Today’s Music: Duran Duran
Part one – Cooking for a living
As an unselfish way of giving pleasure, cooking is second only to oral sex – Anthony Bourdain (not an exact quote, but he said something like it in his great book, Kitchen Confidential)
I worked in restaurants for about 15 years.
Some of it was crap, cooking in and managing a Bennigans, some was over my head – being a line cook in a private club, whose clientele (as the chef described it) were the people who ran the world.
But the most fun I had in restaurants was working in the kitchen. It was the last time I could go to work and actually have fun.
In cooking for money (at least at the level I did it), the food was the least important part of the process.
Which is not to say it wasn’t important. but running a kitchen line is similar (I would guess) to commanding a small army unit in the field.
When it’s busy, there’s constant mayhem. There is always one guy running a spotless station while chaos spins around him, another guy who is a blur of bits of food and crumbs, cursing up a storm as he tries to keep up. there are waiters asking where their food is, or relaying compliments or complaints, or trying to change a ticket that they ordered wrong.
And then there’s me.
I was at my best in the kitchen when all hell had broken loose, and things had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
I was the expediter. It was my job to plate the entrees, cook off side dishes, make sure each station knew what dishes they needed to prepare, and make sure everything (steaks, salads, Mexican) were all up at the same time.
And fix it if it wasn’t.
That was the fun for me. I didn’t enjoy the downtime. I didn’t really care for the day to day details of managing (which I was good at. I just didn’t like it), the staff personal issues that constantly came up. I liked that moment when something went wrong, everything was off balance, and I could step in, grab hold and straighten it out.
A typical night on the line:
Adam on the grill, Abel on Mex, Brian on salad, Randall on desert. Some jackass (who had been there 3 months, but wouldn’t last much longer) expediting (in the window).
Jackass forgot to order a burger set from Mex and sent out a tray of food incompletely.
Abel was scrambling to get the burger set, Adam was pulling a new burger (the original was rare, and had worked it’s way up to med-well waiting to be served), and tickets were stretched from the printer to the floor and hadn’t even been looked at yet.
I step in.
“How are you, Jackass?”
He has the deer in the headlights look, sweat pouring down in his face, head whipping back and forth, tongs waving as he tries to figure out what he should be doing. He was good when it was calm, but hadn’t learned how to deal with the volume.
“don’tknowdon’tknowdon’tknow” he sputtered back at me, deep in the weeds.
“Stop” I said, hand on his shoulder. I pointed to the tickets in the window. “Show me where you are”.
His head moves to the string of food orders hanging in the window. “don’tknowdon’tknowdon’tknow”.
“Fine.” Is say, taking his tongs and setting them on the counter. I grab a fresh pair from the rack (I had a personal relationship with my tongs and didn’t like using a set that had been handled already). “Stand over there” I tell Jackass, grabbing all the tickets off the rail with one hand.
I start reading through them – sandwiches, salads, burritos and quesadillas, steaks of assorted cuts and temperatures. “Abel” I call out in my “war mode” voice. “What do you have, all day”
All day refers to everything being on the board (ordered) for that station.
His heavily accented voice comes back, while he does a spinning ballet of kinetic culinarianism.
“3 quesadillas, 1 no cheese. 7 burgers, 3 chicken sandwiches. I have (he pauses to count the plates on his station) 4 burritos, 3 chicken enchiladas, 1 steak,” he tells me as he spins and whirls, grabbing plates, rolling burritos, melting nachos.
By now I’ve read all the tickets I pulled.
“Add on 2 burgers. ! steak ench (never say a full word when you can shorthand it), 1 chick ench, no cheese. I’m going to need 2 more burritos too.” I look over at him. You good?”
He smiles, knowing exactly what I’m asking. “I’m good Popi. I do. you watch”. Abel would cut off his own hand before asking for help. Which was fine because he rarely needed it.
I hang all the tickets back on the board, and pull the eighteen or so hanging from the printer. As I start to sort those, I call down the line.
“Brian” I bark. “What the hell is going on?”
He yells back without stopping what he’s doing. “Saturday night. They’re trying to kill us”
“Suck it up wuss.” It’s an old conversation. Brian will bitch about it all night, but unless the wheels come off, he can hold down his end. Unfortunately, as soon as that burger got lost, the wheels came off.
See, we have five stations. All of them are producing food, sometimes independently, sometimes with another station, for the same tables. A 6 top might want 3 steaks, 2 Mex items and a salad. All of it has to come up at the same time.
In addition to his own cooking and plating responsibilities, the Expediter has to coordinate all stations to sell the same table at the same time. So now the main window (that I just took over)and salad were crashed. Mex was keeping up, barely. And the grill was covered and about to dump 30 steaks and burgers in my lap.
Back to the action.
“Brian” in the loud voice again. “Tell Randy what you need, and dammit, take his help. I ain’t going down tonight and if you morons make me late for my first beer, I will personally gut and fillet every last one of you”
“Oh no, Popi” came Abel’s voice. “Brian, he ugly. He no taste good”.
Brian’s response was inaudible, but was probably unrepeatable anyway.
“Here’s your all day Brian. Let me know what I’m missing, let me know what you’re missing”. I called out about 18 items for him, while he rifled through his tickets, matching up the counts.
He came back with what he had and what he needed. I moved Randy to work on the dishes Brian couldn’t get to, then turned to the grill.
“Saturday night, Adam” I said, quietly this time.
Adam was tall and very thin, which made him look even taller. He was a goofy guy with a dry sense of humor and was the only one of us (myself included) that could hold down a busy Saturday on our coal and wood fired grill. And crack jokes while he did it.
“Sounds like you’re having some problems back there”.
“Blow me. You ready?”
He looked at the tickets on his board, then at his grill, then at me. “I’m ready. You?”
I looked down the line. “Ready as we’ll ever be. Call out table numbers for me as you sell them.
Oh, and these are for you” I said, as I handed him the tickets that had rolled off the printer.
“Ok kids” I yelled down the line. “Show me why I haven’t fired you yet. Adam. Sell it all baby!”
Adam started spinning back and forth, at each turn pulling more meat off the grill and dropping it on my pass through.
I started grabbing tickets and steaks, burger, shrimp, chicken, calling out to other stations to plate the accompanying dishes and pass them through to the waiters.
“Brian, I need that shrimp caesar salad now. Not 2 minutes from now, NOW!”
“It isn’t ready yet” was his panicked reply.
“Abel” I called out, not even looking away from my plates. “Give him the shrimp skewer from the fajitas and drop another quick quick. Adam” I continued, “Keep selling. Put weights on everything on the grill. I want this ticket rail cleared”. All the while, my tongs spun and clattered as I used them to grab steaks, drop them on plates, pass burgers to Abel, and lift plates over to the waiter side of the counter.
Jackass meanwhile was still standing where I put him, watching me send out eight full plates at a time. I ignored him.
“Brian, I’m waiting on 2 salads and that shrimp appetizer. Where the hell is it?”
“It’s working” he called back. “One minute”.
“You don’t have a minute, you lazy bum. We’re clearing the board. Now.”
A good cook will ignore the cursing and the yelling at this point and make the food the ways it’s supposed to be made, instead of rushing and selling undercooked food.
Adam came out of the grill and reached around me, dropping a 16 oz prime rib cut into my fryer. I looked at him.
“Well done” he shrugged.
I was calling out the Mex orders to Abel that were coming in as I hung the next set of tickets, handing the grill copy to Adam and giving all day counts to Brian on the cold side of the line.
At this point, everyone had everything they needed, and while we were still going fast, my job was mostly air traffic control, or lending Abel a hand when he needed to get out a load of plates all at once.
See, when you go to a restaurant, the food should be cooked right. But your friend having a medium rare hamburger should get it at the same time as you get your 20 oz well-done steak. If the food is cooked wrong, well that happens some time. But if it comes out in dribs and drabs, someone should lose his job.
I was great at managing that mayhem and bending it back to where it needed to be.
Simply being aware of what everyone needed, and making sure they knew it was enough to straighten everyone out. I had worked with these guys for a while, trained most of them, and held my own against any of them (except Adam on the grill on a Saturday. I could do, but lord it wasn’t pretty).
My loud voice and vaguely annoyed attitude told these guys that this was a normal night, it wasn’t all that bad, and that they’d get through it fine if they didn’t panic.
10 minutes later, Adam pushed another fifteen steaks at me. I plated half and turned the station back over to Jackass, who literally was agog at what he had just seen.
It may seem in the above that I was a dick to my guys. And I was. But they were just as bad to me (and each other). In a good kitchen, it doesn’t matter who is in charge. It’s all about how good you are at your job. The best guy gets to be the loudest voice because he earned it. And while I was rough on them on the line, I picked up their shifts when they needed time off, covered their stations so they could grab a cigarette, and did the best I could to make sure they were well fed and rewarded for their work.
Those Saturday nights were the most fun I ever had in a job. They were also the most brutal of any job, before or since.
And when I finally stopped cooking for a living, it was two years before I could make something for myself that wasn’t boiled, microwaved or eaten from the bag.
Next time I’ll tell you about how cooking became fun again, and the worst dishes I ever made.