I spent all of my twenties in a kitchen. When one chooses the life of a chef, you don’t have a pencil holder on your desk, you have stifling heat, fire, burns and singes. Unluckily for me, there have been numerous occasions when I have literally been burned by the less-than-glorious reality of life in commercial kitchens. All-day shifts are gruelling and you need stamina, motivation, inner strength, un-ebbing passion, a high pain threshold and quick reflexes to be successful. A common kitchen maxim is, “A falling knife has no handle.”
One night early in my career, I was placed in charge of a silver service Christmas dinner function. It was one of many happening at the same time in different banqueting halls in the very large Swiss-ski-resort-esque hotel I was working at in England. There were around 100 guests and all the usual Christmas delights were perfectly cooked, carved and cradled in lidded roasting trays, ready for me to send out like a one-girl conveyer belt.
Before I tell you how burning comes into this, I need to tell you about who I was at the time and why I was given such a large job early on in my chef life. I had left South Africa at 20 to pursue a dream of becoming a chef in the UK without studying. I chose to spend my time learning on the job in another country that had more advanced kitchens than home did. I was young, female, South African, had a grand total of 3 months’ experience in a kitchen (2 months of which was spent being the potwash before convincing them they needed to let me try making starters), and I had a chip on my shoulder. I had something to prove. This was later quashed, but more about that in another post.
The chip developed into a person of its own and I became loud about my plans to reach the top just like all the boys had done. There was only one other female chef in the brigade of 40+ men from England, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Spain, France, Poland, and Australia. The odds were against me and I could possibly have chosen to keep my mouth shut and just watched and learnt, but I knew that would take too long. Consequently, I started asking for more work and more responsibility. I worked in other departments on my days and nights off so I could learn quickly.
They started putting me in sticky situations to have a bit of sport and see if I would crack or screw up. I never did – at least not that they saw!
So back to Christmas eve, and putting myself into sticky situations. I was clearly under-qualified for the situation, but they were probably getting bored of seeing me so desperate to succeed at every challenge, so they upped the stakes. All was going well as 100 pre-plated beetroot gravadlax plates had been eaten and cleared and the next course of duck-fat potatoes and Brussels sprouts with gammon lardons had just headed out the door with gloved waitrons. Picking up the speed as I was one chef who should have been two, I had laid all the pistachio and date turkey rolls in their serving closhes under the hot pass for flow of service. As I lifted the third one I lifted too high and pressed my forearm right up into the searing hot element of the pass that had kept my precious packages warm.
Time slowed down as I looked over to my cooking arm which was by now well and properly stuck to the overhead element and sizzling smoke was drifting up from my crackling skin. I had already learnt the militaristic view of, ‘Rather you burn than drop the food’. I held onto that closh until the slowest waitron in the world finally took it from me and I could pull my arm free of the makeshift grill that the pass element had become, taking the skin with it. I had to carry on sending out the other closhes, my dislodged skin still sizzling and smoking against the element and the raw open flesh of my bleu, working arm was now being incinerated under the warmth of the pass.
There was nothing for it but to shut up and get the job done. I sure as heck would not let a tiny burn make me screw up and let them get the best of me. That silly sentiment – which thankfully I have long since outgrown – came in handy many times over the years when I was carrying something and couldn’t drop it, even if it was burning – oh god it was burning! I also once sliced off the top of my finger and carried on with a makeshift bandage until service was done. Another time I tore ligaments on both sides of my foot and carried on working for 6 hours. Experiences like these taught me how to be a warrior of sorts. I had to swallow my pain until I was done with my duty and I could let it all go. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, but in the years of my life that I gave away to the kitchen military training, this ability is one that I treasure greatly.
What does this have to do with photographing fire? Intrigue.
Fire, like the ocean is beautiful and life-giving, but also Shiva the Destroyer of worlds. You must know and respect it. I shoot with a 50mm Nikon on a D610 so I shoot pretty close up to the fire at times. I have learnt where the safe zones are and when the fire will dance for me, sometimes, I need to be right up in the pan, or in the oven.
In my experience, there is no sure-fire formula for shooting fire. Treat it as a light source rather than a moving object like smoke or falling icing sugar. I have shot from 1/60 – 1/1000 shutter speed in all the images shown below. The featured image was shot using a Lensbaby Edge 80.