There are some things in life that can’t be taught. Only the experience of impending doom can push a person to dig deep and find solutions that they never thought were possible, discover skills that were never present before the challenge occurred, and either sink or swim under the pressure of creating order out of chaos.
The curve ball destroys the best plans of even the most seasoned batter. The problem is that this pitch lacks the one thing that allows people to feel at ease: predictability. The curve ball however can become predictable after experiencing how the pitch will break at a certain point in its trajectory. This repeated experience would allow the batter to anticipate where the ball will be even though its path looks uncertain. This analogy fits with the pattern of work that a line cook faces every day. No one can truly teach a cook how to prepare for the unexpected until he or she has dealt with the unexpected numerous times. Experience is the best teacher – certainly applies.
When inviting a new line cook to join the team a seasoned chef will look less at typical credentials and spend more time trying to determine what experiences in a cook’s past have prepared him or her for calm action, for creative problem-solving, for an understanding of the need for a sense of urgency – ALWAYS. The chef knows that only those cooks who have endured crisis after crisis truly know how to be ready for just about anything.
So, for all those young, flashy cooks who think that have it all together and who strut their confidence with a bit too much swagger – know that until you have stood on the edge of uncertainty, until you are one step away from totally losing it on the line, and until you are faced with knowing that you screwed up and need serious help to bail you out, then that swagger is without merit. The best cooks approach every day, every shift with a sense of urgency through preparation, thinking ahead about what might go wrong, and building solutions to problems that may not even exist yet. So what can go wrong and where and how does that sense of urgency come into play? Here is just a taste:
 NOT HAVING YOUR MISE TOGETHER
By far, the most frequent problem that arises from that lack of urgency is not having control over your mise. It has been rightfully stated that a line cook can handle nearly anything if his or her mise en place is tight. The best line cooks NEVER run out of prep, NEVER allow their station to become unorganized, and NEVER approach service unless everything is in order right down to how side towels are folded.
 RUNNING OUT OF PROPANE
OK, this may sound far-fetched to some, but I know there will be quite a few cooks who will read this and say: “That happened to me!” Cooks and chefs, who are in tune with that sense of urgency, work from a mental checklist that will always include checking the gauge on those propane tanks before service.
 THERE IS NO GOOD TIME FOR THE POWER TO GO OUT
We are all familiar with Murphy’s Law that proclaims, “If something can go wrong – it will.” So, what is your plan if the power does go out? Oh, and by the way – if it does go out it WILL happen on the busiest night of the week – probably a weekend or holiday when finding a resolution to the problem is compounded. Do you have a power outage limited menu in the waiting? Is your service ready to move to candlelight for guest tables and focused on making the experience a positive one? Do you have enough china and flatware to get through service without a dishwasher? The restaurants that are prepared will have this protocol lined up and the cooks who have that sense of urgency will drop into this problem-solving mode without losing a step.
 IT’S JUST A LITTLE FIRE
A little too much oil dripping into the clean out pan on the char-broiler or flat top, un-noticed fryer oil levels dropping a bit below the heating elements, the pot of butter clarifying on the back of the stove that inadvertently boils over – it does happen, it will happen. If you are tuned in then that little fire is managed without any panic: a box of baking soda close by, a sheet pan to snuff out the oxygen feeding that fryer fire, a small fire extinguisher at the ready by the grill station to stop that drip pan fire from setting off the Ansul system. There is little difference between a sense of urgency and methodical planning.
 IT’S A GAME OF CHESS – PLAN AT LEAST THREE OR FOUR MOVES AHEAD
When the kitchen is firing on all cylinders the expeditor is orchestrating the work of line cooks, creating a cadence of activity that could be put to music. That expeditor (best if a cook or chef) is the chessmaster who is pacing orders, looking ahead to the complexity of orders and where there might be a back-up, and communicating effectively with the front of the house manager to assure that potential problems are addressed before there is a melt down and before a misstep impacts on the line. Pre-marking steaks before the crunch, having some pan sauces reduced in advance, blanching extra vegetables, picking garnishes in advance, and double checking every stations mise is a seamless process all designed to minimize chaos.
 MAN DOWN – THE SHOW MUST GO ON
We all hope it never happens, but that is just when it does. A line cook becomes ill, a burn or cut disrupts the flow, a grill person overcome from heat, and suddenly you find a station without a player. If you know that this is likely to happen at some point – where is the sense of urgency, the creative planning? Are line cooks cross-trained so that they can slip into a different station? Does everyone know the system of each other’s mise en place? Can the expeditor drop into a station and a lead server take over at calling out orders? Scenario plan for the worst and eliminate panic – this is a rule of thumb in a house with that sense of urgency.
 REFIRE THAT ENTIRE EIGHT TOP OF VIP’S
Can the expeditor shuffle orders to make this happen? Is the cook cool enough to go with the flow and re-arrange, borrow from another order, shift his or her concentration? Remember urgency and mental preparation are one and the same.
 DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS – SAUTE COOK IS TOAST
The best cooks can see it coming on. Communication with a fellow line cook is a bit strained, the quick pace that is normally present seems to falter, the glazed look of panic begins to creep in, the hands begin to shake a bit, and tongs, pans and plates slip off of counters and on the floor. These are all signs that a fellow cook is starting to lose it. It happens to everyone at times and the best cooks know that this is always a possibility. They watch for the signs, nod to the chef that things are starting to go sideways, pat the line cook on the shoulder and guide him or her to the office with a large glass of water. Now is the time for everyone to step up, share an extra station or shift responsibilities. When this happens the show must still go on.
 BURNS, CUTS, AND SWOLLEN ANKLES
Of course, we live with this every day. Business doesn’t stop when we experience minor injuries, but nevertheless they make our work that much more difficult. It is hard to ignore a hand burn when standing over a cherry red flat top or char grill with flames jumping around a steak. It is impossible to ignore that annoying little finger cut that throbs with every movement. Yes, you washed it out, dabbed it with antiseptic, covered it with a bandage and finger cot, but damn it hurts. Maybe it needs a stitch or two, but it is really hard to leave your co-workers in the middle of a rush. “I’ll tough it out until the end of service and then go to the ER.” That sense of urgency must always include acts of caution and smart work. When there is a lack of urgency and planning then accidents are more likely to occur: cause and effect, cause and effect.
When chefs are asked what they look for in cooks – the typical response includes: dependability, working clean, the ability to work as a team, solid knife skills, speed, and understanding the importance of urgency. If you have it – then you are able to fit into any kitchen environment, learn their system, and adapt to their style of cooking.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training