Staring at the POS printer, waiting for those orders to start their tap dance building to a crescendo in an hour or so, clicking a pair of tongs by your side, shifting weight from one foot to the other, and beads of sweat beginning to roll down your back and collect under that scull cap that fits just a bit too tight – is this one of those moments when you begin to wonder what in the world you are doing?
Physical work is stressful and gratifying at the same time. Sweat and aching muscles is uncomfortable, yet somehow a sign of work worth doing. Building beautiful, flavorful, aroma filled, satisfying dishes for people every night is a result of this hard work, this sweat, and these aching muscles. These tangible works are also a result of an intelligent approach to a process, constant reference to flavor memory, and a level of mental and physical organization that is parallel to that of an architect, a pilot, or a surgeon – this is work that is far more complex that many give it credit for. There is also the emotional part – putting it all out there for others to critique leaving the cook wondering: “what did they think?” We sweat not just due to the heat, not simply because we are physically all in, but also because cooking is draining intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. Being a cook is complicated.
You know that those orders are coming – in just a few minutes that printer will push out that relentless sound of more orders than you think you can handle. This is the most stressful time – let’s get on with it! You remember a couple quotes that stick in your brain:
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”
Ok, you can understand that for sure. You think that you have some talent as a cook, but you KNOW that you put in the effort and then some. You wonder: “Is there a difference between talent and hard work when you come down to it?” How many successful people do you know who work hard without talent? Maybe their talent is knowing what they don’t know and finding ways to get things done anyway. Anyway – soon enough those orders will fill that space in your brain that is wandering right now. Then there was that other quote:
“It’s not so much whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”
Right….try telling that to the chef or the owner. You are part of a line team – there is no room for failure. If you fail, so will the rest of the team. One mistake can lead to chaos on a busy night. This is not the place or the time to learn from your mistakes – NO MISTAKES, NO MISTAKES! “Damn – let’s get these orders in before I start to over-think everything.”
Maybe, just maybe, this sweat and these aching muscles, maybe the nervous energy that is obvious from my dance of anticipation, maybe all of this is fuel for the job ahead. Stay calm, stay calm. I sure hope that my mise en place is tight enough. Did I mince enough shallots, clarify enough butter, flatten enough chicken breasts, and peel enough shrimp? Let me check those scallops again – did I clean them properly? Where are my backups on vegetables, extra bottles of white wine for deglazing? What is the temp on those sauces in the bain-marie? Let me draw my knives over that wet stone one more time – can’t afford a dull knife. You look to the expeditor and tell him to grab you a few more side towels – can never have too many.
The sweat is starting to pool up on your back, feet are hurting from inactivity, and hands are cramping up from nerves. Come on with the orders already! You stack and restack plates, move your pan handles a few degrees to the right, and fold and refold those side towels. You drop your tongs – CRAP! Run over to the pot sink and wash them quick. Grab another pair as a back-up.
You grab another energy drink and kick it back like it was that after shift first beer. You look to your right and look to your left. Acknowledge the rest of the team and share a few fist bumps. It is coming – you can feel it. Then, the sound you were all waiting for – the printer spits out that first early-bird deuce. Both items for the grill – nothing for you – damn. A few seconds later – a four top – all yours. Here we go. You grab four pans and slide them onto burners – make sure the pans are hot first. Two orders of Diver Scallops, a Chicken Piccata, and Tournedoes Rossini mid-rare. An ounce of clarified butter for the chicken (dredge it in flour and give it some great caramelization – keep the pan moving), a touch in the pans for the scallops (sear them on one side and pull away from the heat for finishing later), and a little more heat in the pan for the tournedoes (this item will be done last minute). The expeditor had called the table as an order fire (no appetizers – ready to rock) – but you know that it is best to wait to finish until the server is standing on the other side of the pass. Two minutes is all it will take to finish this four top.
Pull the caramelized chicken breast and put it aside, add sliced mushrooms to the pan and a touch more butter. Caramelize the shrooms and deglaze with white wine, and fresh lemon. Sweat is pouring freely down your back now. Two more orders just came in – a few items from your station that can wait until this four top is gone. The server appears and the expeditor calls out – pick up on that four top. “Yes chef”! Chicken back in the pan – the flour from the dredged chicken blends with the white wine and lemon and the sauce comes together. A few capers and chopped parsley and this dish is ready to go. The scallops return to a fresh hot pan to finish the sear, hit the pan with a touch of wine, salt and pepper and done. While you and the middleman plate up the first three dishes – the tournedoes hit the very hot pan for a sear along with two slices of foie gras. Flip all items quickly – cooking only takes a minute. Deglaze the beef with Madeira and demi-glace and assemble the dish on toast medallions – top with some truffle shavings and off it goes to the pass. Four top complete. Move on to the next order.
You wipe your brow, take a drink of water and start with fresh pans. The orders keep coming. Now the expeditor is in control of your world. He tells you what to start, what to finish, and what to plate. Every few moments you ask for an “all day” (a review of what should be working on your station), and back to it. No time to chat with others – an occasional look or nod is enough of a signal. Plates are flying now – you turn to plate up an item and the dish is there ready with accompaniments. Only one re-fire so far (you hate that, but try to push it out of your mind).
For the next three hours – this is the frantic pace of the line. Those 180 minutes go by in a flash. You stay on top of your station cleanliness and are relieved to see that your mise en place is holding up. A few little finger burns from hot pan-handles, nothing you can’t work through, and one dropped item to replace – not bad. You haven’t screwed up any orders or messed up your teammates thus far. You are now working like a well-oiled machine. Your brain works through processes, your palate is fine tuned, and there is real economy of motion in the steps that you take.
When 9 p.m. rolls around – the board is almost clear. Just a couple deuces to finish up and that inevitable table that arrives 15 minutes before closing, but you breathe out knowing that you made it through another night.
By 10:30, it’s all over. You breakdown your station, scrub your area, chill sauces, label and date items, make out your prep list for tomorrow and a friendly note to the morning prep cook. The sous chef points his finger and gives you a “thumbs up”. The mental and emotional stress is over – the physical pains will take a few hours to come to the surface, but you know they are there. Hey, it’s good pain – an honest days work. The heat, sweat, and hard effort feel OK. This is what you do, and this is how it is suppose to feel.
Tomorrow is another day.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
WORK HARD, SWEAT A LOT, AND SMILE WHEN IT IS OVER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC