Contrary to the French nature of his name Michel was in fact a Dutchman. A huge Dutchman. One of his hands was (and this is no lie) about the size of both of mine. I once saw him use those hands to take a roasting tray out of an oven after it had been in there for 3 hours, stand still, look for a spot to put it and then place it on a bench. All of this without any oven cloth of any sort, just bare hands. He was a proverbial tank of a man and when I arrived in London and started working at the Halcyon he became my soux chef (second chef).
Soux chefs are the dependable, reliable chefs always prepared to back the head chef and to do most of the head chefs dirty work. If you have a soux chef as imposing as Michel then you're gonna have a fairly cruisy run as a head chef. He is basically your head thug, a skillful thug, but a thug none the less.
Michel was a contradiction in some ways though.
My first shift in the kitchen with Michel on deck was one I will never ever forget. I was assigned to the vegetable section. In other words I had to send out the vegetable garnish for every table. Yep the vegies had their own section in this kitchen, that's why you pay so much for food in a fine dining establishment.
So there I was sweating away desperately trying to keep up with the orders, I mean I had never done anything like this in Australia, vegies were/are a side order at the best of times, hardly bothered with. Over there I had to plate each serve up in its' own silver dish. Massive.
Things were going along fairly well when the chef threw one of my dishes back towards me.
"The sauce has split, don't serve me shit like that again"
We had to speak French in this kitchen, not always, but during service, terms like "order in," "Make sure it's beautiful", "perfect" had to be barked in French, god help you if you ever answered "Yes Chef" instead of "Wee Chef"
So I responded in the required French and instantly he was upon me, lurking over me and my four burner stove top was the Dutch hulk known as Michel.
"You think I see nothing" he bellowed.
"Well I see fucking everything"
I swear to god I felt about 3 inches tall, all I wanted to do was turn into water and dissipate on the kitchen floor, I am so going to die right now. I turned towards him desperately trying to think of how I could answer/acknowledge him and/or save my life or at least result in only some non life threatening injuries to my feeble body.
It was at this point that the entire kitchen, Michel included burst out laughing........................
Oh my god.
They had all set me up, I now felt about 1 inch tall. You pack of bastards. I managed a sort of nervous laugh and simply went bright red. Michel then slapped me across the shoulders with those giant hands of his and threw the offending vegie dish into the bin. So set up that they had ordered an extra dish earlier and allowed the sauce to split in order to confront me with it.
Hook line and sinker. But I've since found that the nervous new guy is the easiest to snare in these situations. Hardened line chefs are too savvy for shit like that. They would have known where every veg dish was at anytime and would have noticed the extra one sitting under the heat lamps for longer than it should of. I was solely concentrating on keeping up to worry about any of that. Ha!
Michel was and is underneath all that thick skin just a big soft hearted Dutchman who had an elfin sized French girlfriend. He wouldn't hurt a fly unless he really had to. I'm pretty sure he could have hurt anything if he really had to, the idea was to never find out. So if Michel demanded you come drinking with him after work, you went. I got to visit some interesting underground German drinking clubs in London, clubs where every beer was followed by an apple schnapps chaser. Clubs where the doorman peeked at you through a slot in the door before he let you in, well let Michel in, we just followed.
The last memory I have of Michel is him sitting in his lounge room with Bruce, one of the Halcyons' senior chef de parties, drunk on whisky and announcing very loudly how he and Bruce were going to sort out all of the problems in Africa by parachuting in with the Dutch army and well, simply fixing it all. His girlfriend desperately trying to drag him to bed, she too had had enough. I had a breakfast shift the next day so I left em to it.
Africa......you have been warned.