Mads Jansson was living up to his name. He was mad as hell and, in my judgement, the cleaver in his hand made him a dangerous prospect. It was a surprising reception: usually people have to get to know me better before they truly dislike me.
Despite his poster boy reputation, Mads wasn’t looking good: face liver-dark and bloated, sweat beading on his brow and clinging to his blonde buzz-cut hair – not good at all for eleven in the morning. His jacket sported jaunty red buttons and he wore the over-sized chequerboard pants that wanker-chefs seem to like. Sleeves were rolled up to show off tribal tattoos and a slightly soiled bandana completed the look. I couldn’t swear to it, but there might have been spittle at the corner of his mouth. In any event, he wasn’t looking well and he certainly wasn’t looking friendly.
‘What?’ Bloodshot eyes locked onto mine as he brought the chopper down on the butcher’s block. I flinched at the sound, a splintering crunch as it broke through bone, and the thud sent a visible jarring echo up his muscled right arm.
‘Osso buco, right?’ I pointed to the mound of veal shanks, but I could tell right away he wasn’t buying my friendly act.
‘I actually don’t want to talk to you, at all,’ he said, in his lilting, American-tinged Dane-glish. ‘Now piss off out of my restaurant.’
Mads Jansson: recent wunderchef-import from some remote Danish island. He’d garnered a reputation with his menu of traditional Scandi dishes made from wild ingredients: all foraged, netted, trapped or shot within coo-ee of the birch-clad, low-tech eating space that had been his personal restaurant domain. Every item on the menu was not only sourced, but also prepared and cooked by his hands alone – which restricted the dining experience to twelve guests a night. You had to get a plane, train, ferry and pony-drawn carriage to even reach the place, and from then on it was all candle-light and composting loos.
Ten minutes of online research earlier that morning taught me that, after four-and-a-half years in the wilderness, Mads had started missing such basic elements of modern-day life as electricity (and, said some, a ready supply of Ecstasy), and he’d leapt at the chance to showcase his talents in the bright lights of Margate.
Some might also say (and I was one of them), that it was a curious move. Despite the recent influx of Lottery funds and for all its hipster vibe, this north-eastern outpost of Kent remained resolutely down-at-heel, dispirited and economically deprived. And all the DFLs in the world didn’t make it any closer to actually being London.
There was a whole lot more to it, of course. Turned out that Mads and I had more in common than I cared to acknowledge. While my own career as a news reporter had recently taken a nose-dive, Mads had been crashing his way down the restaurant-award league tables. The catalyst for his troubles had been a disastrous review after he’d infected a group of diners with parasites from his signature, ‘Snails in Soil’, and he’d been struggling ever since to regain his mojo.
This went some way to explaining his hostility towards reviewers, and was doubtless the reason Jed, my editor, had sent me to handle the interview instead of tackling it himself. I was still taken aback by the level of venom coming my way. Mads and I had never met before and I couldn’t imagine why he was quite so pissed off. It almost seemed personal.
‘Ummm. Have we somehow got off on the wrong foot?’ I held out my hand and edged gingerly forward over the slippery plastic matting, trying to avoid the bits of bone and flesh that had been flung from Mads’ cleaver.
There was a smell of blood and brutality in the air and I was conscious of the silence: restaurant kitchens are usually frantic, stressful, sweary places, but the chefs here were, to a man – and they were all men – eyes down, focused on their prep. I couldn’t work out if this was the norm, or if it was due to my female intrusion into the kingdom.
Mads Jansson looked me in the eyes. ‘There’s no “foot” involved here,’ he spat out the words. ‘You’re a reviewer, am I right? In last night? Razor clams, rabbit escabeche, sea buckthorn parfait. Right? Did none of those front-of-house pricks tell you that I don’t talk to reviewers.’
‘But Mads –’
‘That’s “Chef Jansson” to you.’ He dropped the cleaver onto the block and wiped bloody hands on the cloth that dangled from his apron ties.
‘Chef! My apologies. I was really just hoping to have a bit of a casual chat – let’s not call it a review – for the Thanet Thunderer. Congratulate you on the opening. See how you’re enjoying life in England…how you rate the local produce…all that sort of thing.’ I was edging closer. Trying to maintain eye contact, to convey warm and friendly; non-threatening. ‘I had a brilliant meal last night, by the way. Wanted to congratulate you on that, too.’
I smiled again. Gave it my widest, best shot.
Suddenly, unaccountably, the puff seemed to go out of Mads. Swooshed a hand over his sticky scalp and hissed something in Danish. He pushed past me, making for the restaurant, then paused to look back over his shoulder.
‘Well come on then. You might as well have a coffee while you throw your reviewer’s hatchet around.’
I followed Mads through the two-way swing doors into the spacious dining room, where it was all pillars and polished concrete, statement artworks on the walls. Whatever one thought of this Brutalist renovation of the old Victorian pavilion, Seasalt’s location at one end of Margate’s sweeping horseshoe bay was a stunner. And on a sunny, autumn-breezy day like this morning, the attraction was obvious: nothing between the vast picture windows and France except seagulls, scudding clouds and the spangled sea.
It felt colder and a bit less glamorous in the daylight, but the newest dining experience on the Kent coast had been full to the gunnels last night. The maitre d’ had informed us, somewhat self-importantly, that they were already taking bookings six weeks ahead – rare, this far from London. But then the place needed to do well. Rumour had it that local entrepreneur, Ralph Dickerson, had invested a packet. Wanted – needed – to see a return. Love for his hometown was one thing, but the plumbing supplies mogul hadn’t become a squillionaire through altruism.
I slung my bag over the back of a chair near the bar, sat down and arranged dictaphone and notebook on the table in readiness. Mads was behind the counter at the coffee machine, tamping grounds and pressing buttons.
He raised an eyebrow at me.
‘I’d love a latte.’
He was putting spoons and sugar bowl onto a small tray and doing that mouth-stretching-sniffy thing that coke-heads do, when, across the room, the restaurant door opened. Two big men: dark suits, dark t-shirts, shaved dark heads. They barrelled in on a gust of October wind, and the door closed with a hard slap.
Behind the bar Mads froze for a second. Then, the sound of china smashing. He shot across the room back towards the kitchen like a greyhound out of its box, pushed through the swing doors and was gone.
The smell of coffee lingered in the air, dust turned in the sunlight.
And that put an end to my interview – and to next week’s pay cheque.
Lucy Malouf was published in this year’s UEA Creative Writing MA Anthology: Prose and Non-Fiction