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I, Salvatore De Vivo, Napoletano, surrounded by Vikings

I arrived here in the Ukraine in 2006 by chance, after a fantastic experience in South America, the land of sun, of sea, of always happy people but also of tough street violence; they are two completely antipodal parts of the world. After the first years here, which were terrible, because of the difficulty of understanding the language and the mentality which was completely different to ours, I, an astute Neapolitan who ‘bends but doesn’t shatter’, finally worked out the necessities. It must be said that the Ukrainians are good people, who, all in all, are resigned to living a pretty hard life under really difficult socioeconomic conditions; the average salary is €200, the average pension €80. After decades of receiving orders from their great mother Russia, they found themselves in a state of bewilderment once gaining their independence a few years ago.

My relationship with my staff is one of stick and carrot, and I should say a long stick (I’m a person who upholds the work of each and every one, and I have pretty high standards), and for them it’s difficult to always keep up, that is, they fall behind easily.

I could give many anecdotes about those years, but more than anything else, about the intense food, a cause of serious fatness in this part of the world, where it is considered energising to fill the stomach to the brim and then drinking down an inhumane quantity of alcohol.

I don’t mean to generalise, but seldom did it happen that I didn’t find banquets, or luncheon or dinner guests without their beloved vodka or some other super alcoholic drink on the table; I can say that if hundreds of years ago a pretext for this was certainly the frigid winter weather, in 2013 this could no longer be an explanation. I believe it is incredibly difficult to change eating habits and it needs a lot of time, the culture of eating well and of longevity is simply not characteristic of these people.

Logically, if we bear in mind that the average salary is €200 a month, it’s going to be an uphill march to handle the situation of good food and a healthy living, since living here just isn’t that cheap. The Ukraine’s climate and the land don’t help the cultivation of autochthonous produce. Almost all the cereal and basic vegetables, potatoes, cabbage and onions, etc. are imported, and contribute little to a balanced nutrition. Seemingly normal sorts of produce are not always available to the general public, because of the extremely high prices. Working in such conditions is very difficult and it’s equally difficult to explain that eating well means a healthy future for them and their children.

I’ve often found myself in unexpected situations; at nine o’clock in the morning a beautiful young woman, the banqueting manager, comes to ask about something concerning a banquet to be organised but after the first few words I begin to perceive a foul smell and remain stunned not understanding how it could be possible.

After having seen their breakfast, borscht with three kilos of onions, the die is cast. Let’s not even talk about the Kiev Metro, in which in order to resist the garlic and onion breath and other such smells it’s necessary to put on a gasmask. And finally the taxis are where the stench is concentrated to such a point that you hope to arrive at your destination before running the risk of a pulmonary infection.

We could call such ‘funny’ episodes the order of the day. These Vikings, as I call them, don’t liked to be controlled, so if you hold surprise spot checks, you find, for example, fridges in which it seems that an atomic war has just broken out! Cleanliness and organisation are far behind our West-european standards, so if you don’t handle these things continuously, in no time you’ll find yourself with a kitchen that’s out of control.

These Vikings love talking and an apparent problem can be discussed for hours and hours merely for the pleasure of talking, not for solving the problem, since they are afraid of change and they’re all happy to stay in their condition of uncontrolled chaos!

And could we speak about the flip-flops worn in the kitchen? Flip-flops are fashionable for all! When I ask; “but what are you doing with flip-flops on in the kitchen?” the answer is: “but chef, it’s hot outside, it’s 30 degrees today!”

You can stick your HACCP courses up your ass; it looks like everything that you’ve learnt all these years spent with old farts in the kitchen is nothing but shit! I’d like to give you a couple of words about personal hygiene. Another thing to be learnt here is that the macho is the macho and that’s it! Obviously, I’m exaggerating a bit but some ‘cabbage men’ have turned up in the kitchen, who I’ve immediately sent to take a shower, because their presence in the kitchen generated a toxic cloud!

So then, one could ask; “after all this hemming and hawing about things you don’t like, what are you doing here still if you don’t like anything?” The answer is a fifteen-month-old child, named Riccardo, born by the woman I love and who I married two years ago; the Ukraine has given me the joy of becoming a father and of becoming acquainted with the woman of my life. It’s a tough country, where life is not easy, however a country of opportunity for us foodservice professional, a country where if you manage to understand the mentality and to make the right concessions, an Italian chef can be considered a true personality.

 

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