Who Am I?
Why on earth is a zoologist and wildlife photographer writing about food?
I am Jesse Billington. According to my degree, I'm a zoologist and a wildlife photographer. But in practice, I'd like to think I'm rather more than that. I'm a travel writer, adventurer, journalist, amateur stunt person (I fall over a lot), and automotive enthusiast (read as "anorak"). I am a lot of things but the only real jobs I have ever had have been as a bartender and as a waiter.
I first got into the food industry when I wanted to top up my funds during my undergraduate degree so took a part-time bartending job in Reading, where I was studying at the time. It was at a bar called Smash, and it was awful. The owner had a dubious track record for doing illicit substances and taking members of the bar staff, as well as punters either to his office or home for reasons that one can only speculate. The rest of the staff were a hugely mixed bunch, from other students to full-timers and seemingly everyone in between. The food we served was awful. Pizzas predominantly, and I never heard a good word about them. But I was a bartender, and I'd work in front of house pulling pints and mixing cocktails, which doesn't sound too awful until you add in the surrounding details. Twelve different beers on tap on the wall behind the bar meant that customers rarely knew what they wanted to drink, and you were forced to add to the confusion by pointing at the vast array of fridges beneath the beer wall, rammed with a further 25 (at least) options of lager, pils, ale, stout, bitter and so on. This glut of options would result in every order starting with "errrrrrrrr". Which after several hundreds of customers a night would get wearisome. And then there were the cocktails. A menu of twelve or fourteen cocktails is fairly normal, but in a bar that was always rammed on a Friday and Saturday night, and had a simply ginormous happy hour, the problems quickly become apparent. Happy hour in Smash consisted of a BOGOF, wherein customers would pay for one, and receive two cocktails, typically two different ones as well. So now you have two, massively overly complicated cocktails to make, and a management required 3 minutes to do it in. Which would be fine if the bar was stocked with the materials needed. And there were clean glasses. And there was ice. The only benefit was that we could get away with free pouring to speed the process up. So once you'd fought your way to the stock room and back, without getting smacked in the face with a ping-pong paddle, because oh yeah, the bar also had four table tennis tables rammed in there, so drunk business people could attempt to play table tennis. Anyway, back at the bar, with all the ingredients you finally whip up two cocktails, the punter pays, and the cycle resumes. I hated it. It was too loud. The hours were awful, sometimes I wouldn't be leaving until gone 4am and would be walking back to halls in the sunrise listening to the dawn chorus. It was either too hot or too cold. The customers were rude. The risk of breaking your ankle was insanely high, and one customer actually did fall over at one point, and either broke her arm or dislocated her shoulder, I can't quite recall. Add into the equation having to avoid serving the local traveller community lest they start a fight, again. Nonetheless, it was one of the most hateful experiences of my life. And to add insult to injury the reviews weren't positive, and footfall was decreasing. So to drive up interest management came up with a brilliant plan, fake Tripadvisor reviews. Yes, alongside our work rota, we were given a rota for who needed to post a fake review and when. It was at this point I gave up, handed my notice in and left. Oh, and the uniform was double denim. Even by my own shonky fashion sense, that was something else.
So I left. But my pay didn't follow me. So began the drearisome process of chasing head office for my hours and my very hard-earned cash. And while that was all going on the rota of fake reviews kept running, and I was still in the group page on Facebook, so I could see the goings-on from the inside. Revenge seemed apt. So, I wrote my own review of the bar, from the customer's perspective and put it on Tripadvisor with the snappy title "A.A. Gill is turning in his grave". It reads as so;
"Initially, the idea seems a good one. A few pizzas and cocktails with your friends and then some table tennis to round off the night. Or that was our plan before we arrived. Assuming that you can fight your way to the overcrowded, understaffed bar chances are the seemingly exhausted bar staff will eventually get you a drink. It may look like they have a wide variety of drinks available, but this is a trick of the eye, you don't want any of those drinks. You want a normal lager, like a Bud, or a Carling, or a Carlsberg. They are big names for a reason. So once you've spotted a familiar name (Peroni or Red Stripe) you then have to gamble if there is any in the keg. If fortune swings in your fate then enjoy a cold pint of something recognisable. If not and they don't have any pint glasses (trust me a bar of this size has managed to run out of pint glasses, at fight night the other week it was bottles or two halves), then you'll have to choose something from the baffling bottled menu. Good luck. You'll recognise about 5 of the seemingly never-ending list of beers you've never heard of. And then the bar staff who are close to falling asleep or losing interest or have disappeared to go get stock will struggle to find your bottle of "beer" resulting in a claw game-like set up of "left a bit, down one shelf, left again, no the other one, back, right, yeah that one!" at least you've worked for it! Your vocal cords will have shattered trying to shout your order at the poor staff over the naff music from the DJ or the rowdiness from the lower floor. Eventually, your order will be complete and you'll have to pay, but one of the tills is down so you will fight your way back down the bar to get to the till that is working so you can gawp at the ridiculous price of a few beers in a bar before resigning your fate and paying. Then comes the battle of weaving past the ever-growing crowd at the bar to somewhere where the music is only mildly deafening to enjoy not chatting with your friends. Ordering food is a whole different kettle of fish. Once again, fight your way back through the crowd of nasty suits and wait for a bar staffer to spot you, but oh no! They are in the middle of making a trillion of the ridiculous cocktails for one guy, and the other bar staffer is trying to find a pint glass. Eventually, someone gets to you and you can place your order, either the staff can't hear you or the till doesn't match the menu when it comes to food so another top of the lungs exchange with much pointing and gesturing eventually you hand over some money to the single till and hope that something resembling pizza will appear at the table you gestured at within the time it'd take a human to starve. The pizza is quite good, and get two with a bottle of prosecco and it's well priced at 20 quid. Cocktails, don't go there if it is after 10. Before then, the offer makes them relatively affordable if unlike one drunken gentleman who was enjoying loudly proclaiming he'd won the lottery. But you haven't won the rollover, so you just look at the menu and imagine what the semaphore for Wiff Waff is. You decide that perhaps it'd be easier to try and use the universal sign language for porn star martini. Or at least a variety of playground like gestures, and drinking motions, coupled with some pointing to the sticky menu. The bartender then will cobble your drink together out of what they have with them. I'm sorry but who offers a minty cocktail and doesn't have mint! Finally, the ping pong, seems novel, but it's been done, what was wrong with pool tables? Pool tables don't involve being run into by a drunken woman in a bad suit. You can get a table but the waiting list can go on to the next day. Seriously, we contemplated waiting till 1 in the morning for a table. Then we went to Purple Turtle."
One of my earliest pieces of journalistic writing that is. To this day the horror of working on Fight Night still haunts my dreams. Of having to tell a balding middle-aged man that "I'm sorry, we are out of pint glasses" and "No, really, it is £5 for half an hour of ping pong at 2 am.". We live and learn.
After Smash I spent the summer working at a local pub pulling pints and chatting to the locals, and frankly, that was lovely. It was quiet, comfortable, I could have a cheeky one on the house after work, and the customers were genuinely decent people. Alongside the pub work, I was a waiter at the local Loch Fyne (yes, I have a very middle-class upbringing). Here I learnt a lot more about the food industry, the preparation of food, how a kitchen works, customer service and all the things have now ruined dining out for me (more on that in a later column methinks). The team was a mixed bunch of wholly amicable people and part of the reason I returned there the following summer and Christmas season.
My second year at university brought with it a change in part-time work again. I transferred from the Loch Fyne in Woburn to the branch in Reading (RIP). I knew the menu, I knew the process, but the one thing I didn't know was how poorly run and designed the restaurant was. Laid out over three floors, with the kitchen in the middle, meaning you'd always have to carry food up and down the stairs, past customers bustling up and down them too, was a recipe for disaster, and frankly, the fact that we didn't have any major accidents is still baffling. The team was an interesting combination. Some of whom I liked working with, and were decent people. Others were not people I'd naturally choose to work with. Either follow the rules or don't. But don't pick and choose when and which rules to follow, because that makes it a pain in the ass to book a holiday or adjust hours. Nonetheless, working Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights helped float my student bank account, even if the tips were dismal compared to home (also another column coming on tipping!). The customers were a very varied bunch too, especially in the run-up to Christmas, with festive parties coming in. One group that sticks in my mind was a group not dissimilar to the cast of a "Real Housewives of..." show. A bunch of excessively glamorous, well to do, WAGs. They seemed so out of place in Reading, but they tipped kindly and I think that's why they stick in my mind. Another table that is ingrained in my memory is there for a less favourable reason. The couple were sitting having their meal when I stopped by to do a check back (ask if everything is OK and if they would like any more drinks) when I spotted that one of their glasses was empty and I asked: "Can I get you another beer Sir?". And at that point, I wished the floor would have given way, and the ground swallowed me up. The customer I spoke to looked up at me in a state of indignation and retorted "Excuse me?" Frankly dear reader I was mortified. And I don't want to sully my clean name by describing her, but I think Quentin Blake did a good job of it with Mr Twit.
My tenure at Loch Fyne Reading was quite short. Starting in October of 2017 and lasting right until February of 2018. With both my job and my relationship (a story for another day) falling apart in a short space of time. The Loch Fyne in Reading had been struggling for a while and was now failing to break even. Most weekends it was just me and the manager on shift as FOH (front of house), with a kitchen team that spent their time smoking, out the back of the restaurant. I'd sit and do coursework at the bar, drink coffee and chat with the manager as the long empty hours whiled away. Most Sunday's we'd shut early. It was not good. Neither was my half inching of the whiskey stock. While relaying tables of an evening I'd treat myself to a nice glass of whiskey. And then one Monday I received a call. There had a been a staff meeting with some of the regional and area managers and the restaurant was being shut down. By the age of 20, I'd been made redundant. I got a nice little package, all my pay. And that was that.
I returned to the Loch Fyne in Woburn in the summer of 2018 and quickly found favour with the new manager (*cough* rim licker *cough*) and settled into the routine and my regulars, enjoying the plentiful tips too. I did some shifts over the Christmas season in 2018 and then hung up my apron.
So that is the story of me in the restaurant business. Mostly moaning, and occasionally calling a very ugly woman sir. Hopefully, that has given you some insight into my world and has gotten you enthused for more of my semi-coherent ramblings to come.
Find me on Instagram as @djesseb97 and on Twitter as @DJJesseB.