It’s 5:30am when the alarm clock screams “it’s time!” My bare feet hit the cold floor while the muscles in my legs resist with a creeping cramp that brings me quickly to my knees.  “Crap!!”, I shout while frantically rubbing my calf trying to work out that Charlie horse pain.  I can feel the knot in that muscle move slowly from the top of my ankle to the back of my knee.  Finally, the leg tension starts to subside, and I’m able to stand and limp my way to the apartment kitchen.  I heat a cup of stale coffee from the night before and set the brewer up for another pot. This is going to be a three or four cup morning just to get my body ready to start another day.

I turn on the news as background noise (there’s never any good news) and I faintly catch the key points about another mass shooting, climate anomalies, political battles, the lingering pandemic, and the rising price of goods.  It has all become too commonplace and as such has little meaning.  My focus will soon be on whether staff members show up as scheduled, will deliveries be on time and what will they short me today, how many reservations on the book, and moving through the day – one plate at a time.  I spend 15 minutes on the stationary bike still trying to work out that leg cramp, rush through50 sit-ups, take shower and shave, and down two more cups of coffee.  I’ll catch some breakfast when I arrive at work. 

By 7am I am walking through the back door of the kitchen.  Sunrise is still 15 minutes away and I realize that unless I step outside at some point, I won’t see sunshine again today, or for that matter, until sometime in March.  Of all the things about winter- the cold, snow, freezing rain, slippery roads, and heavy coats – it is the lack of sunshine that bothers me the most. As usual, the early team has been at work for a couple hours and I am greeted by the smell of pastries fresh from the oven, bacon, mirepoix caramelizing for a veal stock, and fresh coffee.  The sous chef, Carl, smiles when I walk to my office: “Mornin chef -another dreary day in the neighborhood.”  I nod and give him a thumbs up.  Before I can turn on the computer, Emmett has my usual breakfast in front of me: eggs over easy, bacon, home fries, and a side of salsa.  “Here you go chef, coffees on the way.”  I pull on my chef coat and say: “Thanks Emmett”.

I quickly scan my computer for any urgent emails and pull the clip board with all the BEO’s off the wall.  Two emails catch my attention: an emergency manager’s meeting at 9am and one note from my most experienced evening line cook: “Sick today, chef.  Can’t make it in.” I polish off breakfast in record time, kick back another coffee, tie on an apron, and walk through the kitchen with clipboard in hand.  There are a few coffee hours, a lunch for 40, and a rehearsal dinner tonight for 25.  A light day in terms of events, but the restaurant is capped on reservations.  We will likely top 200 for dinner.  The hotel restaurant doesn’t serve lunch (except for special events) which gives us a chance to catch our breath. Emmett is flying through breakfast orders (he always amazes me), pauses to give me a thumbs up and turns back to the flat top filled with egg pans, a handful of flapjacks on the griddle, and home fries ready to turn.  I set down my clipboard and jump in to give him a hand garnishing and assembling plates.  I don’t dare try to move his egg pans or disrupt his system.  Ten minutes of sliding plates down the pass and he is back to a comfortable pace.  I give him a high five and move on to the bakeshop. 

This is a busy hotel kitchen and because of our size we can afford the luxury of our own full-time bakery department.  Jeanette is our pastry chef and is supported by Jack the bread baker and a part time assistant (an intern from a regional culinary school).  Jack is the early guy and Jeanette typically arrives around noon and stays through dinner service. 

“Morning, Jack.” “Morning, chef.” 

We review the bakery components on the special menus for the day and typical inventory of baked goods for restaurant service.  As usual, he was on top of everything.  While we talked, he peeled a dozen loaves of sourdough bread from the oven hearth.  The smell never gets old. Finally, I checked in with Dean, our early prep cook, as he finishes checking in the morning produce order. 

“Any shorts on the produce order, Dean?”  He finished signing the invoice and said: “Everything’s good today chef, except for the raspberries.  They looked like crap, so I sent them back.  We have enough to get through today.”

He returned to building his veal stock that will simmer for the next six hours and then reviewed his prep list for the day.  Dean is also the guy to take care of any early breakfast or lunch special events, so he was all over the lunch scheduled for 40. 

He gave me a taste: “Lobster salad, chef.  A nice lunch with warm potato and leek soup, lobster salad, and a strawberry Bavarian from the bakeshop.  I’m all set.”

Next, I check in with Julio, our dependable dishwasher.  I bring him a cup of coffee (part of my routine) – one creamer, two sugars.  “How’s it shaking, Julio.” He smiles and says:

“Another day in paradise, chef.  Thanks for the coffee.”

Julio has worked for me for three years. He is always on time, never complains, keeps the dish area organized and clean, and takes care of the dish machine like it was part of his family.  He is quite simply – awesome.

“Let me know if you need anything, Julio.”

“Will do, chef.”

This is my morning routine.  I swear by it and never waver from taking the time to touch base with everyone.  Each person is essential, and I want them to know that I feel that way. Today, like most days, I think to myself, “such a great team.”  It’s hard to understand why it is so hard to attract new staff.  We pay well, and the team environment here is top shelf.  It’s a different world today, hopefully things will change soon.

It’s just a few minutes before 9am as I break away for the meeting.  Turns out, it was nothing too serious, a few complaints from an event last week that I will need to deal with and early information about an important conference on the books for next month.  A group has booked the entire hotel for three days including all meals, coffee hours, and a reception with live entertainment.  It will be all consuming, I’ll need to get to menu planning today.

When I return to the kitchen I jump on the phone and start calling for a line cook replacement for tonight.  I have three cooks off today, so hopefully I can pull one of them in, otherwise it will fall on my shoulders.  In the old days people worked even if they were sick.  That’s no longer acceptable, especially during a pandemic.  Unfortunately, it will mean overtime for someone, but such is life.

The luncheon goes off without a hitch, breakfast ended up topping 120, Emmett was cleaned up and prepped for tomorrow before noon, and as the clock hit 1pm, the dinner team began to arrive. The complexity of the menu is such that most of the prep is handled by individual line cooks. Dean, the prep cook, takes care of the heavy lifting: stocks, soups, bulk sauces, meat and fish fabrication, and salad dressings, but the detail work falls on station cooks.  They will be working at breakneck speed from the minute they walk in until 5pm when we have pre-meal check-in.  The sous chef will check everyone’s mise en place, taste everything, and then review features with the dining room staff.  I managed to find one of the cooks on her day off and she agreed to come in and cover the open station – that’s relief.

The evening sous chef took the lead in the kitchen while I returned to the office to build menus for the three-day conference next month, process invoices, and put in more work on next year’s budget.  I stopped to join the sous chef during pre-meal and then stuck around until 7pm to make sure they made it through rush hour and help plate the rehearsal dinner.  I took off my chef coat, hung up my apron, made a list for tomorrow, and enjoyed a plate of pasta and glass of wine.  At 7:30 I checked out heading home until tomorrow.  Check off another day – tomorrow will be busier but the team will take it in stride.  It’s dark outside, just as it was when I arrived this morning.  Ah, the joy of life in a winter kitchen, bright and filled with action inside while outside it is cold, snowy, and dark.  I love what I do, but as I walk-through ankle-deep snow, I find myself humming an old Beach Boys song and wondering how many more days until summer.

Stay tuned for the next article – FULL HOUSE -ALL HANDS-ON DECK

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting

www.harvestamericacues.com  BLOG

(Over 800 articles about the business and people of food)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast

https://cafemeetingplace.com/cafe-podcasts

More than 50 interviews with the most influential people in food