We have all been there – that moment when it all falls apart. The cold sweats while standing over an intensely hot range or char grill with flames lapping six inches above the grates. An uncharacteristic grab for a red-hot pan handle seals the deal as the line cook drops the pan, swears like a longshoreman, and kicks the oven door closed. What is going on?
For those who may have forgotten the feeling, here is an attempt at recreating the environment: The first diners began arriving at 5:15 – not unusual for this restaurant. What is unusual is how quickly the dining room is filling up. The cooks on the line are ready; at least they think they are. Everyone’s mise en place is tight and geared up for a typically busy Friday night. The printer starts ticking off the first cluster of dupes and the chef who expedites on busy nights is prepared to start calling out the cadence. “Ordering – three chicken features, two strips mid-rare, 1 shrimp creole.” Each line cook responds – “Yes chef.” “Ordering – 2 filets rare and medium, 1 veal chop mid rare, 2 shrimp creole, three rib mid-well.” “Yes chef.” This onslaught of orders continues as the dining room fills up by 6:00. The line was ready, but this pace so early in the evening is not what they expected. “Ordering – 3 veal, two snapper, three shrimp creole, two strips rare.” “Yes chef.” “Picking up – three chicken features, two strips mid-rare, one shrimp creole.” “Plating chef.” The printer keeps ticking off orders and already the chef notes that he is behind calling out at least four tables and it’s barely past six p.m. The busiest time of the night won’t arrive until after seven and he knows that things are not looking good at this point. He asks a server to have the dining room manager stop in the kitchen. When she arrives he forewarns her that things will begin backing up pretty soon and she needs to manage the door better from this point on.
The chef notices that response to his called orders is starting to lag and with stove tops and grill completely filled with orders he begins to show some concern. “Guys – let’s get some of these orders out before we call out more tables. Guests will just need to wait a bit longer. “Picking up on the twelve top – two filets mid-rare, four shrimp creole, one snapper, four chicken, one rib – rare.” Suddenly there is no response from the line. “Guys – are we on task?” “Yes chef.” He surveys his team and seems confident with Jackie on the grill and Scott on the fry station, but Alan is beginning to get that confused look in his eyes. The chef notes that clarified butter in two of his pans is beginning to smoke and as the twelve top is being plated Alan drops one of the chicken orders and has to start another one – on the fly. This is when his sauté cook grabs that hot pan without a dry side towel, drops the pan, swears and kicks the oven door. When he looks up he stops and just stares at the working pans in front of him. Alan is toast– his focus is gone, he can’t remember where he is with any of his working dishes and his hands are beginning to shake. Alan is in the weeds. At this point the night has nowhere to go but downhill.
The other line cooks can feel the tension rise and know that things are not good. It’s like someone just pulled the stopper out of the drain. The energy has just been sucked out of the kitchen and everyone quickly turns to survival mode. This is when the role of the chef changes. If the chef reacts then tempers will fly, fingers will be pointed to whoever appears to be the problem, voices will be raised and a litany of expletives would begin to fly freely. When this happens then there is no saving the night or the dwindling confidence of Alan. Good cooks are typically Type A individuals who are programmed to win. When they fail, they have a difficult time recovering.
The chef has been here before – he knows the drill. This is the time for a team full-court-press. There is little need for verbal communication at this point, he simply looks to Jackie on the grill and she nods, then he turns to Scott and says: “Scott –switch with Alan until we get caught up.” Alan and Scott acknowledge and switch stations (the fry station is less complex with simple garnishes, two appetizers and a few items from the bar menu). Scott has been training on sauté so he knows the menu, but this will be a test for him. Alan is relieved at the moment since he knew that he was totally lost. The chef moves to the line side and begins to expedite from the action side and serve as support for his team. “One order at a time guys – let’s clear the board and start fresh.”
The dining room manager has begun to slow things down at the door with emphasis on attending to the full dining room first. She instructs servers to bring the pre-plated tasting course from the garde manger station that is always prepped for situations such as this. They deliver a beautiful amuse bouche to every guest who’s order will be delayed with a simple “This is compliments of the chef.” All for one and one for all is the name of the game.
Back in the kitchen the chef instructs servers to only communicate with him. He will be the voice, the only voice that his cooks will listen to. Slowly, but surely, the line starts to hum and within 15 minutes (seems much longer than that) the board is clear enough for the chef to start the cadence once again: “Ordering – two veal, three chicken, two filets medium.” “Yes chef” comes the confident response from his cooks once again. Alan tells the chef he is ready to return to sauté and the chef directs Scott to swing back to his station. Staying on the line side to expedite for the balance of the night, the chef knows that he will need to help rebuild Alan’s confidence and maybe jump in a few times during the night. The best cure for Alan is to get back in the saddle right away before he starts to question his ability any more.
When all is said and done, the kitchen pushed out nearly 300 meals tonight and with a few exceptions the guest was unaware of the pending disaster that the full front and back of the house team overcame. The chef, during his post meal meeting with the team began by complimenting everyone for pulling together and avoiding a real disaster. Never once did he refer to Alan as the problem, but rather asked each person to state what they will do tomorrow to be prepared for the unexpected. Within a few minutes they had a plan, high fived each other and laughed it off.
As he walks out the back door around midnight the chef is fully aware that the next few days will be difficult for Alan. He will need to rebuild his confidence and swagger. There can be little room for doubt in the mind of a line cook.
Working in a kitchen, as we all know, is very difficult and incredibly demanding. What some outside of our interesting little club may not be aware of is that although the job is physically demanding, it is far more challenging mentally and emotionally. Being in the weeds means that a person has been pushed past the point of recovery unless, of course, the team is ready to kick into action and work through it.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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