It must have been around 1958 in Buffalo, New York. I was eight years old and downtown shopping with my mother. We were somewhere around Broadway and Main where a storefront diner was in our path. The large picture window didn’t highlight their simple dining room, but rather framed in a view of their short order cook. We stopped to watch and I was immediately mesmerized as I watched the fluid motion of this magician while he cracked eggs, flipped pancakes, grilled bacon and sausage, assembled sandwiches and lifted French fries from deep fat. It was, poetry in motion. The cook didn’t miss a single beat. Every step was orchestrated for efficiency from reading dupes, cooking, managing timing and plating dishes. He was the ONLY ONE cooking that day, yet the dining room appeared to be full. At one point I vividly remember that be looked out the window at me and gave a salute.
I am not sure if that was my “ah ha moment” that pushed me in the direction of food, but it sure planted a seed. The magic of the short order cook is that they are able to become one with the tasks at hand. Unlike other line cooks in restaurants these masters of the grill are focused on relatively simple preparations, but prepared under an unusual amount of timing stress. Every motion must become as natural as breathing, if they drift, even for a moment, the entire system can fall apart. Looking back I believe that short order cooking could be a viable Olympic sport. Just like a skater, short track runner, bobsledder, or slalom skier, each movement, turn and burst of speed must be practiced and relegated to “body memory”.
My first job in a kitchen at the age of 16 started as a dishwasher and quickly evolved into another pair of hands for the breakfast cook; grilling Danish pastries and hard rolls, assembling egg sandwiches and cracking eggs for omelets. From this point on my mind was set – I would put aside my desire to become a rock star and pursue a life as a cook.
Over the years I have watched and marveled at the technique and focus of great short order cooks whether they are responsible for breakfast or busy lunch, they are in a league all their own. As a chef, the two most critical positions in my kitchen were always the breakfast cook and the dishwashing crew. Without them, my life became pretty miserable. I have filled in and tried to be as efficient when a short order cook called out sick, didn’t show, or left suddenly. This time in the frying pan was painful at best. My life would become exponentially better the moment a new person arrived to fill the role.
Breakfast cooks, in particular, set the tone for the restaurant and the cohesiveness of the other staff. They arrive typically before 5 a.m. (usually the first person to turn on the lights), unlock the coolers, turn on the range, crack the eggs and pan the bacon, brew the first pot of coffee and breathe life into the kitchen. When others arrive to the enticing smell of pork products and strong coffee they also come to life and start to shake the dust from their brains. Chef’s can rest assured that breakfast will run smoothly in the hands of an accomplished short order cook and aside from an occasional back-up in “the pass”, everyone can focus on other prep and planning that occurs in the kitchen throughout the day. Breakfast takes care of itself – at least until that person doesn’t arrive for one reason or another.
The worst feeling that a chef faces is that call between 5 and 6 a.m. as a server says: “chef I just arrived and there is no one in the kitchen.” Damn… the chef now has to get dressed and rush to the restaurant. His or her biggest concern is not the fact that he or she might need to cook breakfast, it is how well he or she will function during the breakfast crunch and how the entire kitchen will start off on the wrong foot. Broken egg yolks, charred bacon, missed orders and angry service staff will all be in the chef’s immediate future. The thing is that a great short order cook is a master of his or her universe. They are unique in their skill set and their mental approach to the job.
There are no schools for short order cooks, they learn through the school of hard knocks. More often than not they are born from your dishwasher crew and grow into the position, building their skills by shadowing their predecessor. There is an innate talent that is present in the great ones, that unique ability to remain organized, never miss a step and actually become excited the busier they become. Their first concern at the end of a shift is typically “how many people did we serve”? This number is their badge of honor, one that they hang on to with pride.
Breakfast cooks in any town know other breakfast cooks. It is a network of like individuals who share numbers and boast of how many they served in the shortest amount of time. It behooves every chef to know who is in this network and stay connected. When there is a need, this informal organization is far more effective than craigslist.com or local help wanted ads when there is a need for replacement breakfast cooks.
These warriors of the griddle are truly magical, invaluable and proud. Respect your short order brigade or know that you might be saddled with a breakfast shift that chefs are ill prepared to handle effectively.
PREPARE BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training