When the average diner goes out to eat in a restaurant of a certain caliber, the main emphasis is on the experience. It is about expectations based on the décor, reviews, and whether one is paying or is being taken on a date. On a good day, the front of the house, as it is called, is a well-orchestrated show, in which the guest is made to feel taken care of. If the food is good, all the better. The back of the house, on the other hand, is often a hot, crowded, chaotic environment.
Much has been written in the last decade on the culture of professional kitchens: Bill Buford’s Heat and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential are among my favorite exposés. My enjoyment of reading these works stems from my being an insider to the professional cooking world. I have always loved fresh, local food, and I began working in food service before I was in my teens. By the time I graduated high school, I’d cooked at three Fairfield restaurants. However, my primary kitchen experience stems from two years at the Black Cat in Boulder, Colorado, owned by Chef Eric Skokan.
Eric, who raises his own vegetables, hogs, and sheep, prides himself on running a true farm-to-table restaurant—fine dining without pretention. Eric would say the difference between a good restaurant and a fancy one is that in the latter, more people have touched the food with their hands. Despite his commitment to cooking from scratch, however, Eric still had praise for the Denny’s or Applebee’s cook who delivers hundreds of plates a night with great speed and consistency. In many ways, that’s what it’s all about. Diners want food that is hot, tasty, and fast, and if they’ve eaten a dish before, they want it to be the same as it was last time.
In order to be a good cook (whether at Buffalo Wild Wings or the French Laundry), one has to be mentally prepared. Knowing a recipe is far less important than having a sharp knife and knowing the order of the prep list. Equally important is the mise en place—a French term meaning “put in place.” In a kitchen, it means being physically and mentally prepared to cook. In order to begin prepping, everything needs to be on hand. Some items need to be prepped well in advance. If you are low on stock, for instance, that may be a serious problem, as it takes three days to prepare. Duck confit, less of a problem—it only takes 24 hours. Herbs and vinaigrette? Don’t worry, that can be done two minutes before dinner starts.
Not that one ever plans to be down to the wire, of course. Each day, I would challenge myself to get all the prep done earlier and earlier. Eric and his chef de cuisine, whom I called Surly Pete, once explained to me that my sometimes-behind-schedule mise en place came from “not living in utter fear that everything will not be ready and service will be a failure.” I needed to fear unpreparedness more than death.
The trick to being all prepped up is cooking ten things at once. Start with the dishes that need time to stew, reduce, or roast. While those are on the fire, work on multiple small projects: make aioli, whisk vinaigrette, chop herbs for garnish, cut vegetables for the next round of dishes. I always found making gnocchi tedious and time consuming. The trick was to move fast or have the part-time pastry chef make it since she was all caught up anyway.
After prepping (four or more hours of work), it comes time for service. Service is making sure all of the food that is already cooked is hot and arranged nicely on the plate. The challenge is to time each table so the food is ready simultaneously for each cover—the dehumanizing term for a diner as they “cover” the seat.
Eric is a good guy, a dear friend, never mean or abusive. Once, however, when I was behind on a table (and if you are behind one table, you are behind on all of them), he took a $50 bill from his wallet and tried to hand it to me. “Take this and rip it up and put it in the garbage,” he said, “since that is what you are doing to my business right now.” With tears running down my face and not having time to wipe them away, I kept my mouth shut and kept moving at the already fevered pace, thinking, “How can I go any faster?”
The night ended all right, as the $50 table (which in reality was a $300-plus table) enjoyed their food and the server told us they were never waiting too long. But I had learned my lesson: fast is not fast enough. You need to be ready before you are ready—unless you jump the gun, and then you need to start over and you will end up behind.
Or maybe I didn’t learn a thing. After a while, the 12-hour shifts, constantly being on my feet, lack of real appetite from the constant tasting, and late nights necessitated a shift. I wanted to farm—hadn’t I gotten into cooking because I wanted fresh food anyway?
I left the Black Cat on good terms. A few years later on a visit back to Boulder, Eric told me that he had had to rewrite the menu. In the two years since I’d left, he hadn’t found anyone who could cook all the dishes my station had demanded at the same time. I thought back to the $50 table and the fear of unpreparedness. It turns out I had learned to cook by doing the work of two chefs, and I had done a good job.
Working in a kitchen is challenging. The next time you’re eating out, don’t complain that the cooks are slow. Just think: would you want to be cooking for a hundred people at the same time?