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They say we’re back. The kitchen lights are back on, deliveries arrive, the battery of ranges is fired up, and cooks (some of us) are welcomed back. Somehow, it just doesn’t feel right. After four months of idle time – time without a schedule, time without a chance to do what cooks normally do – this kitchen just seems vacant.

Walking through the back door there is an uncomfortable feeling of emptiness, of fear and trepidation, and of caution that feels so foreign to anyone who remembers the instant connections that existed in the past. Remembering the mixture of feelings that once were prevalent as a cook stepped through the “staff only” door – you know: that nervous feeling that stemmed from the uncertainty of a new day, minds racing as cooks mentally flip through mise en place lists, wondering about projected customer counts, and that usual knot in the stomach that comes from typical angst before the adrenaline kicks in.

Yep, the kitchen lights are on, and the exhaust fan is whirling, a few other cooks are engaged in prep at their station, but the place is just lacking the charge of electricity that would always greet everyone who walked in with knife kit in hand. It is an uneasy feeling that was pronounced as those cooks who were already at work – looked cautiously at their teammate, nodded, and turned their heads back to the work in front of them. There was no banter, no smiles, no syncopation of knives hitting their fast-paced rhythm, and no active clanging of pots and pans, shouts of “behind”, or clatter of plates being stacked as they conveyed from the dish machine. This is not the kitchen that any cook would recognize and embrace.

There is a different uncertainty that hung in the air; it is thick as fog, and heavy on the soul. This is the uncertainty that only a silent threat can unveil. Sure, there are temperature checks at the back door, masks donned upon arrival, and deep hand cleaning constantly throughout the day, but in reality no one knows if this is enough. Is anyone asymptomatic, have they been exposed in the past few days to someone who is, will the virus hitchhike on some of those boxes coming off the vendors delivery truck, or is someone secretly experiencing slight symptoms without a fever?

A cook adjusts her mask, ties on a clean apron, snaps on a pair of latex gloves, sanitizes a stainless table that is strangely distant from any other worker, dampens a side towel and places a cutting board on top to keep it from slipping, pulls her knives across a wet stone to waken the edge, washes the sharp blades with a bleach solution, takes a deep breath behind a constricting mask, and makes a quick list of work to be done.

Grabbing a 4-inch hotel pan – she walks to the produce cooler to collect items for prep. Noticing that another cook is already inside – she waits until the cooler is free. There will be no more sliding between carts, shelves, and other cooks – one at a time is the rule. The pace is already different, there seems to be little sense of urgency, no panic based on work to be done – the panic is all related to fear of infection.

Sure, the restaurant has been offering take-out options for the past six weeks, but it’s not the same experience for the cook. Meticulous plate presentations do not apply, the basic rules of thumb: “hot food hot, cold food cold” are a stretch when a guests meal is placed in disposable containers for re-heating at home, and the showmanship of service is relegated to passing a bag of food through a car window. Now we are back to in-house dining, yet it is still far from ideal.

Takeout numbers have been ok, but can be handled by two people in the kitchen – in-house is a different story with a skeleton, yet more robust line crew: one person in the back for take-out assembly and two on the line plus an expeditor and a limited dish crew. Reservations are sparse since the restaurant is limited to 50% occupancy, tables 6 feet apart, and wider common isles for people movement. The service staff is even more on edge than the cooks. Who knows where these guests have been, whether or not they are symptomatic or asymptomatic, have they recently been exposed to someone who is positive and they have not shown any sign of impact yet? Was that someone coughing, or was it a sneeze?

The guests are arriving, paced by reservations only, and they walk through the front door with loads of trepidation. They won’t be greeted with a smile today, at least not one that they can see from behind a mask. They are pointed to their table and reminded to wear their mask until fully seated, told that the menu is on line (no more physical menus here), and that the server will take their order shortly. The table is free of any un-necessary frills: no more table cloths (for ease of cleaning table tops), no salt and pepper shakers, flowers are gone, silverware is wrapped in a napkin, and glassware will be brought to the table as needed. The guests sit down, uneasily and look from side to side to make sure that no other guest is within the six-foot margin.

The server approaches the table to determine if guests need any assistance with finding the menu on-line, he explains that there are no specials tonight and that the menu is limited during the pandemic. Drink orders are taken and in short order the server returns with two glasses of Pinot Noir. The guests say thank you and as the server leaves – both guests eye each other, thinking: “How do we know that these glasses were handled correctly?” When the server returns the order is taken (guests opt out of appetizers thinking that the less time spent here, the better) – two orders of salmon – and the order is shot back to the waiting line cooks in the kitchen.

me at dinner

Ah…at least the cooks are able to do what they do best – prepare delicious, beautiful food. Somehow the cooks are nervous – it has been a while, and they suddenly realize that how they handle this is not only part of the restaurant experience – it can determine whether or not the guest becomes seriously ill. This is a new level of stress that cooks have never experienced before. The steps in cooking are the same: heat the pan, small amount of clarified butter, sear the fish both sides, baste with pan butter, a splash of wine, lightly salt, push to the side. Reheat the blanched vegetables in a separate pan, season, and dust with chopped parsley. “Pick up table 23!” shouts the expeditor – just like old times. Two hot plates are pulled from the pass, salmon is slid into a 500-degree oven for a 2-minute finish, and the plating begins. The cooks walk through the mental assembly – lemon beurre blanc on the plate, creamy polenta in the shape of a quenelle. The salmon is pulled from the oven and transferred to the polenta – slightly mounted on the side and vegetables are neatly arranged – tucked into the gap that the salmon provides in its nested position. A light salad of fresh mixed herbs on top, a grind of coarse pepper and both salmon are returned to the pass. The cooks are happy with this first effort as the server works a crisp white napkin in his hands and proudly carries the entrees to the table. As the server approaches – the guest nervously fumble to put their masks back on- nod when the dinner plates are presented and wait for a moment for the server to leave their safe zone.

The fish is delicious, but all that the guests can think about is how quickly they can finish and leave this anxiety drenched environment. As the server walks by, the guests ask for the check even though they are only half way through their entrees. As the server prints off the check from the POS, he thinks – this is not a dining experience, this is not something to look forward to, it is something to dread.

The board in the kitchen is never full as it once was, three or four tickets at a time so the pace is laid back and that adrenaline rush that every line cook looks forward to, never arrives. Cooks are clicking their tongs in anticipation, bouncing from foot to foot, constantly wiping down their stations, and hydrating for the sake of something to do. This is not the way that cooks want to be, this is starting to feel like a job.

Out front – the guests hand a credit card to the server as he clears their plates. There is no exchange of small talk, no gushing over the flavors or presentation, just a simple “thank you”. The credit card is returned, the check signed, a 15% gratuity added, and the guest places the card in his pocket, noting: “I have to remember to sanitize the card as soon as I get home”.   As the guests walk out the door the service sanitizing crew gets to work. A frantic process of wiping table top and chairs with sanitizing solution as the faint smell of bleach hangs in the air providing a glimmer of hope to the next guest scheduled to arrive in 15-minutes.

Until there is a clear solution, until there is a vaccine and a protocol for administering that vaccine, until there is a way to assure that everyone – employees and guests are immune – this is what the life of a restaurant employee and guest will be like. It is a far cry from where it was and where it will be, but it is a start. The cook will eventually become accustomed to the new normal, as will the server and the guest. When this happens there will be a glimmer of trust and a taste of the experience to come – some day soon.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Have faith – things will get better

Wear a mask to protect yourself and others – It’s not that hard

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