It’s the fire in the belly waiting to take charge, the anxiety being held in check, cold sweat running down your back even though it’s 120 degrees where you stand, and the nervous chatter of tongs clicking to the beat of a cook’s rhythm. It’s been building up for hours now, ever since each cook arrived around 1:00 to start pulling together their mise en place. Blanching and shocking vegetables, clarifying butter, mincing fresh herbs and shallots, pealing, and deveining shrimp, pounding out chicken breasts for various saute dishes, portioning and oiling tenderloin filets, boning fresh fish, folding side towels, and stacking pans, double-checking prep lists, and tasting, tasting, tasting. “What else do I need, what am I missing.”
Time check – 5:15, the chef just walked through, tasted sauces, and reviewed mise. Everything looks good. The dining room opens in 15 minutes and the adrenaline is starting to churn. Line cooks had been busy prodding and busting on each other, laughing, and pushing each other to break the tension. Now everything is quiet except for the clicking of tongs. Music had been part of the kitchen atmosphere all through prep, but now it was silent waiting for the ticking of the POS printer. The air was thick with anticipation. Cooks kept wiping down their stations, running the edge of their knives down a steel, and re-folding side towel. The pass was empty for the moment, but soon that would change. The sous chef is set at the expeditor station, ready with fresh herb garnishes, gaufrette potatoes, fried leeks, and delicate finishing sauces. The service staff members are gathered by the coffee station downing last minutes shots of espresso and the dish crew is calm and waiting for that first wave of plates and flatware at the turn of tables. Someone laughs to break the silence; it is a nervous laugh that points to the absurdity of the moment. Soon the silence will be filled with a cacophony of sound: banging pots and pans, the clink of fine china plates, the staccato of French knives hitting cutting boards, the roar of flames as they lap around steaks on the open char grill and the barking of the expeditor: “ordering, fire, picking up, all day”, and the expected response from each station line cook: “yes, chef”, or “heard”.
At 5:30 the dining room doors open, and early bird diners begin to arrive. Cooks are now bouncing from foot-to-foot waiting for the chime of the printer as orders in the dining room are being taken by servers who put on a show face that projects calm. Underneath it all, “calm” is hardly a good descriptor. Ready, yes, calm, not really. Then the printer begins to talk to cooks as the first orders arrive. Usually deuces at this time of the night. Seniors tend to arrive right when the restaurant opens. In and out before the crowds, this is what they like. This first 45 minutes or so is a good way to shake off the nerves and start to get into a rhythm. If mistakes are made in the kitchen, this is typically a time when they occur. It’s like a football team on the first possession. Everyone knows what to do, but sometimes it just doesn’t click right away.
Slowly, the team pulls together, and the night begins to flow. The orders are coming in at a steady pace now, moving quickly up to the witching hour: 7:00. This is peak time – the rush. The dining room is full now and there are a dozen parties waiting for tables to free up. The board is filled with orders for deuces, four-tops, and an occasional large table of six or eight. Everything seems to blur together, but in the midst of it you get that boost of adrenaline. This is what you were waiting for, this is the fuel that keeps the cook’s internal fire going. To many cooks, it is the rush of adrenaline that calls them back every day. It’s funny, but at the peak of craziness, when there are way too many things to keep straight in your head, the whole scene starts to slow down for the cook. You’ve got this! It’s like an NFL quarterback who at the height of his game can see plays develop in slow motion and make decisions based on his ability to measure the field. “Ordering: three filets mid-rare, two chops medium, four shrimp, two piccata, and snapper – remove the head.” “Yes, chef!” Order fire – four pasta, two rib – rare, and a strip – medium.” “Yes, chef.” Pick-up on table 25.” The response: “25, chef”. Everything seems well-orchestrated; it flows like a well-oiled machine.
If things start to blur, if a cook begins to drift away from the moment, he or she only needs to look at the expeditor and call out: “Can I get an all-day?” The expo responds with eye contact that beams: calm down – you’ve got this. He lists all the items on that station and waits for the cook’s focused response. “Yes, chef.” Focus is back and everyone moves on. The orders are relentless from 7:00 till 9:00, this is when 75% of all the business comes and goes. The witching hours are also the money hours for a restaurant. Adrenaline in the back and front of the house is flowing freely and everyone works at their peak knowing that they are walking on the edge of the cliff. If they can stay focused and control the adrenaline then they will be triumphant, but just as easily things could fall off the edge and crash. “Living on the Edge” was probably written for line cooks.
By 9:00 everything has slowed down. Reminiscent of that early bird hour, cooks are comfortable, smiling and even laughing at those minor mistakes that no one noticed except them. Time to start cleaning and breaking down. Time to roll up the floor mats, sweep up the remains of crumbs on the floor, wash stove tops and stainless tables; time to jump in and give the dishwasher a hand, and time to start the prep list for tomorrow. Those last few orders trickle in and cooks need to concentrate so that mistakes are not made. That adrenaline is still rushing through their system as if the dining room were still full and orders were flying in with reckless abandon. But they are not. As the kitchen starts to come to a rest, cooks are still bouncing from the rush. Time to change, punch out, and hit the local watering hole for a cocktail or two while the adrenaline begins to dissipate. Time to put that anxiety and energy to rest. Tomorrow is another day.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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*PHOTO by: Chef Eamon Lee