short of breath Lucy declared, ‘I don’t know what’s going on but everyone’s coming in for breakfast at once’.
Breakfast orders were coming in way too fast for 7.30am and things were starting to become overwhelming. Tom Lewis, the portly red-nosed middle-aged hotel manager, emerged in a pinstriped suit. Racing around cooking, I saw him running in and out of the restaurant helping Lucy. He appeared at the pass, frowning, with a bead of sweat on his forehead: ‘Did you hear a loud bang this morning?’. I calmly shook my head, turning to lay out another half dozen plates.
Suddenly more staff arrived to help on the floor and before I knew it the head chef, David, turned up. ‘What the f*** is going on?’ he asked, throwing on his chef’s jacket to help out. Cooking and plating rapidly I replied, ‘No idea, Dave, but all the rooms came down together’. As things got even busier the gossip between customers and staff about ‘the loud bang’ spread right through the hotel. At eight o’clock chefs began to arrive and started preparing for the day.
Cory was among them over in the larder section. As things began to die down a bit I passed him and he grabbed my arm. ‘Where’d you stash that bag?’ he asked quietly. ‘It’s in the office under the desk,’ I whispered, and continued to the coolroom. Cory appeared at the door: ‘Did you look in the bag?’ ‘No, I was too busy,’ I replied, then turned away and continued looking for the turned carrots.
I never told anyone that worked there what I’d done. The moral of the story: don’t fire a gun outside a hotel at dawn if you’re cooking breakfast.