It’s 1.15pm, and three burger patties sizzle before me on the grill in a busy restaurant kitchen.
I guard the meat like a soldier watching an enemy. After all, I’ve never been excited by a juicy sirloin or a piece of red meat. I haven’t eaten anything with blood for almost 30 years.
I’m standing on the equivalent of a stage, in an open plan kitchen at Wellington’s Grill Meats Beer, helping cook burgers during the lunchtime rush. Tables of diners don’t look at us, but I’m aware of them, holding my flipper like a weapon, waiting to turn a patty before it burns.
Up till now, I’ve always been on the other side, waiting for a plate to be brought over, or a waiter to bring me a drink.
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I cook meat at home for three daughters and a partner who would devour a whole cow if they could. But not for strangers, who have come into this restaurant – the sister of the fine dining establishment Logan Brown down the road – to actually pay for what I am cooking for them.
Marcus Bird has it all under control beside me. Today feels like a holiday compared with the last fortnight, when the restaurant’s head chef and his team cooked and served 3268 burgers.
I was immune to the burger craze that gripped Wellington, as burger fiends munched their way around the city. It’s too early to know how many burgers were cooked during Burger Wellington, but last year, an incredible 84,000 burgers were consumed.
True, a significant number of the burger recipes were actually either vegetarian or seafood, but when you’re a pescatarian, I still draw a blank over anything lying between two buns.
I’ve been standing at the hot gas grill since noon, when the first customers walked in. One ordered the Burger Wellington “Mr Beefy” special burger, which owner and chef Shaun Clouston is keeping on the menu for at least this week as it’s been so popular.
By 1.15pm, I know the drill fairly well. I’ve cooked about half a dozen burgers so far. Each 100 gram beef patty has to sizzle near the back of the grill where it’s hot for a few minutes, to get the medium rare texture that is ideal. Bird pops over every now and then to keep a check on me.
When it’s almost done, I bring a patty closer to the cooler part of the grill, where I pile it with a few pieces of beef brisket simmering in a pan nearby. Next it’s a dollop of cooked capsicum and onion on top, and then a drizzle of cheese sauce.
It’s only two steps from the grill to the kitchen bench. With my arm outstretched holding the patty on a flipper, waiting to marry it with a bun, that feels like a long march.
Last week, there were about 12 patties on the grill, cooking at once. I expect to be overwhelmed by the smell of frying meat, but the huge extractor fans whisk any residue away. But I had no idea how hot it is in a restaurant kitchen – the thermometer reads 23 degrees celsius, but the last time I was this hot I was baking on a sunbed in my early twenties.
The trick is being coordinated. When I cook at home, the big challenge is making sure everything comes together at the same time. In this kitchen, though, Julie Canlorbe, the larder chef, brings over the grilled buns and lays them next to piles of fries on wooden boards.
Whenever there is a spare moment, Bird dices something – a bunch of radishes, or a few herbs, popping them into containers. Spooning sauces on to a plate, they drop so delicately that it’s like watching an artist at work.
He asks me if I’m going to eat a burger. But my conversion to pescatarianism started when I arrived at a farm in New South Wales 30 years ago on a student exchange. For three months, my host family fed me a meal I still see in my nightmares – a white plate covered with lamb chops, boiled sausages, rubbery mashed potato and boiled peas.
When I returned to Napier, I picked at the occasional meat meal Mum fed me. When I got to university, I boycotted red meat forever. I do confess, though, to standing outside Burger King a few times when I was pregnant, deeply inhaling the smell of frying burgers.
The waiter takes a couple of my burgers over to two teenage girls sitting near the window. Are they taking a photo? Or are they just staring at their phones? It’s hard to tell, but one has her phone pointed at the burger. The waiter asks them they’re happy.
And they nod.
I feel a – tiny – rush of pleasure.