Sunday, February 12, 2012

Study in Muscle Memory

This is 1/8 of a wheel of grana padano cheese. You know those huge wheels of parmesan they sometimes use in grocery deli displays? Yeah, this comes from a wheel that big. We go through several of these a week at my work.
Next week is Valentine's day, and I'm working expo for the evening. The expeditor, at this restaurant, at least, is in charge of plating each entree, boiling the pasta, getting certain items into the oven, and getting everything out of the oven...before it's burnt. In our predominantly Latino kitchen, "burnt" is called "black," or negro.

It's a lot of stuff to prioritize, and a lot of stuff to remember, in general. My first day of working expo, I was genuinely overwhelmed. I remember coming home with tears streaking down my face. The next day, I went in again, and it was a tiny bit easier. Since I only work 2 expo shifts a week, it took a while to get a feel for the fire times (or cooking times) for each item, and figure out a good rhythm for staging entrees for large tables. But I've been working there for almost 4 months now, and I still mess things up. A lot. I'm doing much better than I was at first...but beyond basic comprehension of The Order of Things, it all just comes down to timing and remembering. And apparently, I'm not very good at either of those things.

In addition to a growing concern about my short-term memory, I'm realizing that line cooking is not for perfectionists and second-guessers like myself. Each time I correct something--like going back into the reach-in fridge to grab something I should have gotten a minute ago when I already had the door open--it adds to the fire time of something. This, in turn could hold back an entire table, because we don't send out plates of food until the entire table's orders are ready. And if it happens to be the middle of the rush, with 10 other tickets in line, it backs everything up, meaning I'll be "in the weeds" until all those tables are fired. Meanwhile, more tickets are coming in as earlier tables leave with full bellies. Therefore, if one is cooking on the line in the middle of the dinner rush...

time > precision > appearance.

In a higher end restaurant, those things are probably equally important, with "time" maybe a little lower on the priority scale, depending on the circumstances. Of course, taste is also a factor in any sauce-making station (which expeditors don't have to worry about, thank god).

I'm having to actively keep myself from adding just a pinch more cheese or a few more noodles to things, even when it will probably go unnoticed if I don't add them. Talk about obsessive-compulsive. I think the problem lies in the way my brain was wired over the course of my life. Appearance and perfection make the top of the priority list, without even taking time into account. I've never been a race-winner. I don't like running, and I don't like to rush things. So when I get a pasta dish in front of me, everything around me disappears, and I'm zeroed in on piling the perfect amount of parmesan with the perfect sprinkle of parsley. Since I don't (yet) have the confident swagger of a lifelong line cook, I add things little by little until it looks right. The best line cooks can garnish evenly every single time with only a quick glance to verify the order. I know this through several years on my resume spent observing practiced pizza cooks, mouth gaped and eyebrows raised.

So last Tuesday, I decided to make it a dress rehearsal, of sorts...a practice for Valentine's Day. Next Tuesday, we're going to have a full dining room, from open to close. If I fuck something up, the whole night will go to shit. So to "rehearse" for the big night, I told myself I would not be able to open the lowboy drawer to grab "just a little more cheese" or to put back an extra handful of pasta. I had one shot for each step of each order, no matter how much I was inclined to edit my actions. Just do it right the first time, Bre, I told myself. And, to my surprise, my hands knew, each time they reached for something, what was the proper amount. Not too much, not too little, just perfect. I guess I've already had 4 months of practice. The first "dress rehearsal" was a breeze.

So why have I been making my brain the back-seat-driver in a job that only requires a good auto-pilot? I've been playing musical instruments by feel since elementary school, yet I've had trouble trusting these same two hands with a different medium. Clearly, this is a good lesson in trusting myself. Pretty soon, I'll be playing systematic sonatinas at work, and indulgent romantic era pieces at home...but with food.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

No Cook Left Behind

Many of the lessons I'm learning at school are transferrable to my restaurant job, and vice versa. Both kitchens have similar ultimate goals: make good food, and get it out fast. Of course, at school, we're much more focused on making sure each student is learning how to do things, and at work we're more focused on just making sure things get done, whoever does them.

Within the school setting, timing is important, but it's not the end of the world if a plate gets sent out half an hour later than it should have. There does tend to be more stress on timing in the two student-run restaurants, but that's to be expected, as we're serving actual customers from the outside world there. I'm in the second quarter of a 5-quarter program, and my class is in charge of making lunch for all of our fellow students from the culinary and pastry programs. There's a big push to have some plates ready by 11am, the beginning of the lunch service. That's when all the students who are working front-of-house in the restaurants have their 15 minute lunch break before the restaurants are opened. While it's sometimes difficult to have plates up right at 11, we've all been in that position before. It's frustrating to have a limited time to eat before service, and to not be able to start eating because the 2nd quarter students don't have anything to offer yet.

Fortunately, this whole program is designed so that everyone gets a taste of each position in the crazy web of interconnected kitchens. We all do shifts in the dish pit; we all do shifts behind the counter at the casual bistro; we all take a few turns serving in the formal dining room. Some people complain that they're here to learn how to cook, not wash dishes or bus tables. But I think working in these different areas helps to build on the camaraderie we get when we're in the kitchens together. Since each of us knows what it's like to unknowingly grab a hot pot from the dish rack, we're all going to look out for our classmates in the dish pit by attaching a paper towel (our signal for "This is HOT! DON'T touch it with your bare hands!") to the next hot dish we discard.

The camaraderie we have with each other helps our kitchen run a little smoother, and a lot happier. Any extra dose of "happy" and "helpful" is welcome at SCA, since there's quite a bit of baptism of fire that goes on. Being on the butcher station last week was a good example of this. Backstory: our chef has given the whole class a few demos of different ways to break down a whole chicken into various cuts (8-piece, half, airline breasts, supremes, bone-in, bone-out, skin-off, ballotine, lollipops, etc). But, in my experience, watching a practiced chef break down a chicken in 2 min or less, and me (an unpracticed student) trying to do the a very different thing. I didn't even know where to start on the first day at the butcher station. And since our chef has a never-ending line of people hovering around him, waiting for him to answer a question or taste a sauce, he couldn't be at the worktable the whole time, showing my two group-mates and I every single step. However, the 2nd quarter butcher station is conveniently located right next to the section of the main kitchen where the 4th- and 5th-quarters work. Their instructor, Chef Sarah, is the go-to chef for anything meat-related. She answered more than one of our many questions over the course of the week, plus she walked us through the sausage-making process on our last day. In addition to her help, several kind upper-classmen stopped on their way past our table to ease the looks of terror (OK, maybe not "terror"...) on our faces and give us some butchery tips.

So, even though things rarely go as smoothly as planned, the food is sometimes late, and some of us just don't know what the hell we're doing, it's all okay in the end. We're all here to learn. So the 1st quarter students are putting the tongs in the wrong place, keeping you from having your food up on time? Don't worry about it. They haven't worked in that kitchen yet, and therefore don't know any better. Just tell them where the tongs go, and make sure you have your mise en place next time. And the veggies served with student lunch today were hardly palatable? You've been there. When something goes wrong in the 2nd quarter kitchen, and the clock is ticking, you just try your best to have something ready at 11. So if the veggies suck, just eat some more salad. Tomorrow's veg dish will be different.