As the first tickets started to arrive from the dining room – Jake gave some fleeting thought to the time. It was 5:30, he had already been here for nearly 11 hours and the night had just begun. What was most interesting was the energy surge that happened each day when service began. Everyone was ready to rock and Jake felt like this was just the beginning of his shift.
The first orders are sometimes the most challenging since the line team is trying to get a firm footing while they make mental checks of their mise en place. Running out of prep at this point is not acceptable and would cause panic on the line. Everyone knows that you can handle almost anything as long as your prep is tight.
For those who have never worked the line in a busy restaurant it is hard to fully explain. The amount of information that each station needs to process is mind numbing. Timing is, of course critical, but the real key to a successful night lies in the hands of the maitre’d. Managing the door is so critical to the pace, mental health and demeanor of cooks and servers and the person who runs the door controls everyone’s ability to function effectively. If the dining room fills up too fast then service staff cannot pay adequate attention to guests, cannot engage in upselling and will inevitably force mistakes. If the front of the house becomes unraveled, the kitchen could be next. No matter how talented, organized and efficient the line cooks are – if the rail fills too quickly with orders then systems become stressed resulting in delayed plating and lots of re-fires.
In cases where things start to unravel, it is the chef who must take control. Jake usually expedites on a busy night. In this role he can keep the line cooks focused, pace the orders, check every plate before it leaves the kitchen, and most importantly- be the liaison between the front and back of the house.
Tonight, as always, Jake has set-up his station on the other side of the “pass” with side towels for wiping plates, garnishes and master copies of all POS orders. He will be the only voice that the cooks will listen to on a busy night. No distractions – focus.
As expected, early orders were a few family tables and a scattered number of deuces. According to the reservation book this is how the first part of the night would progress. Jake called out “Ordering – three filets, two mid-rare and one well done (ugh); one Sole Veronique, two Chicken Saltimbocca and a Creole Shrimp.” Each line cook responded back so that Jake knew the order was received. “Ordering – three gazpacho, one foie gras and a crab cake appetizers.” “Yes chef”. “Order fire (meaning the order can be started and completed a.s.a.p.) – One strip-mid-rare, rack of lamb for two – rare and a Sole Veronique.”
Each of the three station cooks now had work to do. Some items would be started and set aside waiting for Jake’s command, while this last order was to be cooked and plated. The appetizers were well on their way and when Jake inquired the cook said he was four minutes out. Since the waiter should always wait for the order and not the other way around, Jake called for the back wait to be ready. As promised, the apps were placed in the pass and Jake made the final adjustments. “Pick-up on table 22- apps.” Before he could turn around, the back wait was there with a napkin to slide the items on to a tray. “How long on that order-fire?” Both grill and sauté said they could plate whenever the chef wanted. “Let’s rock.” Steaks were passed for another few seconds on the char-grill and topped with maitre’d butter, the Veronique was masked with a mousseline and browned in the salamander – topped with peeled grapes just as it hit the pass. Jake garnished and once again called for a back wait. “Nice looking food – so far.” “Yes chef.”
Everything went this way until around 7:30 – crunch time. According to the reservation book, there were 70 reservations scheduled to arrive between 7:30 and 8:00. This will test both the front and back of the house staff. The first guests were now finishing their desserts and paying their bills when the rush started to accumulate in the bar. Jake took a minute to touch base with the maitre’d to see if the seating could be paced. If not, Jake had made up a tasty amuse bouche (small bite compliments of the chef) to slow things down and even pre-plated sorbet as an intermezzo in the freezer that could buy them some time if they got too backed up. These “free” items always come in handy and never fail to calm tempers and nerves.
Jake turned to his line cooks “Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to get hammered. Have no fear. As long as your mise en place is set, we will make it through. Take a second to wipe down your stations, double check your supplies, drink some water and clear your heads. I will walk you through this so make sure that you stay tuned in to what I say and only what I say. Are we ready?” “Yes chef” was the resounding response. “Here we go.”
The next two hours were a blur. There were moments – the sauté cook became overwhelmed with orders at the 8:30 mark, but Jake simply slowed down the pace and talked him through. Appetizers and Garde Manger were the champions of the night. Their food looked fantastic, there was never a wait for product, there was not a single re-fire and they were even able to help out with other stations. Then at 8:45 the cook who was working grill grabbed her tongs that had been a bit too close to the flame. You could almost hear the searing of flesh as she yelped in pain. “Run it under cold water and grab burn cream from the first aid kit.” Jake pulled his most trusted back wait into the kitchen and told him to cover the expeditor stations (he had done it before) while Jake jumped on the line to fill in for his injured cook.
There were only six tables left to service, so Jake was able to pick up where she left off. Within a few minutes he was in the rhythm of the line and actually having fun. His grill person, being tough like any line cook, returned to her position with a wrapped hand within 20 minutes of a nasty burn. She insisted on finishing her shift. If needed, she could stop in at an UrgiCare on the way home.
When 9:30 rolled around it was all over. There were a handful of deuces left in the dining room, but the majority of guest had been served. The drama in the kitchen was never an issue and guests were totally oblivious. Jake sent his grill cook home early and insisted that they could clean up. “Have that burn looked at tonight.”
He walked into the dining room, as tables from the rush were finishing up. Jake liked to walk the room whenever he could to sense how well the food and service was received. People were laughing, clinking glasses and saluting the chef as he stopped by each table to thank them for coming. The feedback was positive. Another successful night in the restaurant business.
Returning to the kitchen, cooks were already consolidating, washing stovetops, labeling and dating food and making notes for tomorrows prep. Once again Jake marveled at the efficiency and work ethic of his crew. They were on a mission with him, a mission that was important to them. Make people happy through food.
Jake ladled a cup of gazpacho, asked his favorite back wait for a glass of Sancerre and headed toward his office. He turned to his team and said “Great job tonight – thanks.” “Yes chef” was the response.
Jake made a few notes on a legal pad for tomorrow morning, briefly looked at the BEO’s hanging on a clipboard, changed his clothes and headed out the back door at 11:00 -16 hours after he had arrived this morning. This was an early night for the chef. There would be no drinks with his team tonight – Jake needed some rest.
Just another day in the life.
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