I can still remember that day in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I was 10 years old and on a shopping trip downtown with my mother as we came upon that restaurant with a full picture window framing in the vision of a short order cook preparing lunch for a growing crowd. His movements were synchronized as he easily moved from the remaining breakfast items on the grill to sandwiches, fries, blue plate specials, and appropriate side dishes. No movement was wasted as he pivoted, grabbed plates, flipped burgers and rolled omelets in pans. Waitresses were lined up and did not seem to marvel at the poetic motion of a man in control of the situation – I guess they were simply accustomed to this daily routine. I was mesmerized.
Five years later I had my first job (working papers in hand) as a dishwasher in a busy restaurant in the Central Park section of the city. It was the summer, so without the pressures of school I was free to work and rub elbows with the cook. She was about the same age as my mother, maybe a few years older, and had recently lost her husband who was a real chef. When it became busy she would ask me to help by buttering danish to be grilled, toasting bread, cracking eggs and setting up burger garnishes. I watched as construction workers came in early to order coffee and danish or grilled hard rolls (apparently a big thing in Buffalo at the time). I marveled at how the cook was able to keep track of everything, still smile and carry on conversations with those sitting at the counter. Servers would call out: “2 scrambled, eggs over easy, 3 cakes with syrup, another grilled danish,1 western omelet, and as it approached lunch time – various sandwiches including the house burger”. This was the original “fast food” restaurant concept and my hero was at the helm. By the end of the summer she let me take over the grill during slower times so that she could prep for the next day.
I wanted to be a rock drummer (didn’t everyone), but my parents were smarter than me and strongly urged me to go to college. What should I do? My only other love was that job working the grill, so when I heard about colleges that taught hotel management and cooking, I knew that this would be choice #2.
Fast forward a few years and I found myself working in kitchens that were a bit more sophisticated than my first experiences at the short-order grill, yet it was that early training that allowed me to apply organizational skills and personality to working on the line. My responsibilities were to prepare items from the dinner menu in a 1,200 room hotel for an audience willing to wait a little longer and spend quite a bit more. This was invigorating, yet I still would marvel at watching our breakfast cook prepare food at the same speed and with the same grace as that first cook in the window of a downtown Buffalo storefront. I always had respect for the breakfast cook.
Throughout my career as a chef, a sign of stability in the kitchen was finding a breakfast cook who had the same passion, speed, grace and organizational skills as that guy in the window. Whenever I found myself without that stable force in the kitchen, things just didn’t seem to work well. First of all, I might need to arrive before 5 a.m. to cook breakfast which unless your body is in that cycle can be torture; and second, as you age it becomes much more difficult to wrap your head around the speed with which breakfast orders come in and fly into the “window” for pick-up. Still, there is nothing more rewarding than smelling bacon come out of the oven at 6 a.m., home fries on the grill, fresh brewed coffee long before most reasonable people are awake, and the crack of egg shells with one eye still closed. This is the time of day when even the restaurant kitchen is struggling to wake up.
After four decades of a food service career, I still remember that cook in the window and marvel at his skill. I don’t know his name but would love to thank him, if he is still with us, for introducing me to a business and starting the wheels in motion for a 10 year old without a clue what he wanted to do with his life.
Short order cooks rock!
The picture in this article was taken by Harold Feinstein, a professional photographer able to capture the spirit of people on film.