The sun creeps over the horizon, morning fog begins to burn off and the late summer dew is visible on grass and trees. It’s too early for normal traffic on the roads and the sidewalks are clear of people aside from an occasional dedicated runner. Yet, within this calm there are lights on in kitchens across the country and the smell of sourdough breads, breakfast pastries, and bacon waft through the air, even making those dedicated runners slow down and take it in. Breakfast cooks, bakers, and pastry chefs have been at work for the past few hours getting ready for the day ahead.
Bakers need space and time – something that is hard to find once the rest of the crew arrives and early morning guests expect those pastries, bacon, sausage, home fries and pancakes as close to 6am as possible. The kitchen only calmed a few hours ago from a busy evening service. A time when a full battery of cooks, servers, bartenders, and dishwashers fought to keep pace with the crowds that began at 5:00 and only slowed after 10:00. It was 1am before the dishwashers finally turned out the lights and locked the kitchen door behind them. It was a good night with two full turns of the dining room. Even at this hour the kitchen carried the deep aroma of caramelized onions and garlic, the rich smell of prime steaks that a short time ago filled the char-grill, and coffee that is brewing twenty hours a day. The kitchen was at rest for just a few hours – time to re-charge its batteries, breathe deep and prepare for yet another day of relentless punishment.
There is little conversation between bakers and breakfast cooks only dedication to the task at hand. Both realize their role, both are highly accomplished, both are organized and purposeful. Bread dough is kneaded and placed into floured bannetons; Danish is rolled, and shaped and croissant dough is folded, buttered, rolled, folded, buttered, and rolled again and again. When handled correctly this will produce countless layers of light, flaky, buttery pastry. Pans of bacon are retrieved from the oven while home fries are caramelizing on a griddle, fresh eggs are cracked and blended for scrambled and omelet orders, and those first pots of coffee are brewed. At 5:30am the service staff arrives. Quiet and bleary-eyed from never enough sleep, they go about the process of checking their stations, touching up carpets and tabletops, squeezing fresh orange juice and filling breakfast creamers. Everyone will be ready just in time – a process that breakfast guests are unaware of and likely don’t care – they expect that everyone does their job – whatever it might be.
Those first orders require smiles on each server’s face, and quick reflexes on the part of cooks. If guests could take the time to stand in the kitchen and watch the symmetry, the grace of a breakfast cook they would be amazed. What they don’t know remains a mystery to all except those who work in the kitchen. There is a silent rhythm, a syncopation and beauty to the way that the cook moves from pan to pan, plate to plate until an order is ready for the pass. Eggs over easy are flipped gracefully in pans so as not to break the yolk, omelets are folded perfectly and slide under a salamander broiler where they rise to the heat, pancakes are turned at the right moment to reveal a perfect golden brown and plates are assembled quickly and exactly as they slide into position on the shelf of the pass. Baskets of fresh pastries are assembled, still warm from the oven, cultured butter and fruit preserves are assembled for each table, and coffee is poured cheerfully at tableside the same moment that breakfast entrees arrive through the hands of a back wait. The rush is on.
This is just the beginning of a day where talented cooks and servers perform their craft. This is just another day of relentless work, sweltering heat, the intense pressure of time, and potential accidents waiting around every corner. This is the beginning of Labor Day weekend – special days in America that recognize the hardworking people of our country. A day when offices are closed, government buildings shut, and home BBQ’s flourish in every neighborhood and many families look forward to a time of family, fun, and reflection. Not so in the restaurants in towns and cities from California to New York. In these businesses we gear up for yet another busy few days. Labor Day is just another day for these folks. These are the exact people that we are celebrating on this weekend. Unfortunately, they don’t have the opportunity to celebrate their own contributions to American society. Their role is to be here and serve. This is what they signed up for, no need to feel sorry for them, but instead simply recognize and thank them.
Breakfast ends, the stacks of dishes are piled high as dishwashers try to keep pace with the speed of the morning shift, the line cook is busy cleaning the grill, washing and sanitizing, laying out bacon to be baked tomorrow, par cooking and dicing potatoes, slicing mise en place for the next morning’s omelets, and making pancake and waffle batter that will be perfect in another 22 hours. By the time the lunch crew arrives, the line will be ready for a different style of cooking – clean and organized as if nothing had occurred over the past three hours. Similar activity is taking place in the dining room as tablecloths are replaced and touched up, place settings aligned, glasses checked for water spots, chairs polished and carpets touched up, napkins are folded, and plants are misted. In another hour the lunch crowd will arrive.
Each meal period brings its own unique challenges and focus. As the restaurant moves from the simplicity and uniformity of breakfast to dinner where preparations are more complex and presentations more precise. The type of cook and his or her individual and teamwork evolves from breakfast to dinner. In all cases there is an intensity of purpose, the pressure of time, the exactness that consistency demands, and the passion for the plate of food presented to the guest. This is a business for both the craftsperson and the artist, for the organization of the military and the improvisation of a jazz musician, as well as the knowledge of a scientist and the traditions of a historian.
From the classic American diner to a Michelin starred fine dining restaurant, the hardworking cooks, servers, managers, and chefs deserve recognition and respect. This is a business that is important to the American way of life, it is a business that rewards others for the work that they do, and a business that is rarely understood. On this Labor Day weekend, if you want to pay respect to these hardworking individuals who have chosen a career of service and expression through food, then send a message of thanks for a great meal back to the kitchen, be respectful to your server – they have a very difficult job, write a positive note on Trip Advisor or Yelp, tip generously, understand that the restaurant business is a business of pennies and owners are typically not getting rich by charging what they do, and by all means – return often and bring a friend.
Happy Labor Day.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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