As a diner, you walk into a restaurant to have an experience. The hostess or waitress may show you to your table. You sit down and look around. Depending on the restaurant, there may be subtle music playing in the background, or you may just catch snippets of ongoing conversations happening between the other diners.
If they’re good at their job, the server will make you feel right at home. It may be accomplished with a pleasant smile and demeanor. They may give the outward impression of wanting you to have a great day and an even better meal. Their livelihood depends on it, after all.
That’s the front of the house. It exists as a space for the diners to have the best possible experience they can have when they are on vacation, celebrating a special occasion, or simply not wanting to cook on a particular evening and everything else in between that causes people to patronize a restaurant.
The back of the house is something entirely different.
There may be music playing there, too, the volume perhaps enhanced by putting a phone, or another electronic device, inside a six pan. The music could be anything, from gangster rap to an international artist being played by one of your Peruvian colleagues.
Cooks love and hate the sound of the printer. On a slow night, when you’re standing around, the sound of an order coming through is like finding an oasis in the middle of a barren desert. It is relief. It is something to do for the next 10 – 30 minutes. On a busy night, when there are hundreds of covers, it can be the impetus of a stream of obscenities, unfit for print, that flies out of a cook’s mouth without any thought as to the language being used.
Putting together a meal is like a symphony. It takes more skill and coordination than the average diner who hasn’t worked in the industry even thinks about. The skills and attributes required to be a mediocre chef, to say nothing of an exquisite one, are some of the same skills and attributes that can be found in many other high-profile positions. Attention to detail, time management, productivity, the ability to multitask, and the ability to meet deadlines are all traits that cooks must have in order to be decent at their craft.
Yet, it is unlike any other job.
The profession of a cook is demanding, fast-paced, and difficult. At times, it is chaotic and stressful. And it’s exhilarating.
As a cook, your schedule is typically opposite to a large segment of the population. If you are serving dinner, you may wake up at 10 or 11 a.m., make a meal, the only full meal you may have that day, before heading into work anywhere between 12 and 2 p.m. Once you set foot in the door, if you’re lucky, you may have one or two moments where you have a couple of minutes to sneak away and go catch a “breath of fresh air” or a cigarette before service starts. There’s a reason why most people who work in a kitchen smoke beyond the stress. It’s because it provides one of the few acceptable excuses to leave the kitchen, if only for a few minutes. Once service starts, if it’s busy, you can forget leaving the line. As a matter of fact, you can forget just about everything other than what’s on the tickets in front of you. Not much else matters.
On a busy night with hundreds of covers, the sound of the printer spitting out ticket after ticket seems never-ending. A night such as that begins with hours of prep by the entire crew. Backups are the name of the game. In anticipation of a huge night, having backups for your backups is imperative. Having them on the line, or as close to it as possible, is a close second. Any steps that can be taken to expedite orders going out the door, such as precooking French fries and leaving them in a large bowl under the heat lamps for future orders, are taken.
The element of time is paramount in any kitchen, and having good time management skills is crucial to having a night run smoothly. Seldom are there idle moments in a kitchen. If there isn’t something that needs to be prepped, there is usually always something that needs to be stocked or cleaned. Taking advantage of the time in between can make the difference between things running smoothly and getting out on time or complete chaos erupting.
You may be locked in on a busy night when tickets seem unending. Executing every detail of each ticket in time with the other stations working on other pieces of the order to create the beautiful symphony that results in a full order for a table and the ability to stab a ticket. The adrenaline is flowing, and your entire goal is to stab as many of those white pieces of paper as quickly as possible to reduce the sea of tickets staring you in the face.
When the rush, which may at times turn out to be the evening, is over, and you realize what you’ve accomplished, that’s when the exhilaration kicks in.
After a night like that, when you’re winding down your “evening,” which is probably morning for other people, and maybe sharing a drink with coworkers, you may have only one thought about the next day. What time am I in tomorrow?