I imagine that every night that the cast of a Broadway play watches the curtains open, there is a feeling that the performance will either be great or terrible. When the most organized and well-seasoned band hits the stage for a sold out concert – there is an uneasiness that has each musician in its grip. Tonight could be monumental or filled with thumbs down from an eager audience. Athletes who run onto the field before a game must hold their breath knowing that “Any Given Sunday” could result in a celebratory win, or an embarrassing loss. The feelings are common among all who put themselves out there; including a team of cooks anticipating a busy night on the line.
When everything is in sync, when each cook is on his or her game, and when mise en place is as tight as it can be – the line is fun to watch. When something is left askew, or when the unexpected (you should always expect the unexpected) rears up its ugly head – that same line can crash and tumble with little warning.
“Watching an organized, disciplined, busy kitchen in full swing is a graceful thing, while the horror of watching a kitchen go down full flight is more like a B-grade Hollywood blood fest.”
The best culinary teams are always engaged in planning, organizing, and scenario planning for the worst outcomes. Chefs, in particular, are expected to know what to do when things go sideways. This can only occur if the chef has experienced disaster after disaster, and has designed a “fix” for just about anything.
So, as we start the New Year – here is a partial list of things that can (and will) go wrong in the kitchen with a few seasoned solutions to keep in your back pocket:
 LAST MINUTE DELIVERIES DON’T ARRIVE
There is no need to fall on the sword as Chef Francois Vatel did when a fish delivery failed to arrive in time for a dinner being prepared for Louis XIV – there are other solutions. The best chef works to develop dependable vendor relationships and should always place the pressure of expectation on those who supply ingredients, but at the same time, an alternative menu should always be in the back of his or her mind. Keeping a consistent line of communication open with vendors and having alternative sources close at hand is always the best rule. When it comes to suppliers you should never put all of your eggs in the same basket.
 AN UNRESERVED PARTY OF 12 ARRIVES AT PEAK SERVICE WITHOUT A RESERVATION
The easy solution might be to turn away this party of 12, but the business side of a chef should always reflect on how to remain a service hero and turn a sour situation into a real win. Having a fall back amuse bouche or even an attractive selection of cheese and bread with a complimentary glass of champagne at the bar can buy the kitchen and the dining room a 30-minute window to make adjustments and find the space. Letting the table know that reservations are always a good idea, but that the team will make adjustments as quickly as possible demonstrates that you are able to make lemonade out of lemons. A party turned away is a party that will find a way to cut deep with a nasty Yelp or Trip Advisor post. Be the problem solver.
 THE DISHWASHER IS A NO CALL, NO SHOW
If you have spent any time at all in the kitchen – you know that this is a far too common challenge. First of all – every cook must realize that everything is everyone’s job and then when this occurs they will need to pitch in whenever there is a spare moment. A quick discussion with the dining room manager should lead to a more conscientious drop of off dirty dishes by the service staff, and assistance from the same in carrying clean service ware back to various stations. As a longer term solution – pay your dishwashers well, embrace them as members of the team, train them and provide windows for moving up if they so choose – this may help them to understand that they are as integral to the operations success as any other team member.
 YOUR SAUTE COOK GRABS THE HANDLE OF A SEARING HOT PAN
Of course this will happen, and the macho nature of the kitchen will typically drive people to try and ignore the pain and work through it. Unless you have asbestos hands, a deep burn will have a significant impact on a cook’s thinking, response time, work quality, focus, and communication skills. Cross-training your staff is a more immediate solution – moving the sauté cook to garde manger where the constant presence of heat is diminished, while flipping that cold kitchen employee to a stint on the line can make the transition fairly seamless. Have a second string candidate for every position in the kitchen.
 THE POWER GOES OUT AT THE PEAK OF SERVICE
Unless your restaurant has a substantial power generator to kick in when needed, you will likely find that coolers will be down, the hood system will not work, lights (except emergency lights) will go black, and the dish machine will become idle. Your dining room is full – do you really want to sour the guests experience and lose all of that revenue? Have a drop in power outage menu that requires less dependence on equipment and open flames without the draw of a hood exhaust. Make sure that there is an ample number of heavy-duty battery operated lanterns to keep a limited line functional. Transfer bags of ice to reach-in coolers to help maintain temperature during service, stay out of walk-in coolers to preserve temperature, stack and rinse china and glassware and make sure that you have ample service ware inventory to cover the balance of the dinner rush.
Candle light in the dining room can change a disaster into a fun, romantic moment, and make sure that the dining room manager spends ample time talking with guests through the process of an adventure rather than a disaster.
 THE GRILL COOK IS OVERWHELMED AND STARTS TO LOOK LIKE A DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS
Even the best line cooks will suffer through this experience on occasion. The key to this always rests with the expeditor or sous chef. Slowing down the pace a bit (communicate your need to do this with the dining room manager) so that the cook can catch his or her breath. Buddy up the cook with another “cross-trained” player until order is restored, or in some cases pull the cook to clear his or her head and have the sous chef or expeditor fill in on one of the stations in the meantime. Don’t let the situation escalate. When the signs are there – act quickly while you might still be able to recover.
 THE SERVER DROPS A LOADED TRAY OF DINNERS FOR A TABLE OF EIGHT
This situation requires real leadership from the expeditor to direct attention to a re-fire. Sending out an extra appetizer to the table is always a good idea with ample communication on how long before the order is complete. Knowing how to shuffle orders that are currently in the process of cooking will help to keep everyone’s cool.
 A NEW HOST IS UNACCUSTOMED TO DOOR MANAGEMENT AND SITS 12 TABLES WITHIN THE LAST 1O MINUTES – OVERWHELMING THE STAFF
Door management is more often than not, the best defense to avoid problems in the kitchen. When it doesn’t happen, then the pressure is typically shifted to the kitchen to find an answer. Buying time is important, as is a well-trained service staff that knows the menu and the functioning of the cook’s line. Having some items that are quick turnarounds is always important, a service staff who is effective at upselling appetizers, and that inventory of amuse bouche to serve as a pacer are the tools that should always be readily at hand. On the side of the front of the house – communication with the guest is of critical importance. Letting them know what to expect is one of the important stop gaps.
 AN IRATE CUSTOMER BEGINS TO CURSE AND SWEAR AT SERVICE STAFF
Probably 85 percent of your guests are reasonable, patient, and appreciative people; another 10% are less-patient and always looking for answers and special accommodations, and the final 5% are people who have no business being around others. In some cases it is definitely acceptable to fire a customer. When they treat your staff with a lack of respect and when they are disruptive to the experience of others then they need to go. The important thing is to get them out of your dining room as quickly as possible even if it means absorbing the cost of their check, or in extreme cases calling the police for assistance. Make note of their names and refuse to accept a reservation from them in the future. They will likely bad mouth the operation on social media, but you can always respond. The other guests will appreciate your action and your employees will respect management for supporting their dignity.
 THE SOUS CHEF HAS A MELT DOWN AND WALKS OFF THE JOB IN THE MIDDLE OF SERVICE
By the time that cooks reach the position of sous chef or chef they should understand what it means to be professional – even if their employer is not. A professional will never abandon his or her team, or the guest who is oblivious to the challenges that the chef faces. If the individual walks off the job, then it is likely that the team will be happy to see him or her go anyway. Demonstrate immediately that you have complete faith in the team to carry on and explain that there will be time at the end of service to talk through the situation. Right now, it’s all hands on deck. No matter what the issues, or how much the property might even be at fault – there is no excuse for walking off the job. You might choose to hear the sous chef out the following day, but do not allow that person back on the job. If the property needs to change based on the issues that rise to the surface – then do so.
Kitchens are not always predictable. The best you can do is to prepare, practice, and communicate. You can work through nearly any situation if you are confident in your ability to recover, and if you have a firm plan in place. This is what kitchen teams do.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
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