This was Jake’s 20th year in restaurants, and the 20th straight Christmas that he would be working. As the restaurant’s Executive Chef he knew how hard today would be for everyone in the kitchen and the dining room, but the show must go on. Jake also knew that all over the city there were cooks, servers, dishwashers, and managers in the same boat.
It wasn’t always like this. Christmas and Thanksgiving were once days when people stayed in, cooked with family, and enjoyed staying close to home. Now, those days are some of the busiest of the year. People were leaning more and more on restaurants to provide the environment for the family table and restaurants desperate to meet their budgets, welcomed guests with open arms. Today and tonight would be busy, very busy.
Making up the schedule for these dates was always difficult for Jake. Some might shrug off Christmas as just another day, but regardless of religious beliefs, this day had special family meaning. Similar challenges existed with many other religious holidays, but Christmas, again, seemed to be as much about the chance to get together with family as it did to celebrate religious significance.
The chef arrived at 7 a.m. to begin a day that would likely not end until well after 10 p.m. Warren, the breakfast cook, had arrived at 5, and although he was set, it didn’t appear like the breakfast meal would be too busy. Jake knew that most people were sleeping in this morning; after all it was Christmas. Jake shook Warren’s hand and said, “Merry Christmas.” Warren smiled, nodded and returned the greeting. By 9 a.m. the crew would begin to arrive, so Jake had a couple hours to himself to catch up on work that he had neglected over the past few weeks. He put the final touches on the New Year’s Eve buffet menu, built the prep sheets leading up to service of the 250 guests with reservations for that night, finished up the last few annual staff evaluations, tweaked the schedule for next week and took a few minutes to walk through the kitchen, checking cooler temperatures, cleaning from last nights service, and the condition of his inventory.
As 9 a.m. arrived, the team began to trickle in. This was the first shift that would work until dinner service was under way. The second shift would arrive around noon and stay till the bitter end. Jake always tried to schedule those with young children for the later shift so that they could be with their family in the morning when kids would wake in anticipation of gifts under the tree. As his staff walked by, everyone exchanged Christmas greetings, put on a smile, and in some cases even offered a fist bump or high five. When everyone was in place, Jake asked for his or her attention so that he could offer his traditional pre-Christmas service speech. “I just wanted to thank all of you for being here today. I know how hard it is to leave family and friends, but we have a job to do, a job that helps others to enjoy this day. You are part of the best kitchen team in the city, and I am proud of all of you. After the holidays we will have our chance to celebrate this day. Now let’s do this!”
Everyone went about their work: cutting steaks, straining stock for sauces, peeling shrimp and cleaning scallops, trimming baby carrots, mincing garlic, clarifying butter, pulling crème brulee from a slow oven, filling cannoli shells, and decorating hundreds of Christmas cookies as table gifts for every guest. The prep kitchen was rocking and everyone was in the zone. This was the one time of year that the chef allowed music in the kitchen, so, of course there were plenty of holiday songs that occasionally a cook would sing along with. Everyone was trying to keep focus and look for the positive. They may not be home with their biological family, but this team was pretty close.
Kristin was the front of the house manager. Her challenges today were the same as Jake’s. Her service staff would begin arriving at noon (aside from the two waiters who braved the early morning wind and snow to take care of breakfast), and when they clocked in, a whirlwind effort would need to take place to convert the dining room for service tonight. She managed to grab a ten minute cup of coffee with Jake knowing that this would be the last time today that they would be able to talk like friends, rather than coworkers on a mission. As was their custom, Jake and Kristin exchanged gifts, hugged each other and said Merry Christmas. After a brief discussion about their families, they were back to work.
Kitchen prep was well underway when the second shift arrived in the back of the house and Kristin’s servers began to shuffle into the dining room. Jake, once again, gave his speech for the benefit of the new arrivals and Kristin offered a similar pep talk to her staff. Now the pace would need to pick up. The first reservations would arrive at 5 p.m., and from that point it would be a blur. Unlike most other evenings, tonight would be consumed by families, lots of young children, and parents choking on the size of their bill at the end of the meal. For the service staff, this was one of the worst evenings of the year. Tables would be way too loud, children would be impatient and tired, returns to the kitchen would be more frequent than normal, and tips would be sub par. Oh, well – let’s do this!
Both Jake and Kristin did what they could throughout the day to keep morale high. In fact, it was the demeanor of the staff that would consume most of their time.
Kristin’s crew was busy re-arranging the dining room for larger tables, cloths needed to be touched up with an iron, napkins folded, glassware polished, holiday centerpieces arranged, side stations set, and detail work completed before 4:15 when everyone would sit down for a 20 minute staff meal and review of features as part of pre-meal training.
The kitchen switched from foundational prep to detail work for the line cooks. Shallots were minced, parsley chopped and cleaned, herb clusters wrapped, pans lined up, sauces reheated, some steaks pre-marked for the rush, and vegetables blanched and shocked. In the bakeshop, the pastry chef tempered chocolate and wrote, “Merry Christmas” on the rim of dozens of plates, since the chef wanted every dessert served to carry this greeting. Raspberries were picked for garnishes, as were mint leaves, and white chocolate shavings. There were racks of deserts ready for finishing as the orders came in on the POS.
Jake took it upon himself to prepare tonight’s staff meal. The owner might not like it, but Jake thought that it was important to put on a great meal for these warriors. The meal might only be 20 minutes, but the staff would enjoy roast tenderloin of beef, a rich demi glace, oven brown potatoes, glazed baby carrots, and a medley of mushrooms and pearl onions. They would hold off on dessert till the end of the night.
At 4:15, the entire staff stopped what they were doing and sat down to Jake’s meal, a tasting portion of wine, warm bread from the bakeshop, and the comfort of their second family. Kristin offered the toast, Jake talked briefly about the two features for the evening, everyone clinked glasses, laughed and relaxed for a few moments before they opened the gates to a challenging evening. It was that brief moment that Kristin and Jake thought that they were very fortunate to work with and know the people sitting around this table.
Service was, as anticipated, challenging. Frustrated parents, crying babies, spilled beverages, and in the moment resets of entire tables, returned steaks to the kitchen, special requests, and by 7 p.m. a backlog of orders as every seat in the dining room was full. By 9:30, it was basically over. Since most guests were with family, the evening service ended sooner than normal. The last guests trickled out by 10 p.m. as Kristin turned the lock on the front door. All in all, they had served nearly 300 that night and everyone was beat. Jake had the pastry chef set-up a small buffet table of Christmas desserts and Kristin broke out a few bottles of dessert wines. Everyone went about their finishing work – scrubbing counters, restocking china shelves, resetting the dining room to its normal layout, taking dirty linen to housekeeping, vacuuming rugs and sweeping and mopping kitchen floors, labeling and dating food, and taking out trash to the dumpster. No one stopped to really enjoy the dessert spread, but rather grabbed something as they walked by. The main thing on their mind was finishing up and getting home.
Jake thanked his crew, as did Kristin with hers. The two sat in the chef’s office at around 11 p.m. and shared a half empty bottle of wine. They made it through another Christmas – now on to New Year’s Eve.
This Christmas as you enjoy the company of your family and friends, whether at home or at your local restaurant, remember those people who work so that you can enjoy the warmth of the season. It goes with the turf, but it is not easy. Restaurant workers are not the only ones – there are numbers of people who work to provide the opportunities that we have. Christmas in many respects is just another day on the surface, but to them it is a tough pill to swallow.
Give thanks for those in the military who are unable to be with their families, police officers, fire fighters, pilots, cab drivers, flight attendants, toll takers, baggage handlers, grocery store cashiers, gas station attendants, doctors, nurses, and the list goes on an on. When you see someone who is working on the holidays, just take a brief moment to smile at him or her and say, “thanks.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
As the wife of a chef who has worked many holidays, thank you for this!! And thank you to everyone who will be working on Christmas this year. 🙂