The butcher, baker & catering manager
Ken Smith has worked at Pembroke since 1976. Here he talks about cooking, cleaning windows and partying with the Beatles.
I left school in December 1961. My dad was a baker and there were two boys who lived in our village at Somersham: David and John. They were cousins and were both apprentices in the kitchens at Trinity. Through them I got an interview set up at Trinity for July 1961, and that’s when I met Mr Percy. He’d come up through the ranks himself and he offered me an apprenticeship.
I started on 12 Jan 1962. On the Monday my dad’s baking assistant gave me a life in his car up to Cambridge, where I lived with a Polish family who’d been in Auschwitz. (Oddly, a Pembroke alumna now owns the house, so I have seen it since and got an incredible sense of déjà vu.) I could easily have gone off the rails at that time. I was so lonely, I’d sometimes cry myself to sleep and I went home every weekend. After about three days my bike was stolen – you didn’t lock them up in those days – and although everyone told me to steal myself one in return, I daren’t. So I had a long walk to work each day.
In those days, you always started by doing two years in the pastry kitchen. That taught you about weights and measures. With lots of recipes you can add a bit more this or a bit less of that and it still tastes nice, but with cakes everything has to be exact. From there we learnt to do everything else. One of the first jobs in the morning, once the coal fires were lit, was to make the ‘pound cakes’ for the students – fruit cakes that came as part of their ‘sizings’ (or allowance).
Nothing came in pre-pre-prepared – it was all done from scratch: vegetables, fish, mean, sauces, soup, bread, everything. We had one kitchen that was just for roasting huge joints of meat. The meat came in as carcasses – whole lambs, pigs, chickens, guinea fowl – arriving from a butcher in Trinity Lane. We would lift it into the larder butchered it ourselves, so I am also a trained butcher.
I’m not very tall and so all the counters in the kitchen were too high for me when I first started. I couldn’t reach to chop the vegetables or anything. They made me a wooden box to stand on, which I had to carry about with me on a string round my neck. People didn’t used to think of what we do as a profession. Men who worked as chefs or gardeners were called ‘mummy’s boys’, but luckily that’s changed now.
During the last two weeks of August the kitchens would close down and we’d be sent to help wherever there was a need: the Savoy, the Dorchester, anywhere. It was great experience even if you weren’t paid much. I earned 2 pounds and 10 shillings a week. Some of this was kept back to cover my rent, food and uniform and so eventually I was left with 22 pence a week to live on.
I was desperate to earn a bit more money to buy the gear I wanted – shirts with studs at the collar, Italian pinstripes suits, a motorbike – and I wasn’t afraid of working hard. To make a bit of extra I did some weekend work swilling out pigs and I started helping a friend with who had a window-cleaning business. I’d be in the kitchen at Trinity 7am until 2am, then by 2pm I’d be cleaning windows. Then it was back to the kitchens for 5.30pm. We’d finish around 9pm and then we’d all go down to Jesus Green, mostly lads but a few girls too. Some nights there’d be a dozen of us, but there could be up to 200, all from the different College kitchens.
We had some good times. We’d go swimming in the afternoons and there were lots of nice little places on Petty Cury to go to, restaurants and things. I also got to know some of the people who sold fruit on the market and they were so kind to me. I’d go round there for Sunday lunch and it was wonderful.
Starting in September 1962 I did a qualification at the technical college (now Cambridge Regional College) to learn more about the theory about cooking. It was good, but it got harder to study in the evenings once I got married and we had two little girls.
We’d finish college at about 9pm and then one of the lads’ sisters had a Mini, so sometimes we’d drive down to the Hammersmith Pally or somewhere like that. Then we’d come back for work the next morning having not slept at all. I didn’t drink alcohol at all until I was 30 – I didn’t like it – and the hardest drugs I ever did were Pro Plus to try and help me stay awake at work!
On Friday and Saturday nights we’d go to the Dorothy Ballroom or to see bands in the Corn Exchange, the Rex Ball Room or the Guildhall. In those days bands like the Rolling Stones were still just support acts. I remember in 1963 the Beatles came to play at the Regal Cinema. I didn’t get tickets, but then I managed to go to the after show party at the University Arms Hotel where they were staying. I’ll always remember that!
Eventually I went to work at Gonville and Caius College, then on to the Cavendish, then after a lot of consideration, back to Gonville and Caius as Head Chef. Throughout this period I learnt an awful lot about people, their different attitudes and how to manage them. Then I received a letter saying that Pembroke’s Head Chef, Stan Chow, was leaving and had recommended me for the job; he knew me from the various cookery competitions I used to enter.
I came for an interview and along with the five other candidates had lunch in the Outer Parlour. The Bursar and some of the Fellows then asked us lots and lots of questions, although there was no practical test. Luckily for me, I got the job. I started at Pembroke on 26 November 1976 and have never looked back.
The College originally employed me to try and bring up the standards of the food and the service. There were lots of barriers along the way but I think we did manage it. Stan taught me a lot. He used to do all kinds of things for people, like making a Concorde out of icing sugar. I’ve done some similar things in my time, like making a version of the chapel from marzipan but we never thought to take photos of things then. That’s one way things have progressed, but there are many more. We no longer wash every bit of cutlery by hand, we no longer write all of the Fellows menus in French, and the list could go on.
When I first came I was the chef manager. I didn’t like having an office that wasn’t in the kitchen, so I gave up a nice spacious room for a smaller one downstairs where I could see everyone coming and going. The Fellows started to take my opinions seriously. We connected the kitchens and the Old Library, for example, so that food didn’t have to be taken outside in the rain or snow before it was served.
As time went by I did less cooking and more managing of other people. My mentality has always been: people don’t work for me, they work for Pembroke. My job has always been just to lead the team and try to make sure we do everything the best we can. You do have to be loud in the kitchen because it’s noisy, but I’m not one to scream and swear. I think in my 40 years here I have shouted two or three times, probably when someone was about to get hurt.
My background as a chef was important because I always knew that, if I needed to, I could go and show someone how to do something rather than just telling them how I want it. And I did still do some cooking when International Programmes was getting started.
The kitchens used to close in late August and Fellows who wanted to dine would be able to put meals on a College tab at the Garden House Hotel. Then Colin Gilbraith, the former Bursar, asked me if we could cater for a group of 30 Japanese students who would be coming during the closure period. I had to go and ask my wife how she’d feel if we didn’t go on holiday, but eventually I agreed.
I came in and did the catering for them myself, and my wife did the waitressing with help from my girls. It was a real family affair. As the summer programmes grew from 30 students to several hundred I kept doing all the cooking myself with just one apprentice to help. They were long days – 4am in the morning until 11pm at night, 18 days on the troy. But I enjoyed it.
There have been other big changes. In 1984 ladies arrived as students and at the time they were very health conscious – they wouldn’t have wanted huge sugary brunches like the students do these days. We also brought in a Head Chef to run the kitchens about 15 years ago.
I’ve always been proud to be part of Pembroke, and I still am now. I feel privileged when people come in to talk to me, whether that’s Fellows or students. As Conference and Events Manager I do get to know a lot of the students and I really enjoy that. I think you have to look at what you have and be grateful for it, rather than looking at the past or thinking of what you don’t have. That said, every now and again I do meet up with one of the boys who started at Trinity the same time as me and we go down memory lane.
The way I see it, I’ve never worked in my life. I’ve had a way of life.