It’s 5:00 on a Thursday night and in many restaurants across the country line cooks are starting to feel their adrenaline spike. Tickets are beginning to fall from the POS and each station is kicking in, building an early rhythm as the cadence of orders quickens and the expeditor makes eye contact with each cook at the ready. There was a time, not too long ago, when restaurants struggled to fill seats, especially at 5:00, but with the dramatic upswing in restaurant popularity and specific interest in operations that have a unique profile, everything has changed. In larger urban markets, it might be difficult, if not impossible, to find a reservation at restaurants that strike a chord for those interested in dining experiences. 5:00 is the time when those seeking last minute reservations or hoping to score an open seat without reservations, feel their chances are dramatically improved.
The dynamic in the kitchen and the front of the house, as a result, has changed as well. The 5:00 hour was a short buffer period when cooks could gradually develop their nightly “sea legs”, check their mise en place one last time, hydrate for a long night of relentless orders, and basically get their house in order before the s.t hits the fan. The three hours of prep time that flew by prior to service, the 10 minute staff meal while prep continued, the extra jolt of caffeine from a few espressos or energy drink were now even more condensed, more frantic. As soon as the doors open, restaurants that are on the “edge” now see a steady stream of eager patrons grab their space and rattle off their orders.
The macho attitude of most line cooks is typically – “bring it on”. On the surface, there is an observed confidence and even a taste for pushing the system as far as it can go. How much can the team take and accomplish before it is pushed to the extreme, and faced with being in the weeds? It is, at some level, a game – a game to be won or lost. Line cooks against the odds, line cooks ready for battle, line cooks who have mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared themselves for this moment. The gates are open and the flood is trying very hard to overwhelm the preparations for the unexpected.
Although cooks work very hard at hiding the tension – it is ever-present. Those last few minutes before the front door opens are ripe with challenges and a fair amount of uncertainty. If you have never worked in a busy kitchen you cannot understand those moments of anxiety. It goes beyond feeling comfortable that your mise en place is tight and that you, as a line cook, are ready in every sense of the word – it is all about knowing that you are ready for the team. Every service is just a few steps, one epic fail on the part of a cook, away from bringing the team to its knees. There is certainly comfort in knowing that if this happens everyone else will step up to help pull a cook out of the weeds, but no cook wants to be responsible for creating chaos.
THE EXPEDITOR TICKET RAIL AT “GIRL AND THE GOAT” IN CHICAGO (5:30 P.M.)
It happens, it will happen to every line cook and every team. It won’t happen just once, it will happen on occasion for a number of reasons and it will have a real impact on the team. The question is always – how will the line cook responsible pull through, and how will the team act during and after the meltdown? “Leave no soldier behind” is the mantra for the US military and it should be the same in a professional kitchen. Line cooks are the soldiers in the battle for a successful service and those who wear the uniform must unite to make sure that there is always light at the end of a broken tunnel. When things go sideways the best teams show their strength. When a cook slips for whatever reason, it is the role of the team to support him or her in the moment, help assess what went wrong without pointing fingers, and help that cook find solutions that will prevent the same mistake from happening again. Great line teams know that anything that is served to a guest, no matter which cook prepared it, is a reflection on all of their reputations.
Many times these kitchen misfires are never known by the dining guest simply because a seasoned team is adept at recovery. When the guest does experience the chaos of a sideways kitchen then the fault lies with team preparation rather than just the cook who started the domino reaction.
What are the typical reasons for a service misfire in the kitchen? Here are a few that can be avoided with proper attention:
 INADEQUATE MISE EN PLACE
There is no excuse for this. It does happen and the finger should be pointed at both the individual line cook and the chef. Well-designed prep sheets based on sound projections, a sense of urgency on the part of the line cook, and chef oversight throughout the prep window will all help to rectify this problem. Keeping accurate records allows the cook and the chef to predict, with reasonable accuracy, what the sales patterns will be for items on the menu.
 LACK OF TRAINING
The chef certainly has a full plate of responsibilities, but everything pales in comparison to hiring solid cooks with great potential and investing the time to train them.
 EQUIPMENT MALFUNCTIONS
Cooks depend on their tools working well. Ovens must be calibrated, burners must work well, fryer temperatures must be true, pans must be seasoned to prevent sauté items from sticking, char-broiler ceramics must be in good shape, and coolers must be at the right temperature. Chefs need to pay attention to this! No cook should have to work through a busy service with equipment that is not functioning at peak efficiency.
 POOR DOOR MANAGEMENT
Even the best prep and mental preparedness will fail if the front of the house fails to manage and pace the door and door reservations for smooth service. The dining room that fills up immediately at a certain hour will always result in slow service and disgruntled customers. More importantly, this lack of door management will put undue pressure on the kitchen to look for shortcuts. Shortcuts are the consummate fail in restaurants.
 LACK OF MENTAL PREPAREDNESS
Cooks need to be in the right mental state to function at peak efficiency. Chefs need to help to manage this. If there are inside or outside pressures that keep a cook from functioning as he or she should then the chef needs to be empathetic, listen, support, and sometimes even push the cook through this mental dilemma.
 AN INDEPENDENT APPROACH VS. A TEAM PREPARATION
It is never sufficient to be satisfied that you are ready for the rush if the rest of the team is not. Every cook’s readiness is every cook’s responsibility. Observation and communication will help teams survive and thrive.
 OVERALL WEAK COMMUNICATION
Constant communication between cooks, between the chef and cooks, between the dining room manager and the chef, and effective dialogue between service staff and cooks will keep everyone on track and will help to minimize the surprises that bring a restaurant down.
 AN ILL-CONCEIVED MENU WITHOUT STATION BALANCE
The menu is the key control device in a kitchen. Planning a menu is certainly an art, but it is also a science. It is true that the menu should reflect the philosophy of the owners and the chef, but that aside, the menu must be designed with function and service in mind. Balancing plates between stations, thinking through cook times, understanding how menu prep might be adjusted to accommodate those nights when the line is slammed, and ensuring that every line cook is comfortable with every preparation on the menu will circumvent most problems that might crop up.
A well-tuned line of cooks is a thing of beauty to watch. Line cooks intense concentration, high energy, seamless motions, and focus on details can be orchestrated by the expeditor in the same manner that a conductor manages the music of a symphony. It should also be noted that this same line is always a misstep away from chaos if the group is not in sync.
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Follow Chefs Jake and Carla as they navigate through life in and out of the kitchen, become engrossed in the tragedy that is a result of “The Event”, and become engaged in the trials and tribulations of working in the greatest business on the planet.
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