It’s 5:15, 120 degrees in front of the battery of ranges, and sweat is pouring down every cook’s back, dripping off their foreheads. This is moment in time, like the starting line for an important race, when adrenaline is pulsing through a cook’s veins, fingers are tingling in anticipation, knees are a little weak, and that 5-minute cold sandwich that was inhaled while standing over a garbage can isn’t sitting too well. Time to pop back another espresso, click those tongs a little faster, bounce from foot to foot while trying to keep the knees limber, and fold and refold those side towels again. It’s game time!
Sometimes we put on a good face – cool and calm – totally in control, but underneath we are stressed out most of the time. We can’t really ignore the adrenaline – to do so would stall out the engine, cloud our concentration, and lead to mistakes. “Slow” is the curse for a line cook. Idle time results in a loss of focus – a dangerous situation in the kitchen. Stress, at some level is an essential element – this is the edge of the knife, the seasoning of a sauté pan, and the blue flame from a char-grill. Stress is the spice that makes it all work.
Just like over-seasoning of a dish, or moving an item from perfect caramelization to burn – too much stress can turn the beauty of team symmetry and the confidence that comes from preparation-to chaos, loss of direction, and disaster. Total system collapse in a kitchen is always a few steps away from fine-tuned orchestration. Line cooks live on this precipice every day.
Those fleeting moments before the rush are filled with over-thinking, nervous energy, tingling fingers, throbbing back muscles, and multiple head games that push a cook to think about everything that could go wrong. Every serious cook lives by the rules of Murphy’s Law: if something can go wrong – it will.
The line cook looks to the right and left and gives a thumbs-up and fist bump to each team member. This is both a sign of readiness and a signal that the team is in this together. “I have your back – you have mine.”
The first orders start to trickle in at 5:15 – the early birds have arrived. Cooks like this short build up – it gives the line a chance to adjust, to build their rhythm. Much like a quarterback in a critical game – the expeditor can use this time to adjust a game plan and even audible on the line. Planning is critical, but so is the ability to problem solve and adjust.
A few steaks and chops, trout meuniere, pan seared duck breast, a few orders of diver scallops and a smattering of apps from the fry station: so far – so good. Cooks are loosening up – the cadence of work is accented by the staccato of clicking tongs, and the banter of “ordering” and “yes chef”. Everyone is on his or her toes – they know what is coming next. Each line cook checks and double checks his or her mise en place, touches each part of his or her station, re-folds side towels one last time, and wipes down their counter space.
It’s 6 p.m. now and things are about to change. The host peeks her head in the kitchen and says: “the dining room just filled –hang on, here it comes!” BAM! Just like that – the POS starts spitting out tickets faster than the expeditor can call them off. Now the team is energized, the slow build up allowed them to dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s”, so confidence is pretty high. That adrenaline will be put to good use now as pans start flying on and off the flat top, flames from the char-grill leap 4 inches high, and the smell of great cooking fills the air. Sweat is pouring off the foreheads of everyone on the line and soaking the rims of their skullcaps. There is a bounce in everyone’s step as they pivot from the range and grill to the service line. “Pick up on table 34!” The answer from all in unison is: “Yes chef”. “Order/fire on that deuce that just came in.” “Yes chef”. “Jake – how long on that medium well veal chop (ugh)?” “Probably 8-minutes chef”. “Sue, I need a re-fire on that trout meuniere – he wants it very well done!” “Yes chef”.
The line is peaking right now. The board is filled with tickets and the expeditor is waiting on a table of 10 that is already 15-minutes late. This really pisses off the chef – the guest is always right, but few understand how tight everything is and how a late reservation can throw everything off. The host just tapped the chef on his shoulder and said that the 10 top just arrive, but now its 14. Great – right in the middle of the rush. “Heads up! We have a 14 top coming in soon – let’s try and clear some of the board before then.”
By 7:30 most of the dining room is served and the 14 top entrees just went out. The chef sent out an amuse bouche to buy some time and the table ordered a pile of apps – everything is working out. The dining room will partially fill again by 8:30, so it’s time to replenish mise en place, clean up every station, kick back a few more espressos, have each cook splash some water in their face, and take a quick accounting of everything.
By 10 p.m. the last few orders are leaving the kitchen. Only two returns tonight for re-fires, and almost 200 served. It was a good night. Lots of high fives to go around, then the last charge of adrenaline to get through cleaning, station breakdown, labeling and dating, filling out prep lists for tomorrow, and chilling down sauces. The chef strains the veal stock that has been simmering since late morning, and immerses the 5-gallon pot in an ice bath. He pulls everyone together for a 10-minute review and recognition for a job well done.
The cooks leave by 11:15 and head for the local bar for an after shift drink or two as the chef inspects the kitchen, shuts down the hood fan, and turns off the lights. The kitchen will go to sleep now – at least for a few hours. The baker arrives at 4 a.m. and prep cooks by around 7. Then it starts all over again. It takes cooks a few hours to bring themselves down from the adrenaline rush – a feeling that they both look forward to and dread at the same time.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC