Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.



I hadn't slept very well, so I thought breakfast in town on the way to the office might be nice.

It was one of those cafes that start with 'B'. Why do they all start with 'B'? What's wrong with the other 25 letters of the alphabet? Becco. Babka. Bruno's. Benito's. BluFish. Baa. Bello's. Baloo. They could call it Garbage Truck or Strong Smell of Liniment for all I cared. As long as the coffee was good the name didn't matter.

The coffee was good. So were the scrambled eggs and bacon with hash browns, fried tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms on toasted sourdough. Should get me through to an early lunch, say around 12.30-ish.

I browsed through the complimentary morning papers over the second coffee and then, after paying the bill, I winked at the waitress on the way out. Can you still call them waitresses, or are you up against some workplace discrimination law or other, and get hauled before a Human Rights Commission, of which we seem to have about seventeen? Hang on, the wink is a criminal act now as well. I felt a hashtag digging into my back as I left.

In the office the first person I ran into was the suit who had called me at the seventh hole yesterday.

'Got some bad news,' he said.

A faint tingle started crawling up my spine. I ignored it and replied, pointedly, 'I'm recovering, thank you, but how are you?'

'Oh. Yes. Are you feeling better?' he stammered. 'And good morning.'

'Quite better thank you,' I answered. 'Bed rest works a treat for over-worked, stressed-out people like me. What's your bad news?'

'That client review I mentioned yesterday.' He paused.

'Go on.'

'Mr Austin, the marketing director, has informed us that to hold the account we have to re-pitch against five other agencies.'

A long silence. I felt that tingle again, but decided to take the crash-through approach.

'Re-pitch? Tell them to get stuffed. Here: take this down.'

We were in my office now. I dictated while he recorded on his device.
"Mr R. Austin
Marketing Director
Agricultural Bearings Pty Ltd

Dear Mr Austin

In asking us to re-pitch you have completely forgotten that our brilliant campaign not only saved your marketing director role's arse last year, but also added big numbers onto your company's bottom line."
I do like a pun here and there, but that one would go straight over his head. Never mind. I continued:
"You now tell us you are 'reviewing' the account. Well, here's our review: Our work was great. It sold millions of dollars worth of agricultural bearings. Furthermore, you are an A-grade arsehole. So take your account and shove it.

Kind regards, Blake Browning Burns."
'Did you get all that?'

The suit didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Finally he decided I was joking and managed a nervous laugh.

I glared. 'I'm serious.'

He didn't say anything, he just kind of squeaked.


Wednesday night.

Or it might have been Thursday morning. I didn't know the time. It could have been three in the morning.

I woke with a start.

I don't usually wake in the middle of the night. Why should I? What have I got to be worried about?

Suddenly, something someone had said to me yesterday on the phone came back to me, for no reason at all. I had only been half-listening to him at the time, because I only ever half-listen to suits. Usually it's only quarter-listen. Often I don't listen at all. They talk rubbish and are a blight on the industry.

For some reason three words stuck in my mind. The three words were 'review' and '$20 million'.

I didn't know why something like that would bother me at three o'clock in the morning.

Or why it should keep me awake for two hours.

Once, something like that would never have bothered me.

I must have fallen asleep around five. The warm, softly curved shape under the sheet next to me had not stirred.



Yesterday at the agency was horrible.

So this morning I called in sick.

But do you think they had the human decency to leave me alone?

The bastards called me three times. I couldn't believe it. I could have been at death's door and they would have had no consideration or sympathy whatsoever. Advertising is truly a cruel industry riddled with uncaring egotists thinking only about themselves.

The first call came on the second fairway, the second call on the fourth, and the third at the seventh hole. When the third call came, I really lost the plot. It totally destroyed my concentration. It was that idiot suit who had dragged me out of bed unnecessarily yesterday. (Of course, I should have turned the phone off, but I was waiting on a call about lunch with a friend from the office who had also called in sick that day, a coincidence that would not go wasted.)

Seeing his name on the screen, I didn't even wait for him to speak. I shouted into the phone (it was quite windy on the course), 'Listen to me, ****, you useless sack of bag-carrying shit. You are the third person to call me this morning despite knowing I have called in sick. Hang on a sec ... ’

A group of golfers behind had caught up and I waved them through.

He started gabbling something about a client (not yesterday's, another one) who had just informed the agency that they were placing their $20 million account under review, but I wasn't going to listen. I just hit the end-call button, cutting him off mid-sentence.

You have to be harsh with these people.

I holed the ball and walked on towards lunch. I was looking forward to it and, indeed, to the rest of the afternoon. And evening. I hadn’t seen her since yesterday, at her desk outside the MD's office. I wondered how he was coping without having his hand held.



The idiot suit, Phil, had arranged a client meeting for 9 a.m., when I am usually inoculating myself with coffee to steel me for another nerve-wracking day. Worse, the meeting was to be miles away in an outer suburb, so I had to be in the agency at the crack of dawn. At 8.15 a.m. we climbed into Phil's look-at-me BMW. I noticed with distaste the personalised number plates that read CL3V3R. I told him 1D10T would have been closer.

Half an hour later we were in Bayswater, a land of high-visibility vests, and HiLuxes, and tradies, and plumbing businesses and BWS outlets and run-down factories. Every city in the world has its industrial areas, and their takeaway food places all have the same names. Ed's Takeaways. Eat & Go. Or even just Hot Pies. Phil drifted the BMW to a stop on the gravelled forecourt of a warehouse which had a rubbish skip out the front. We walked in through a metal door and entered a cold room with bare white walls. A low timber reception desk bore a sign that read 'Reception Desk'. A sofa sagged next to a tall urn containing those spindly dead sticks that were popular in decor circles in 1986. The receptionist popped out from somewhere, smiled and crooked a red finger nail at a CafeBar in the corner, which was her way of offering us coffee. CafeBar? My goodness me: that is almost retro. Almost. I had some, for old time's sake.

The client MD, Mr Canino, emerged from a door next to the receptionist and beckoned to us. He was bald, in his early forties, and wore a blue suit and a check shirt and no tie, and we followed him into another room which was probably the board room. We had pleasantries all round. I dislike small talk, but we did it anyway. You have to be nice to people. Especially to Mr Canino. He's a $20 million client.

Mr Canino briefed the job via a power point presentation, reading aloud every word of every frame, as if translating it from another language for our benefit. Come to think of it, it was another language: corporate jargon. Brief complete, Mr Canino handed me a print-out of the power point presentation we had just sat through. I thanked him politely. The print-out would go straight into the bin back at the agency. If I was really brave, I'd toss it in the skip out the front on the way out.

We drove back along Canterbury Road, the Eastern Freeway, and Hoddle Street to the inner suburbs. I dozed, not used to being driven. Now the factories and warehouses were giving way to endless hipster caf├ęs, where idle men wearing tight trousers and fussily trimmed beards were perched on stools reading The Age. I wondered in my half-awake state which was the real world.

In my office at 11 a.m. three sticky notes had been stuck on my computer screen. Of all the workplace behavioural offences, this is the worst. The notes went straight in the bin along with the power point brief. You'd think people would learn. I was in a binning mood. Bins are greatly under-utilised in business.

At 11.15, Mr CL3V3R came in and gave me his agency brief, based on client's brief presented at the meeting. He couldn't have written it that quickly. I challenged him.

'I wrote it last night,' he laughed. 'The client faxed me a sneak preview of the brief yesterday.'

'That means I didn't have to go to that meeting this morning,' I pointed out.

'They like to see you anyway,' he chortled. 'It's good agency-client relations to introduce the creative people.' He said 'creative' in that mock-sincere inflection you save for people with special needs.

'Screw client relations and screw you,' I told him, 'and there’s the door.' He laughed on his way out.

A little peace at last. I shut the door. Actually, I slammed it. I gave it a strategic slam. Ten minutes later I was reading a long story full of unnecessarily big words by Gideon Haigh in the sports pages of The Australian.

Then the peace was shattered. Fire drill. Some idiot wearing a red plastic fireman's hat was waving his arms like a windmill and yelling, 'All out! Practice drill! All out! Please use the stairs, the elevators are disabled!' It's always the office moron who volunteers to be firewarden. In a real fire they'd be the first to run screaming from the building. 'All out! All out!' he screeched. I stayed where I was and enjoyed the silence until they all trooped up the stairs again forty-five minutes later clutching more takeaway coffee cups.

At 12 noon the receptionist announced over the PA a special emergency lunchtime meeting called by the MD to discuss 'agency performance, revenue and profit'. I could smell another power point presentation. There had better be food. Lunch time is sacrosanct and anyone who calls a lunch meeting without feeding the attendees is a passive aggressive attention-seeker.

The belligerent MD took sixty minutes to go through twenty power point frames about EBITs (earnings before interest and tax) and the like. As if anyone understood, apart from the CFO. It's an advertising agency, not the Institute of Chartered fucking Accountants.

Thirty minutes later, a courier bashed through the door and plonked down a dozen pizza boxes from Sardinia (the pizza restaurant, not the island, although it may as well have been the latter). But he kept talking. Finally I had to get up and pointedly interrupt the MD by saying,'Oh, LOOK the pizza's arrived, let's EAT it NOW before it gets COLD!' At that, everyone just jumped up and helped themselves from the boxes. The MD kind of just stopped talking, like a toy whose battery has run down. By now the pizza was neither hot not cold, but somewhere in the middle - with the cheese half-congealed and no longer stretchy.

After the meeting I had to make an extra strong coffee to get the taste of manufactured pizza ham fat out of my mouth. My teeth felt like they were wearing footy jumpers. In the kitchen, I had one of those weird conversations with an account executive who was microwaving some packet soup. 'Why would you go to the trouble of making coffee when there are cafes downstairs?' he enquired.

'I would put the inverse argument,' I replied.

'You what?'

'Never mind.' You can't have an intelligent conversation with a suit.

The rest of the day flew until 4.30 p.m. when a suit came in and wanted to have a meeting about a rejected ad that was due to run the day after tomorrow. Why a meeting, I asked. Why not a conversation and just fix it? Because the client wanted to be involved, he said. I saw three hours pass before my eyes. The meeting dragged on forever, with conference calls, changes run in and out of studio, lasers printed out and PDFs or JPEGs or whatever the fuck they're called finally sent off to the newspaper.

I went home at 6.45 p.m..

Yesterday was not great. Today was horrible. What will tomorrow bring? I'm considering getting my pilot's licence or setting up an animal shelter in the back yard.



A satire.

I rocked into work about 9.40 a.m. just as several earlier arrivals were exiting for morning coffee at one of the dozens of cafes down the street. Years ago people made coffee from the urn in the kitchen in twenty seconds. Now they disappear for forty-five minutes and come back with six takeaway plastic-topped cardboard coffee cups set into a cardboard carrier the size of an aircraft carrier. Productivity Commission, anyone?

After chatting with that strange breed of office workers who are always in the kitchen, I finally reached my office around 10 a.m. and commenced the twenty-first century white collar drudgery of 'checking my emails'. Naturally, I deleted most including the stupid jokes and idiot cat pictures, etc, that the cretin from the studio keeps emailing to all staff. I replied to one or two of the work-related ones in as few words as possible, and without a sign-off line. Having done with the office emails, out-of-office bouncebacks and meeting requests/confirmations/cancellations/on-hold-until-further-notices, I checked out the news headlines. Peace. (My peace, that is, not the world headlines.)

The silence was broken by the sudden ringing of the office phone. Yes. The office phone. The phone still sits there, one in each office, primeval mechanical monsters like dodos in a museum. But they are not museum pieces. Every now and then they ring, a strange insistent metallic ringing sound like the siren of a hostile 1950s flying saucer with rivets. I picked it up. You don't have to do anything with old phones; you just pick them up and talk. No buttons, no swiping, no nothing. On the line was an account executive who was sitting twenty metres away in a cubicle. He was either too lazy to walk, or too afraid to present himself in my office in person. I heard a quarter of his voice in the earpiece and the other quarter as echo from down the corridor. He wanted to brief a project. I told him to come in straight after lunch, say 3 p.m. or thereabouts.

Then I did the morning's work. The first job was to write the words for the back of one of those postcards you find in hipster cafes. The card was advertising a new low rate for a bank's credit card. The front had a picture of a cracked coffee cup sitting in a pool of leaking coffee. For the back, I wrote: 'Tired of paying too much interest on your credit card? Switch today, get a lower interest rate, and you'll no longer have to watch your money leaking away. Terms and conditions apply. Fees and charges apply. See website for details. Check the PDS before deciding if this product is right for you. Rates are correct at time of printing and may change without notice.'

It took me two and a half minutes. I billed two hours. The place has to make money. I can't help it if I work fast. I should have been a racing car driver. Or a lawyer.

Just before lunch, a junior suit dropped into my office begging for advice on wording for a sentence in a 10cm x 2 column correction notice ad which he had tried to write himself. I fixed it for him, and warned him to never again try to write any copy no matter how minor. He wandered off with his revised ad, thinking he had had an audience with a genius.

Lunch was at 12.30; yes, early, but I had earned it. I went down in the lift with the usual bunch of couriers, some of them with their bikes actually in the lift, to stop them being stolen. Despite the wave of tempting curry aromas from the Indian cafes that dominated the streetscape, I picked up some sushi and a cup of miso soup from a shop the size of a shoebox in a tiny arcade off the main street.

The place was deserted when I got back. I ate at my desk reading the Drudge Report. At 1.30 p.m. the office was still empty, so I thought I'd go for a walk. It was early autumn and the city was warm. It was the season for office girls to be wearing sleeveless dresses and bare legs like Carnaby Street in the flower power era; but they also had headphones clamped to their ears, or were staring into devices like zombies. This is not what the swinging sixties in London looked like. I went into a second hand bookshop.

Half an hour later I was engrossed in a book about antique military aircraft. I got back to the office at 2.30 p.m. and starting writing an ad about an energy company's dual-fuel discount offer. It took about twelve minutes. I was completely knackered now. I should have been a train driver or a quantity surveyor or something less stressful. I started an online crossword in one of the online British newspapers, and was interrupted by the suit who had made the 3 p.m. appointment. I told him to come back in fifteen minutes. Inconsiderate prick.

He walked in again at 3.30 p.m. with a smile on his face. Why the grin, I asked. He told me he had just organised a meeting with a client, and that he had invited me along to meet Mr Canino, the client’s MD. Then he told me the meeting was 9 a.m. tomorrow morning.

In Bayswater. This was payback.


Kavali Fried Chicken - finger lickin' good.

Process the following:

One tablespoon each chili and coriander powder
One teaspoon each turmeric, fenugreek leaves, peppercorns, and salt
5 green cardomom pods
1 black cardomom pod
1 piece star anise
2 cloves garlic
1 inch peeled ginger
1 inch cinnamon
1 clove
1 pinch asafoetida
1 grate of nutmeg
Half a teaspoon of sugar
Three-quarters of a cup of vinegar

Once processed, fold one cup of yogurt through the resulting mixture.

Joint one chicken.

Coat the chicken pieces with the spicy yogurt mixture, pressing it under skin or into slashes.

Place chicken a large covered dish and store in fridge at least a couple of hours and preferably overnight.

Barbecue time: place chicken pieces on grill. Cooking time is dependent on grill, weather conditions, wind direction, etc etc.

Sprinkle cumin seeds over the chicken and serve with plain basmati rice with a salad of tomato, cucumber, coriander, white onion on the side and wedges of lemon to squeeze.


Steak sandwich making: Tim Blair gets a fail.

Chronic sarcastist Tim Blair's article in Monday's Daily Telegraph was titled The Greatest Steak Sandwich Ever Built. OK, the sub-editor writes the headlines, but it is still misleading, in the sense that someone might try his recipe and find it wanting.

Tim discovers:
... the missing ingredient was brute force.
But what steak to use?
I've always been confounded by steak selection. Choose a substantial quality cut and it'll be too unwieldy for sandwich use. Pick something cheaper, thinner and meaner and you’ll endure a terrible chewing challenge. The trick is to find a small, thick cut and then bash it thin.
I presume he means fillet. But this no way to treat it:
... commence whaling upon it with your steak mallet. I use a half-kilo bruiser liberated from my in-laws' old restaurant. There is no meat it cannot beat.
Wrong, Tim. A steak mallet is designed to break down the fibres of cheaper cuts of steak. It will turn fillet into steak tartare, or roadkill that has gone under a Kenworth cab-over. So your in-laws passed off chuck steak as porterhouse?
Prior to this, get two bacon slices going on a non-stick pan. D'Orsogna's rindless streaky bacon is ideal. Then, as the bacon is crisping up, drop an egg on there. Pierce the yolk and try to keep everything sandwich-sized.
Don't worry about keeping everything sandwich-sized. Cutting it to fit is easier.
By now, after all that pounding, your steak should have increased in circumference from 25cm or so to about 65cm. It will also be flatter than electric car sales. Don't worry if it appears too large. Contraction during grilling will draw it down to bread slice dimensions.
And it will be beef jerky. Now, the pan:
No non-stick pan can achieve the heat required for serious steak work. I use a cast iron skillet that is old enough to vote ... Get the skillet smoking hot and throw on your steak. It'll cook in no time.
This is good advice.
Meanwhile, toast the bread slices. Wholegrain has greater torsional rigidity than white, and toasting further increases the sandwich’s eventual structural integrity.
Wholemeal is steak sandwich heresy, Tim. Coles $2 house brand white is perfect. It holds the sandwich but doesn't get in the way. Now for the salad:
On one toasted and buttered slice, place whatever salad components you desire. A basic lettuce/tomato/green pepper combination is all most people need, but maybe you're a bit SBS when it comes to these things. Shallots and watercress it is, then.
Don't know where he gets the watercress from. That's just ridiculous. You wouldn't even taste it and as far as I can guess, cress has no crunch. (Shallots are spring onions in Melbourne.) Now we learn the dreadful truth about Tim Blair and beetroot:
Now, I'm pro-beetroot in almost every circumstance, but it has no place here. Liquid is the enemy of the steak sandwich, and beetroot, for all its fine properties, is essentially crimson water. Besides, you're already pushing it with all that salad nonsense.
Tim the traitor. After boosting beetroot for years, Tim Blair drops the ball when it really counts. Have you heard of paper towels, Tim? Lay the beetroot on paper towels until they suck up all that 'crimson water'.
Top with bacon, egg, maybe some onion ...
Maybe some onion? A steak sandwich without lots of onion - fried or sliced rings - or even better, both is like Punch without Judy.
You will know if all is well when you cut it. Too much resistance indicates a catastrophic grilling failure. ... But if the blade glides through as it should, prepare for the optimal steak sandwich experience. Enjoy.
I knew he was going to forget the pineapple. The acid sweetness of pineapple is the flavour alchemy that turns an ordinary steak sandwich into the comfort food of the gods.