It was now 5:15 and the chef was out in the dining room going through pre-meal with the service staff. All of the other line cooks were caught up so Jake surveyed his station one more time. This time of the night was similar to a quarterback waiting for his center to snap the ball: high anxiety waiting for the action to begin. Everything looked good: proteins, vegetables cut and blanched, beurre blanc was stable, pans were hot, and the…”oh man”, he forgot to make the polenta! How could he forget something that was part of his routine every day and on his mise sheet as well? The polenta will take 30 minutes at least to prepare and now it was nearly time to open the doors. Jake was in the weeds before the first order even arrived, a feeling that he was not use to. No time to fret about it, get moving and hope that there were no early orders for lamb shanks. Polenta requires constant attention; something that is in short supply once tickets start flying.
As it turned out, the first two early tables right at 5:30 were for steaks, buying Jake enough time to get the polenta made. This mistake would bother him for quite some time, but he needed to shake it off since the chef had just started calling the first rush of tables at 6:00.
All of the line cooks were in place: grill, sauté, hot appetizers and fry cook on the hot line; garde manger and desserts on the cold station. Everyone gave the thumbs up as tickets were now arriving in quick succession. “Three venison, two mid-rare, one rare; four salmon, two mid-rare, two well done (ugh); two scallops and two lamb shanks”. Jake responded: “Yes chef”. Similar orders went to the grill station including a table in the bar for six PLATE burgers. “Ordering: three shrimp apps, five parsnip bisque, two Carpaccio, and eight house salads”. Hot apps and garde manger responded: “Yes Chef”. The race had begun.
Jake was searing the venison and salmon for finishing just as the next wave of orders were called: “Three Wagyu filets – rare, four more scallops – all medium rare, two lamb shanks and two pheasant”. Jake responded and noted that he had already put every one of his pans into use. “I need pans on sauté”, came the sharp directive to the dishwasher. Without losing a beat, the dishwasher stopped running trays through and immediately began scrubbing sauté pans. Seamlessly, the pans arrived at Jake’s station just in time and were placed in his 600-degree oven. The dishwasher grabbed any dirty pans and took them back for soaking. Jake was rocking and as expected, the lion’s share of orders was on his side already.
This cadence continued over the next 45 minutes until all of the current orders were in. The dining room was full, orders were ready for final firing and the line cooks had time to quickly re-assess their mise en place, wipe down counters, sharpen knives and fill their water bottles for hydrating. It would only be a few moments before servers would clamor to pick up their tables and then it would start all over again. Only 50 of the reservations on the books were in the dining room meaning that they already had 20 or so walk-ins and the majority of reservations would be in the next wave.
Servers began communicating with the chef who was at the expeditor station trying to keep the pace. “Pick up on table 34: Jake – that would be the three venison and four salmon.” “Yes Chef”! Jake began to finish each dish according to specifications while the appetizer cook set out plates for finishing. It would be her job to sauce the plates and set-up appropriate vegetables and/or starches. All was going great. “Picking up on table 28”. “Two strips mid-rare, two lamb shanks and two scallops”. “Yes chef” came the response from sauté and grill. The server arrived to pick up table 28 and asked what about the two barramundi features? The chef kept his cool realizing that the server forgot to punch those two items into the point of sale. This is a terrible situation that will require letting the table know that their order is delayed a bit, while throwing off the line since many of the items will have to be re-cooked to insure top quality. Order, after order came and went as the line cooks hit their stride.
An intern, as is often the case in restaurants, filled the fry cook position. Right at the peak of service, the intern grabbed a pan from Jake’s station with a damp side towel. The steam burn was immediate and the look of shock on his face was a vivid portrayal of a person in pain. The problem with steam burns is that don’t retreat very quickly. The intern ran to the sink to run his hand under cold water. For all intensive purposes, this person was on injured reserve for at least the next 30 minutes. The appetizer cook would simply have to wear two hats. She rose to the occasion, impressing Jake and the chef.
It was nearing the end of the second rush and when Jake had a second to check the clock, it was now 8:45 and things would begin to wind down. Generally, by 9:30 all of the entrée orders would be in and the line could look forward to “clearing the board”. The last station to get hit hard would be dessert, but garde manger could give this station a hand.
There were a few moments during service when things were on the verge of crashing, but as usual, this is where the chef really was at his strongest. He was always able to keep the cooks focused and temper any nerves on edge both from the cooks and servers perspective. All in all they would serve 208 tonight – not bad for a Friday.
While the other line cooks began to joke and relax while cleaning up, Jake was quietly kicking himself, still, for forgetting the polenta. Serious cooks are very hard on themselves and Jake always had to be in control and viewed as the dependable one. This small incident would wind up ruining an otherwise great night for everyone else, but not for Jake. Was he losing his edge, did he miss a step simply because of age? Is this a sample of what is to come? How much longer would he be able to do the only thing that he knew how to do: the job that made him whole, the job that was his destiny. Jake was silently beating himself up.
Fortunately, his funk was interrupted when he saw that the poor dishwasher was buried with dishes, glasses, flatware and pots. He grabbed his newfound friend on the appetizer station; they removed their chef coats and dove into the dish pit to give the most important person in the kitchen a hand. In a matter of about 20 minutes they had him caught up. Moving back to the line Jake asked the grill cook to put on a steak for the dishwasher – he deserves it!
Jake finished his cleaning, washed his knives, grabbed another espresso and spent the last ten minutes making a prep list for Saturday, the busiest night of the week. It was now 11:30 and Jake – like everyone else in the kitchen was too buzzed on adrenaline and espresso to just go home. This is when you get to see the other side of a cook’s life.
In the final episode of this mini story, we will look deeper into the psyche of the line cook and how Jake, like other typical professional cooks, deal with the personal monsters in their closet.