The French chef.
"Here's the thing: you're not a chef. You’re not a good cook. You're not even a cook. You lack all the basic French culinary skills. You don't know how to use a knife. I'm afraid when I see you holding a knife because I just know your fingers will come flying off and then I'll be forced to call an ambulance and get saddled with babysitting you at the hospital all night. You absolutely suck as a person. You're a terrible manager. Whomever trained you ought to be ashamed of themselves because they failed miserably. The Viets are not used to being treated with respect. If you respect them, they walk all over you. They need to be treated with fear. They are not your friends. They are there for you to abuse and they expect that. So quit being nice to the staff. It's unbecoming. And quit saying thank you whenever someone does something for you. Chefs don't act that way. TRANG, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING? Who told you that you can sit down? FUCK THIS SHIT. Fucking animals. See what I mean, Caroline? In order to succeed in Vietnam you have to treat people like complete shit".
I sat there throughout this monologue, speechless. I thought it best to keep my mouth shut anyway. He had spent the entire lunch service hollering at me, loudly enough for customers in the restaurant to hear. He yelled; he threw pots and pans across the room into the sink, contents flying everywhere; he kicked the garbage can; he hollered that I had shit for talent. “ARRETE DE M’ENGUELER”, I finally shouted back at him. He looked at me with surprise and clamped his mouth shut. That's when the owner came into the kitchen, smiling, looked directly at me, and said, “Caroline, can you keep it down? The clients can hear you”. He was so used to the French chef's antics that he tuned them out completely (though various reviews on Trip Advisor mention how volatile and condescending the chef is to staff and customers). And all the owner heard was my voice.
You know it's bad when you dread going into work because you don't know what kind of mood the French chef will be in. I found out through a friend (who had the misfortune of dating him for two dire weeks) that he was bi-polar and refused treatment. He would destroy things in the kitchen then scream at us to clean it all up. He abused everyone, not just me. When he wasn’t pointedly avoiding the owner’s Vietnamese wife, he would yell obscenities at her. He made my favorite hardworking girl in the kitchen cry every day. She pays 6 million VND for English classes every afternoon (about $270 USD – an absolute fortune here where minimum wage is about $100 to $150 per month), and he would purposely detain her or prevent her from going by saddling extra work on to her shoulders. Every time the server would come up to the pass to take food to a table, he'd say to her, "Try not to drop it, you fucking ugly bitch". Every. Single. Time. The last few weeks he stopped coming into the kitchen during service, except to yell some obscenity or another at us. He would sit at the first table in the dining room where he could observe us in the kitchen and occasionally bellow out an insult for all and sundry to hear. He told many regular customers, "Your food is going to suck today because I didn't make it". On my third day, he told me I was on my own from now on. "You need to fail. You need to fall on your ass and screw up orders so badly. I WANT you to fail". The only person who seemed at ease with him was the French owner, who had become very Vietnamese, adopting a non-confrontational attitude by turning a blind eye and ear to everything. When I finally sat the owner down to complain, he said, “Well what do you want me to do about it?”
When the server took two days off, the French chef was upset. "Can you believe he gave her two days off?”, he said, pointing to the owner. “That fucking server doesn't even fucking work! She doesn't deserve it. She needs to be kicked in the ass. I should kick her ass". Two days later, he called in sick, claiming indigestion. The next day, he said he was taking himself to the hospital. Day three: no call, no show. The owner, out shopping, ran into an acquaintance who happened to mention she'd seen his chef out drinking that morning and acting belligerent while playing pétanque. And this, finally, made the owner snap. He unceremoniously fired the chef via text, but I knew this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear from him. He came storming in one day last week to collect his final pay. “I WILL DESTROY YOU”, he shouted to the owner and his wife. “I WILL FUCKING DESTROY YOU AND YOUR FAMILY AND YOUR BUSINESS. ON THE HEAD OF MY MOTHER, I PROMISE YOU THAT I WILL FUCKING MAKE SURE YOU FAIL”. On and on and on, he finally clambered down the steps to the ground floor, attempted to break the front door and part of the front window. Reeling from the shock of it all, we were all shaking.
I endured 5 weeks of this and it seemed like a lifetime. 6 days a week, at least 10 hours a day. I’m mentally worn out.
I'm not naive; I know the old school French chefs have a habit of hollering at their staff. Perhaps this breaking down of someone's soul works when you're a young trainee of 17, but once you hit your mid-forties the routine is a bit stale. I wasn't hired to be a line cook; I was reeled in to help change things (menu, atmosphere, etc). I was to work not only back of the house but also front of the house, with server training and assistance with wine. They knew of my qualifications before hiring me. They knew I was self-taught and was a catering and event chef and chef instructor before moving to Vietnam. I was honest about everything.
A new chef has been hired, and after a strange "getting to know you" kind of week, I have to admit that I like him. He's a talented youth, also French, but much less volatile. And though the atmosphere has changed for the better, I’m looking for different work. The damage has been done. I’m over it.
But the best part about all of this is that the French chef left Saigon. Mutual friends ran into him and he said he was moving away because he was sick of it all (it's probably because he has such a bad reputation that no one will hire him). But as of yesterday, he is gone from this town, and the air has cleared. Good riddance, volatile asshole.