I Served Shark Fin Soup to Gamblers in London’s Elite Casinos
After dropping out of school, I worked as a croupier in London’s exclusive members’ clubs: a world where mega rich players are ‘comped’ with whatever food they desire from Michelin-starred chefs.
Photo via Flickr user Craig Hatfield
When I was 18, I trained as a croupier, after failing my A-levels with an 'F' and two 'U's. I think the 'U' stands for ungradable and it was thanks, in part, to a healthy interest in boys and vodka.
The private training school I went on to attend resembled St. Trinian's, where instead of reading Rushdie or deliberating over Dickens, I was taught to perform mental gymnastics of a different sort.
I learned my times tables to calculate bets on roulette. With odds of 35-1 for a chip on the number and 17-1 for a split, these weren't the tables you'd learn at school. I learned 'picture bets'—bets you should know at a glance, such as a straight up and two splits, paying 69 pieces. I learned to convert the pieces to different cash values so 69 chips at £5, for example would pay £345 but at £25, it would pay £1725. I learned to shuffle cards, count cards, cut down chips, and feel instinctively when I had a full stack in my hand.
I started as a trainee at a casino on the Marble Arch end of Edgware Road, a mini Middle East in the centre of London. It was prior to the smoking ban and there was nowhere we didn't smoke: the locker room, the toilets, the canteen, the corridor. We smoked on the gaming floor; opening tables at the start of a shift, we smoked at the end; when we closed.
I have no recollection of what I ate back then—everything tasted of Marlboro Reds. I once ate breakfast from an ashtray, in bleary-eyed lieu of a bowl. It didn't bother me. My days off were Tuesday and Wednesday, but my social life was built in: I got smashed with the rest of my rota on Mondays after work.
Having earned my stripes as a trainee, I was cherry-picked to work in the company's flagship club—one of a cluster of exclusive Mayfair members' clubs, catering to ultra high net worth Arabs, Asians, and Russians. I spent the next decade or so dealing roulette, blackjack, baccarat, and poker in these casinos; discretely tucked inside listed buildings, with French classical facades and Robert Adam interiors.
In one club, an army chef from Oldham presided over Filipino underlings, who would have been better left to their own devices. It was like Peter Andre rounding up Tina Turner and Beyonce and giving them pointers on how to perform at the MOBOs. The chef told me he'd spent six years training but from his predilection for baked beans and the allround nausea his food induced, I assume he was on annual day release and his training totalled six days.
Of course, the army chef was never unleashed on the punters. They had world-renowned, Michelin-starred chefs to cook them whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. Or that was the idea. One night a Russian punter who'd been down £300,000 at one point, ended up winning £5 million after playing for six hours straight. Of all the things money can buy, he wanted egg and chips. It was 1.30 AM but the obstacle wasn't the time, it was the frou-frou French chef who considered egg and chips beneath him. He refused to make it and a waiter had to hijack the kitchen.
Not all the punters' food requests were so easy. An Asian guest who played in excess of £1 million a night once ordered a seven course meal, including shark fin soup—a Ming dynasty delicacy. Shark finning is banned in the EU, as the sharks are tossed back in the water to die, but we sourced some in Chinatown for £100 a bowl. Suckling pig was probably the easiest item on his menu, with other courses consisting of bird's nest soup (made from bird saliva, costing up to £7000 a kilogram) and albino beluga sturgeon caviar (the most expensive food in the world) which, it turned out, he didn't like.
Someone who's worth that sort of money is 'comped,' which means they're given whatever they want for free. And so the club footed the bill for four or five bottles of 1982 Petrus (around £1500 each), Johnnie Walker Blue label (knocked back like WKD), and what might have been a last supper for a few of the near extinct species involved.
Punters' tastes weren't always so discerning. A member of East Asian royalty once walked in with a McDonald's milkshake. Another player, asked if he'd like a drink, looked at the waitress's breasts and said, "I want milk." A guest of one member would accept nothing from us; holding a grudge of many years' standing. Instead, he placed his orders with a casino nearby and had them deliver his San Pellegrino via a driver.
A very large punter—both in terms of value as a player and his actual size—paused as he ploughed through massive plates of food, only to ask for a Diet Coke. The irony wasn't lost on the waiting staff, whose notes on him said: "EATS EVERYTHING AND WANTS IT QUICKLY!!!!!"
Back in the staff canteen, a chef was sacked for breaking a glass over the food before stirring it in and serving anyway. Our locker room was searched by security after a complaint about cold clothes. It turned out a chef had packed his locker to brim with packets of frozen peas and prawns he'd stolen from the kitchen.
A good decade on and I have given up smoking. The taste of my food is no longer masked by Marlboro. However, having left casinos, I now have to make my own dinner, so this isn't necessarily a good thing. I've been cooked for my entire life and now, left to fend for myself, I live on cheese and crackers and tins of sardines.
No longer working shifts, I go to bed at night and get up in the morning which, combined with an absence of smoking, means I'm probably healthier now than I was at 18. But I'll still happily get smashed on a Monday night.