My Worst Interview, and the Problem with Advice
I was a student in Oxford, not at the university, but at the Oxford School of Drama. (I did however have Shakespeare lectures at St Catherine’s College, with an incredible Professor, Michael Gearin-Tosh who wrote a popular book, ‘Living Proof: A Medical Mutiny’.) This is a cautionary tale, about me trying to get a job while a student.
Whilst I was a drama student in Oxford in 1991, there was a delicatessen that was in Jericho (a trendy area of Oxford) called Gluttons. I was already treating myself to their Mexican bean slice, so I thought if I worked there, I might be able to eat more of the food, learn more about cuisine, and earn money, it was the holy trinity of brilliant part-time jobs for a student, as far as I was concerned. So I told people I was thinking of applying and one person I’d never met before, who was standing there in the Horse and Jockey, a pub, leaned forward and told me that he knew of a friend who had had an interview at Gluttons and had not been successful, but he knew how the interview would run.
I said, “Pray tell me more.” He said the owner of Gluttons is going to ask me a question, “What would you love me to cook for you if I could cook you anything?”
I thought that was a good question, but what was going to be the answer? I decided that the next morning, Saturday, I would go in and express my keenness to the owner. I thought I would try and answer the question well in advance, so I asked a bunch of student friends, none of whom were interested in cooking, or cuisine, or delicatessens for that matter. What should I tell him when he asks me that question? One friend, Ben, leaned forward whispering knowingly, “Say you’d love him to cook you Duck à l’Orange.” Now at 19, I’d never had duck, nor with the orange, but that sounded classy.
The next morning I marched off to Gluttons and sure enough, the owner was there selling somebody some pricey cheese, grinning away, and then there was a moment, so I leaned forward, “Hello, I’m Jay, a student studying drama and I’m living just down the road from you in Walton Well Road. I’d love to work here on Saturdays and in the holidays. If you’d consider having another part-time member join your team?” He could see my confidence and he came straight from behind the counter, wiped his hands with a tea towel and shook mine solidly, a great start.
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“Well Jay, let’s do the interview now! There’s a question I like to ask people who say they’d like to work here, so let me ask you that question. If I could cook you anything, anything at all what would you love me to cook for you?”
Now I started to enjoy myself, pausing and thinking, as if the question was challenging, but I knew I had the right answer. I ventured, “Hmm, I’d have to say Duck à l’Orange.”
“Oh really?” he responded. “How do you like it cooked?”
“The, er main way,” I offered up.
He continued, “Is this something you’ve had a number of times?”
“Once, my grandfather made it for me and it was delicious!”
“How did he use the orange?”
“There was a slice of it, and I squeezed it over the duck.”
He started nodding and was incredibly nice to this 19-year-old naivety. I was totally lost and stopped talking.
“I am seeing a few more people and there isn’t currently a position at this time, but thanks so much for popping in and we hope to see you here as a customer if not working here!”
I walked out. I had done no research. I’d given an answer that wasn’t mine and I’d had the answer from my friend Ben, who, as far as I could tell, was an expert consumer of Chinese takeaways but not a lot else. If only I’d said Spag Bol, and that I cook it, and it’s the one thing my grandfather taught me before I left home, as well as how to eat a mince pie, and at least that had all been true.
Whatever the level of the answer, I could have given him the real me, the one who knew little but was keen to learn, then who knows, I’d have a small string of delicatessens and would be owing it all to that owner of Gluttons in Jericho, Oxford. But what I can owe him is the lesson he taught me then, that has never left me.
For those of you wondering, Duck à l’Orange is roasted whole duck with a sweet sauce made of sugar, oranges and Grand Marnier made separately, and poured over it. So, the Glutton’s owner’s question was a trick question. Thinking about it, I could have said I’d eaten it, but had no idea how it was cooked…
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