As a cook or chef there are many days that go well and a few that challenge the best. There are times when a service kind of clicks and the night ends without any problems – these are nights that allow you to feel good about what you do and the level of skill that you have built. But then, on occasion, there are those nights when you and your teammates are in a special place, a place that is hard to describe unless you have been there – you are in the zone.
In the zone is defined as:
“In a mental state of focused concentration on the performance of an activity, in which one dissociates oneself from distracting or irrelevant aspects of one’s environment.”
But when this occurrence takes place with a team, the results can be magical. There is a level of non-verbal communication that defies explanation – communication that keeps everyone in sync, seemingly knowing what every person in the team is doing or is about to do so that work flowed with precision and grace. A look, a nod, a hand motion, or a single word can move everyone into motion, without hesitation. When this happens there is a rush of adrenaline that drives the team forward with speed and efficiency. It is beautiful to watch and energizing to experience.
If you are a seasoned veteran of the kitchen, you have likely experienced this a few times and know exactly what I am referring to, but for others – here is an attempt to re-create the “feel” of being in the kitchen zone:
Tom arrived a bit later than normal for his shift at Café Monique. He typically liked to be at work an hour or so before his shift began just to get into a rhythm. Today, he was just 15minutes early and this made him a bit nervous. The rest of the team was already settled in and hard at work. Tom quickly washed his hands, tied on an apron, adjusted his uniform and set-up his workstation. This team was always professional and ready to hit the ground running. As a result, his prep sheet was built the night before so within a few minutes he was charged up and cranking just like everyone else. The usual acknowledgements took place, a few fist bumps, and high-fives, but for the most part it was “strictly business”.
The reservation book was full for tonight – more than 200 recorded and no room for walk-ins. Tom and everyone else knew that more than half of those reservations would be crammed into the 7:00 hour; so, there would be no room for mistakes and no patience for a lack of adequate mise en place. The kitchen was active with the staccato sound of knives tapping on cutting boards, prepped items sizzling on super-hot pans, pots and pans clanging, and plates clinking together as they were stacked from the finish end of dishwashing.
Sabrina worked the sauté station. She was very adept at her craft having worked that station for more than 18 months and bringing experience from two other high-end restaurants before landing at Café Monique. She had to handle eight different menu items on those cherry red flat tops and high BTU burners and called out orders to each station on slower nights. Tonight, that additional duty would fall on the shoulders of Shawn who was next in line for the sous chef position (if Jake really did move on to a chef position up town). Shawn would call out orders and set up plates for the other line cooks. His role was critical because it helped to set the pace of work.
Cliff or “Duke” as everyone called him, manned the broiler. His role was steaks and chops, and man was he good at it. Unlike the other “youngsters” working the line – Duke had been doing this type of job for almost 20 years. He was the exception to the rule of “it’s a young man’s game”. He loved the broiler, had no desire to work elsewhere, thrived on pressure, and could tell degrees of doneness through some type of internal radar. He would look at a steak and know that it was rare, medium rare, or “God forbid” well done. There were burn marks up and down both arms and his hands were likely made of asbestos at this point. When he did burn himself, you could see a smile from ear to ear, he seemed to relish those impromptu tattoos.
Tom was the newest addition to the line. He was only 19 years old and as such just learning the ropes. His station focused on deep fried items and a few apps.
Tom was all eyes and ears knowing that every second in this kitchen was a teaching moment. If he wanted to move up to a more demanding station he would need to “discover” how each player worked, how they set-up their stations, the flavor profile of each dish, timing, and plate presentations. In a busy kitchen there was no room for asking questions or missing a step once the point-of-sale printer started talking the language that everyone understood.
Garde Manger and desserts was managed by the team of Julio and Martina – a brother/sister team from the Dominican Republic. They had earned their green card a few years back and were on their way to citizenship. It was this job at Café Monique that allowed them to stay in the States and transition to become Americans – soon. They were spectacular at their jobs. They worked fast, in unison, had great taste buds, and created exceptionally beautiful plates every time. They were happy to be here and never, ever came to work without a smile on their face.
Jake was the sous chef. This was his first position at that level. He had worked at a number of restaurants in town and at the age of 25 he knew he was ready for his own gig as chef. The chef of Café Monique had set him up with an interview at a small boutique hotel for the position of chef. Jake was a finalist and hoped to hear whether or not the job was his within the next few days. As excited as he was, right now his focus was on tonight’s 200 reservations. Chefs need to live in the moment once service time nears. There is no room for wandering thoughts of challenges and opportunities outside of the moment. He constantly touched base with each of his cooks – answering questions, tasting, commenting, and jumping in to help. When that first ticket arrived off the printer he would be on the other side of the chef’s table as the evening expeditor – the communicator between front and back of the house, the person to inspect each plate, the person to wipe the rims and dress the plate with a cluster of herbs or a dash of infused oil. Nothing left the kitchen without his final approval.
Everyone worked fast and efficiently as items on their prep lists were checked off and their stations began to come together. Service time was only an hour away now, so the pace and intensity picked up even more. Everyone seemed overly serious, except for Duke. He had a perpetual smile, laughed to himself quite often, and seemed totally in control of a station that he had set-up thousands of times.
It was expected that 30 minutes before service all of the stations would be basically set. Jake would touch base with each line cook, go through a final tasting, help cooks make last minute adjustments, and then take a few minutes on pre-meal review with the service staff in the dining room. It was critical that servers understood flavors, ingredients, features, and what might marry well as appetizers, desserts, and wine with each entree. The more they knew, the better they would be as salespeople and the more balanced the experience for the guest.
As the clock moved closer to the 5:30 opening mark all line cooks were ready. Their mise en place was tight, side towels folded just so, water bottles for hydration filled, and nerves on edge. Bouncing from foot to foot, doing a few deep knee bends, clicking their tongs, and downing last-minute espresso for a final energy buzz – they waited to hear the printer start to talk.
The doors opened at 5:30 and ten minutes later the first orders started to click off the POS. Here we go!
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
CAFÉ Talks Podcast
IN THE ZONE – PART II COMING SOON
Luis Rodriguez said:
Chef, just to let you know, people from Puerto Rico are US Citizens by birth, we do not require a green card to be in the US .
Luis – A dumb slip on my part. Of course I knew this -I must have been asleep while writing. So very sorry it has been corrected.