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.

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