Take a deep breath as you walk through those back doors, back into the kitchen that was so familiar, back to a place that you have missed for the past three months. Somehow you are nervous – why is that? You’re not as nervous about the virus as you are being able to hit the ground running. This is a job that has always required you to be on your game, to be able to zig and zag, solve those little problems that crop up every day, finding your pace, organize your station, and respond with syncopation and confidence when those orders start to roll off the printer. How will you be able to perform – that is the question that is churning in your stomach, that brings beads of sweat to your forehead, and that clouds your vision as you make that first step into the kitchen.
Things are certainly different as you pull on your N-95 mask, nod to your teammates while trying to keep a safe distance, scrub your hands for the first of 25 times today, sanitize your work area and your tool kit, grab your station prep list and start to work. The chef has some background music playing from his iPhone as a way to lighten the tension, and although the conversation is less engaged as it once was, people begin to throw around some of the typical banter. “Hey, I hope your knife skills didn’t get any more pathetic than they use to be”, “ I hope the chef stocked up on extra band aids now that you are back in the kitchen”, and a few other slights that are a bit more graphic. Somehow, the banter makes you feel relaxed, relieves that knot in your stomach, and brings hope to quell those fears that you have about your ability to adapt.
Soon the cadence of work lightens the mood and that muscle memory kicks in as you charge through vegetable prep and begin to trim tenders and strip loins, cut steaks, peel and devein shrimp, clean Divers scallops, flatten chicken breasts, and fillet various types of fish for your station.
You nick one of your fingers with a boning knife and it bleeds like a bastard. Trying not to let others see your sloppy mistake you wrap it in a side towel and make a stealth move towards the rest room. You wash and dry the cut (damn, it’s on the tip of my index finger where it is impossible to stop the bleeding) wrap it tightly with three band-aids and double up your gloves hoping that the blood won’t give away your misguided knife handling. Back to work – the only thing hurt is your ego.
“Hey Jake – you cuttin steaks or fingers the rest of the day?” Damn – busted. Of course, now you will be the butt of everyone’s jokes for the next couple hours. The chef walks past you and just smiles. Well, at least you broke the ice.
Everyone is trying hard to bring back some semblance of “normal”, but the air is heavy, as each cook knows that nothing is normal anymore. The chef had sent everyone a list of new protocols before they arrived, so routines of old were out the window.
You notice a delivery truck arrive with supplies – even this is part of the change that the virus has brought to the restaurant. The driver is no longer allowed to simply wheel in supplies and unload them in coolers, freezers, and dry goods storage. Items are received at the back entrance where boxes will be opened, cardboard immediately discarded to outside recycling bins, and each item is wiped with bleach cloths before transferred to storage. This is an all hands on deck process that eats away at time that would have normally been spent on prep. No one is happy about this added process, yet everyone feels that sense of responsibility for everyone’s safety and wellbeing.
Back to prep, that is after scrubbing hands again, re-sanitizing your work station, adjusting your mask that has begun to cause a rash on your face, and turning in your apron for one that is fresh and sanitary. Now that sense of urgency returns, the knowledge that there is more work to complete than there is time – you dive into the details for your station. Time to clarify butter, blanch and shock vegetables, reduce stocks for sauce work, mince herbs, refill bottles of wine and olive oil, prepare garnishes, season your pans, fire up the grill and salamander, and fold your side towels as you always had in the past. Thirty minutes more and that POS printer will begin to talk once again.
Now things begin to seem right. Comfort and confidence overtake angst and doubt as every cook instinctively falls back into his and her pace. This is what they are trained to do, this is their calling, this is that point in time when their skills point the way and cooking becomes part of their reflex. Cooks mark steaks and chops at their chargrill and fall back into a comfort zone of knowing degrees of doneness. Sauté quickly remembers how to multi-task: hot pan, clarified butter, scored skin on the fish fillet hits that screaming hot pan, keep the pan in motion so it doesn’t stick, sear to a golden brown, baste the fish, hit it with a touch of salt and deglaze the pan with white wine – push the pan aside until pick up. Another hot pan – no two, two orders of tournedos on the fly. A quick sear of salted meat – both sides. Deglaze with a touch of Madeira and a splash of demi. A spin of fresh cracked pepper and then remove the meat. Finish reducing the pan sauce, add some chopped parsley and return the meat to coat. Plates up – toast medallions, fillets, sear two cut pieces of foie gras in a dry hot pan (it only takes a few seconds) sear both sides and top off the fillets – mask with sauce madeira and a few shavings of black truffle – four pieces of perfect asparagus and two baby carrots tossed in butter – slide the plates into the pass. “Give me an all day”: the expeditor calls out: one more tournedos – rare, three shrimp, two Dourade fillets, four chicken picatta, and one vegetable tart – all have apps coming up first – fire the first Dourade right now!
The pace continues to quicken and everything seems to slide into that slow motion groove of a cook in control. All he hears is the commands from the expeditor and the ticking cadences of the printer. Everything is under control as his mental state is total focus on the work. This cook is there, he is back, he feels the adrenaline coursing through his veins, and sees things clear again. This is what he missed over the past three months. All his uncertainty is put aside – he is back.
At some point the board is almost clear – he looks to Janis to his left on apps and Greg on the broiler. They both have smiles on their faces. They too overcame their fear and rose to the occasion. No one struck out or lost his or her poise – the night was winding down and the day was won. The expeditor gives them a thumbs-up and the chef simply nods. Good cooks don’t forget, it’s like riding a bike – it only took one push to adjust to the new normal and get their confidence back. A few high fives and then it’s back to cleaning and making notes for what tomorrow will bring.
This time of uncertainty has left everyone shaken. Cooks and chefs in particular rely on protocols and systems and uncertainty never sits well with them. The time will come when restaurants will be back and cooks find their groove once again. The swagger of line cooks will return and the gratification of plating that perfect dish will bring a smile to their faces. It will happen soon enough – be patient.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
We are in this together