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The Food Boutique (June 2009)
Yukio was a demented old-school chef with an unhealthy obsession about food wastage.

When Daimaru sacked a third of the workforce, I was given a choice. I could take a redundancy package... 9 weeks pay, immediate termination... or, as a reward for loyalty to the corporation, a demoted position.

No time to choose, no phone calls allowed. Middle of a recession, my wife had been looking for a job for 9 months. Of course I took the demoted position.

As it turns out, I quit four weeks later, so I did myself out of a few weeks pay.

The new job was working in the Food Boutique, working under Master Chef Yukio. It was a bizarre change. Yesterday I had been a manager in the Diamaru Food Hall, running 90 staff, and now I was second-chef-ing to a demented old man, cooking awful, westernized Japanese food.

I suspect, now, that the reason they kept me on was more pragmatic. Although Daimaru ran many food sections, and three restaurants, and employed a lot of cooks, I was the only one with official, Australian trade papers. When they were setting up the Bocuse restaurant, although they had world-class staff, there wasn't anyone in the team who was legally allowed to sign on any cooking apprentices. I offered, because I had my papers and had supervised apprentices before. That became the solution and I became the signatory for all the Daimaru cooking apprentices.

If I left they would have to scramble before officialdom chased them up.

But maybe I'm giving them too much credit. That would involve some thought, and the management didn't demonstrate a lot of that during the whole Daimaru debacle.

Yukio was a fool. The restaurant he ran was perpetually empty, with maybe one or two tables a day. Like the rest of the store, it was obviously running at a loss, but the Japanese were unwilling to lose face, admit defeat and close it down. He would fill in the time regaling me with tedious and improbable stories about marvellous meals he had cooked for the King of Greece, whenever that was, and meeting someone famous. Maybe they were truthful stories.

If he wasn't lecturing me with his endless reminisces, he would be flirting with the waitresses, which was pretty ghastly to watch. They put up with him because apart from that, it was an easy job. Six of them to service an empty restaurant, and if they tolerated him, he fed them lunch everyday for free.

Not that I would eat anything he cooked. As part of his commitment to the firm's profits, he had a zero waste policy. Zero waste meant nothing was allowed to be thrown out. Bad food got served. One of his favourite tricks was to serve the off stuff to kids. If they didn't eat it the parents wouldn't notice, but would still pay for it.

He would berate me for throwing food out, and eventually I started to hide stuff. One day I found a loaf of bread at the back of the fridge. Not just a bit mouldy, this had been a white-sliced loaf, but was now a solid block of blue.

I waited until Yukio was taking his usual 2 hour sleep at his desk.

I didn't mention that, did I?..... When I had enthusiastically joined Daimaru I was looking forward to seeing firsthand the legendary Japanese work ethic in action. Action isn't the right word. Sure, they spend 18 hours a day at their desk, but they sleep 6 of them.

Yes, they spent days feverishly writing and rewriting equipment lists and laboriously recalculating costs as we organised the fit-out of 9 commercial kitchens, but I did my lists in a spreadsheet and it took 20 minutes to rework the figures every time they changed the budget.

A couple of days before, I noticed him sitting at his desk, grey, sweating, clutching his chest.
"Are you OK, Yukio?", I asked him.

He waved me away, then flinched and groaned, his hand scrabbling at his rib cage over his heart. He started rocking forwards and backwards.

"Yukio! Are you having a heart attack? Do you have chest pains?"

Again, he waved me off, dismissively this time.

"To hell with him," I thought, "Stupid, old fool!", and went back to what I was doing. I looked up from my work a couple of times, and he was alternately slumping in his chair, then jerking back and forwards, groaning.

My conscience got the better of me, and I rang up the security number, who doubled as point of contact for medical emergencies.

"I'm officially reporting that I think Yukio in the Food Boutique is having a heart attack. He apparently doesn't want help." They started asking questions, but I cut them off, "Look, you come and look at him. He won't talk to me."

Unusually, they were there in about two minutes. When you apprehended an energetic shoplifter and had to subdue them, you might expect security to show up some fifteen minutes into the wrestling match. Security Jane took one look at Yukio and called an ambulance. He was carted off, and I coped with the rush – three customers - by myself.

Two hours later he was back. He'd run away from hospital, evidently in the hope he would die honourably at his desk. I rang security again when he showed up.

"Thanks. Give us a call if he karks it. With any luck it'll be this afternoon," the security manager said bitterly.

Anyway, he survived, and was now taking his usual two hour power nap.

With Yukio snoring away, and the waitresses busy drinking as much free alcohol as they could while he was offline, I took the loaf of bread and hid it at the bottom of the rubbish bin. I buried it under some rotting cabbage leaves that even Yukio couldn't salvage.

Later than afternoon I was chopping up some vegetables, prep for the next day, and Yukio came up to me.

"What is this?", he angrily demanded, holding up the blue loaf of bread. He must have gone through the bin, checking on me.

"It's mouldy bread, Yukio," I answered tiredly.

He hissed at me, "You waste food!"

I pointed to the loaf in his hands, "It is NOT food. It is mouldy bread. We cannot use it. You are not allowed to serve food like that."

He glared at me, then abruptly turned and stalked off.

Five minutes later he was back, with a plate, and on it two pieces of toasted bread. He thrust the plate at me.

"Here! Try this!", he demanded.

Incredulous, I looked down at the toast. It was a dark brown, and heavily buttered, but one corner was cooked slightly less, and was a distinct blue.

"Yukio," I said, getting angry now, "You do what you like. You serve rotten food to whoever you want. That bread is mouldy, and I refuse to serve it, and I refuse to eat it."

I turned back to the vegetables I was slicing up, effectively ending the conversation.

Instantly, he hit me, a backhand slap across the shoulder.

I turned to face him, my razor-sharp cook's knife in my hand. Thankfully I had the presence of mind to pause, and I leaned over and put the knife on the bench... out of his reach.

I faced him again, fists up, and beckoned to him: "Come here."

He could see the murder in my eyes and he turned and ran.

I went and had a drink of water, waiting until my hands stopped shaking, and finished cutting up the vegetables. I took the lot, and emptied all the prepped food into the bins, grabbed my stuff and walked over to the HR office.

Dianne in HR looked up as I walked into her office, took one look at my face and gestured to the chair. She smiled, sadly.

"There's the face of a man who's made a decision", she said.

They paid me out - at the reduced pay rate, of course - and I left immediately.

Yukio got sacked for sexual harassment a couple of months later.

The Food Boutique © Ian Buchanan June 2009
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