Hi there! My name’s Gemma. You may remember me from 8 weeks ago when I was last on social media. For all those that don’t know, I have been on an intensive training trip for the last month and a half around Europe. The company is Topdeck, a name that does not seem to instantly resonate with most people I have found but hopefully will soon JThey are a tour company with routes all around the world in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North America and of course Europe catering for 18 to 30 something’s. I’m not in marketing so if you want to know more, there is a website. Prepare yourself, I am going to try and condense this but those of you that know me know that I have a lot to say.
My getting over to this training trip was all chance. Jasmine had been on one of their trips last year and has another one booked in for just a few weeks time. We were walking one day, me talking about how I didn’t know what direction I wanted my work to go in and how there were just too many options! Jas mentioned that her Trip Leader from her tour had been in a similar situation and had trained as an on road chef for Topdeck and never looked back. That night, when sitting in my windowless office in Sydney CBD after management had left, I printed off the application form thinking ‘Why not?’
Skip forward to 2 months later after interviews in Brisbane, frantically faxing credit card details from a hostel in Wellington, New Zealand and total panic over last minute visas coming from Kuala Lumpar and I was in London walking to my first day in the ‘Classroom’ (Read: room at the top of a pub in Hammersmith). I found out recently that the person I sat next to on that first day thought I must be a real tough bitch of a girl because I was so stone faced. I apologised to him, explaining that I was just totally terrified of what I was getting myself into! I came home that night, rang my parents in tears telling them that I couldn’t do it. I wish I could tell you this was the last time that happened.
Consolation came weeks later into the trip when we discovered that almost all of us had had the same reaction on the first or second day, in fact some people did leave right then. For me it was the realisation that I really didn’t have a whole lot else to do and the fact that I knew I had to give it more of a chance than just one day.
Our training trip started two days later in Wemeldinge, a small town in Zeeland in the Netherlands. There was snow on the ground despite the fact that it was spring and every day more fluttered down. In our beautiful accommodation we started to get to know each other. The training group started with 77 trainees. Trip leaders, Drivers and Chefs. 15 chefs started the training trip (henceforth known as TT), about 20 something drivers and LOTS of Trip Leaders (henceforth known as TL’s). We are not a very shy bunch and the accommodation was soon bustling.
In the day we were split, the chefs were doing shopping lists, making recipes, drawing up meal plans and talking about the destinations we would be going to, gathering translations and public holidays and of course, cooking. The TL’s were (I think) learning how to spiel, how to tell a story, be interesting, think on their feet, procedures, accounts and goodness know what else. The drivers were learning how to drive! They went around and around the town of Goes until the police asked what was happening, they learnt how to route note and how to clean the coach, even when the water froze onto the windscreen as they poured it on. In my group there were trained chefs (one) and people like me, far removed from the cooking world. In the TL’s there were history teachers and tour guides and others who had just thought that it looked like fun, and in the drivers there were those who had already worked for Topdeck in NZ and Aus, one guy had even been working for they-who-shall-not-be-named around Europe and then there were those who had only driven a coach when they got their licence a month ago. It was a healthy mix and Wemeldinge was a fun place. In our week there we got one break. Just one. For 45 minutes. This was just a taste of what was to come. We went up to Amsterdam one day, to give all of us something new to do and also to pick up 2 chefs who were joining us. It was also our first taste of what visiting the great cities of Europe was going to be like. We dashed around all day, trying to find meeting points, trying to find supermarkets, trying to find places to buy warmer clothes! I wolfed down chips for dinner and didn’t even get to make it to my favourite place, the red light district! It felt like a huge day, but like I said, only a taster.
Our first real stop was Paris. But first I think, a little about the position I was going for. Topdeck has a multitude of different trips that they offer, split into categories of Hotel, Club (a mix of accommodation) and Camping. The chefs only go on the camping trips (with two exceptions) and set up amongst the tents with their own cook tent and serve up delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner to waiting passengers. All of our cooking is done on 5 gas burners sitting about a foot off the ground. I was sceptical about what could be done with this but boy was I impressed with some of the things we pulled out of that tent!
Our Paris campsite was not what I was expecting and we set up the tent on gravel and smashed out a first night dinner in under 2 hours (remembering, cooking for 77 people) we had to go fast because we were going straight into driving tours. This was our first of many. What happens is when a trip comes into a new country, the TL does a spiel on where they are, the culture, history teaches a bit of language and lets you know what some of the essential experiences, foods and knowledge is. This goes for about half an hour, no small speech. Then when we come into a city, they have a city specific spiel as well and then in certain destinations there are driving tours or walking tours. The Paris night driving tours goes for 3 hours normally but we were doing it for the TLs and drivers to practice the route and so we went around and around and around and around and around…. We had 4 coaches circling the city for the first 3 nights in order to give as many people practice as possible. And the chefs? We had to take notes, give feedback and above all STAY AWAKE. This was a HUGE part of the trip. No sleeping on the coach ever. Just to help it sink it in how hard these driving tours were, there were TL’s who had never been to Paris, they had never seen the Eiffel tower let alone the Austerlitz column and yet they still had to recognise it on first sight and let us know interesting and relevant facts and stories about it. I am still, 8 weeks later in awe of their abilities. And the drivers, we have all heard about the roundabout at the Arc de Triumph, 6 lanes, no lines, and some of our drivers had only been driving a coach for one week! Needless to say we applauded each time we made it on and off.
During the day the chefs visited a Metro supermarket, similar to a Costco I believe, where everything is bulk buy and entry is buy membership only. I have never seen so much food purchased in my life. People took pictures of us. It was an eye opening experience and I still don’t know how I am supposed to do that shop by myself one day….
Some of what we were purchasing was for what is one of the chef’s crowning moments of a trip. The Paris Picnic. We put on a huge spread of delicious and local foods under the Eiffel Tower for the second night of our trips. It was a lot of fun to prepare and I cooked and ate snails for the first (but not last) time ever!
Other things we did with our days were meeting suppliers and Fact Finding. Oh how I learnt to dislike those words. At first it was fun, we would run around a city in our designated groups finding the opening hours, prices, group discounts and general info of all the attractions, restaurants, bars, markets, public toilets and parks. But I couldn’t keep the enthusiasm for it throughout the whole trip, in fact it died pretty quick.