There are times in a restaurant kitchen when things go terribly wrong. Every cook, every chef faces those moments that can only be described as desperate and out of control. There is so much truth to the theory of Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will”. There are many corollaries to this theory that point to variable approaches:
“If anything can go wrong, it can.” – Dr. Allen Roberds
This provides an opportunity to escape the worst- case scenario.
“If anything can go wrong, it should”.
This points to an understanding that you deserve what you get.
“If anything can go wrong, it will be all your fault and everyone will know it”. – Dean Izett
Noting that when things go wrong it is the “cover your ass” approach that allows others to feel less of the pain, passing on the full brunt of the results to one person (other than themselves).
The most important lesson from Murphy’s Law lies in understanding how important it is to plan, work through a variety of “worse case” scenarios, and focus always on being prepared. In kitchens one of the Cardinal Rules is to always make sure your mise en place is tight. Chefs always live by the theory that if your “mise” is in good shape, you can handle anything.
There is a certain level of comfort that comes from having your mise en place in order. I would consider it parallel to being lost on a desert road, but feeling OK because you have a full tank of gas. Great mise, like a full tank of gas gives you some elbowroom.
What the typical restaurant guest will never understand is the pressure that cooks face on the line every day and how dramatic it can be when they wind up “in the weeds”. So, what does this term mean? How can anyone adequately describe the feelings that are present when this happens? What can drive a line cook to this point despair and how can they, do they get through it?
The Urban Dictionary defines “in the weeds” as:
“When someone or something, usually in the food or beverage industry, becomes overwhelmed and falls behind.” Such as: “Hey chef, can you plate up those two fish for me?? I’m in the weeds….”
Honestly, this definition does not do justice to the situation or the feeling. When a cook is truly in the weeds he or she starts to lose track of what is going on. The dozen or so dishes that have been fired are now just a blur and the cook can no longer keep track of where each dish is in the cooking process. He or she starts to get that glazed over look, fails to respond to directives from the expeditor, becomes pale and may even start to tremble a bit. The cook can even break out in a cold sweat even though it is well over 100 degrees behind the line and will likely just stop in his or her tracks with a sense of hopelessness. A solid line team will begin to notice the signs a little bit earlier on and nod to the chef/expeditor that things are about to go south. Sometimes the line cook who is rubbing elbows with this individual at the next station might be able to bring things back by stepping in to help – that is “if” his or her station is under control. It will likely be the chef/expeditor who holds the key to recovery. Sometimes the line cook can be talked through the situation or in some cases the chef might need to pull him or her off the line for a time to get a grip. The chef would need to step into that role which may or may not bring the line out of “train wreck mode”. More often than not, the whole line will simply need to slow down, dinners will be slower coming from the kitchen, servers will need to temper the impatience of the guest by offering a free intermezzo or cocktail “on the chef” and the host will be instructed to hold back on seating anymore guests until the kitchen has a chance to recover.
For a time, the kitchen will become quiet as everyone tries to make sense of what has happened, find the cause, catch its breath and get the rhythm back. This may only take a few minutes, but while the kitchen is in this state it seems like time drags on forever.
What can cause this? There are a multitude of issues that can bring a great kitchen to a halt – most of them are avoidable. To begin with, it may be as simple as the line cook who did not have his or her mise en place together. Running out of ingredients and needing to stop and start chopping and dicing is a clear sign of disaster. It could be that the cook grabbed a hot pan, generating a throbbing burn and pulling that cooks concentration astray. It might be a disproportionate number of pick-ups on that night from one station placing undo pressure on a portion of the team, or it might be, and oftentimes is, a flaw in table management out front – seating too many people in a short period of time. Great table management is what some guests view as “why can’t I be seated now? I see you have empty tables in your dining room?” Communication between the front and back of the house can resolve most issues before they become problems.
Now you are in the thick of it. A line cook has mentally “dropped out”, the chef has stepped in behind the line to a back up of dishes and a lack of knowledge regarding where they are, the board is filled with dupes ready to be fired, and the rest of the team is waiting for direction. There are times when some cooks may wonder how the chef got to his or her position. They may question his or her ability to understand or do what each line cook does on a daily basis. The service staff is facing a crisis situation in the dining room with an increasing number of disgruntled guests waiting for their meal. This is the time when a true chef can earn respect and demonstrate why he or she is in that role. This is that moment when the chef is the chef. There is that moment when everyone holds their breath waiting for a defined course of action that will bring everyone out of deep water, gasping for breath, but knowing that things are going to be OK.
The chef takes a breath and says to the dining room manager: “For the next few moments we cannot seat anymore guests. I will be the only person who will communicate with service staff from this point on. Give us 20 minutes to right the ship and get back on track.” The chef then turns to his line staff to determine where they are with each ticket and simply states that they will take one ticket at a time until the board has been taken care of and then proceed to allow more diners to enter the fold.
Guests wait a bit longer, a few free drinks are passed their way, the dining room manager pays extra attention to those guests waiting (without placing blame anywhere), the bar is cranking as parties wait to be seated and slowly, but surely the line gets back its feeling of confidence as the board is nearly clear before a new set of clicks from the point of sale bring the kitchen back to where it was.
What is most important is that the line cook who was relieved (temporarily) is focused on re-building mise en place, brought back to the line after he clears his head, is welcomed by the other line cooks and supported by the chef. It can happen to anyone and probably will to each of the cooks working that night at some point. It likely will not happen to the line cook in question again for some time. His or her mise en place and focus will be razor sharp from this point on.
Once the night is over, a review of what happened will be important, but the incident must be behind them. Tomorrow will be another day, the crew pulled together and survived. This is what teams do.
To the guest, there was disappointment and a lack of understanding regarding what happened or why, but the front-of-the-house did what they do best: attend to the guest and make it right.
In the weeds, yes, but recovery can happen. This is a day in the life of a restaurant.
**photo by: Kristin Parker – Kristin Parker Photography
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