Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Logistics on the Line

I am way behind on posting things here for the last few weeks. There's been a lot that I would like to write about, but I've just been too buried in work. My class has moved on to Level 5 now, where we are half of the staff for a pretty nice restaurant operated by the school, L'Ecole. I highly recommend it as a great bargain in New York: you get a five course meal (well, four "real" courses, plus a salad) for just $42 in a city where the going rate for a good three course meal is $90. The menu often has a lot of great choices. Usually the food is excellent, but the risk you run is that often if the food is not good, it is very much not good. You see, among the students, there is a small percentage that doesn't really care about the quality of the work they do, and they aren't interested in any of the details. The rest of us often wonder why they are there at all, but for whatever reason, they are there and they cook in the restaurant when they reach Level 5. The customer reviews I see of the restaurant online seem to me to reflect this reality. About 80%-90% of them say that it is an outstanding restaurant with terrific food at an unheard of price in Manhattan. The other 10%-20% say that the food is awful.

Most people are a bit nervous when they first begin cooking in the restaurant kitchen. (And just like my other line of work, software development, a lot of the people who aren't nervous are the ones taht you don't really want cooking your food.) You feel like you don't know what you are doing and you are in everyone's way. One of the nice things about the way the school has arranged our transition to the restaurant is that our first day cooking there is technically the last day of Level 4 rather than the first day of Level 5. That means that we get to work under the chef we are very familiar with from the last 3 months, in our case Chef Phil. It's much easier to handle your first day in restaurant service with a chef that knows you and isn't going to form his first impression of you from a question you ask about something you're not certain of in the new environment.

That said, the day before we began cooking for customers, Chef Phil gave us a bit of a stern lecture or maybe pep talk about bringing our best game into the restaurant service. In most restaurant kichens, there is a chef called the "expediter" who shouts out orders to the line cooks who are preparing the plates to go out. The idea is that when the expediter shouts out to "fire" the order, you want to have the plate "in the window" (under the heat lamps just behind the doors to the dining room and next to the expediter) in a couple of minutes. Chef Phil in his pep talk told us that when an order first comes in, we should take whatever the main ingredient is (usually a piece of fish or meat) out of wherever it is being stored (for example, in a refrigerated drawer under the stove for fish) and put it on a sheet pan on the counter. That way, you always know that all of the food still stored is available for orders that have not yet come in, and when things start moving very fast, you know whether you are about to run out or not. For example, when it gets busy, you might have 15 uncooked fish fillets on your station, but maybe 8 of those have already been ordered so you really only have 7. If you've removed the 8 from the pile waiting in storage, you'll know that you don't have that many left.

Chef Phil really wanted to emphasize this point to us. He said: "If you do only one thing right during your shift in the restaurant, make sure you get this right. I mean, do NOT fuck this up. If you ever have to tell your chef that you don't have the product to cook an order that has been taken, the first thing you feel is gonna be his foot up your ass. And if you do that to me the first night we're in the restaurant, I will beat you in the head with a stick, and when you come to the first thing you feel will be my foot up your ass."

So far we have done fine with this. The restaurant service is very short because it is scheduled around the fact that dinner is being cooked by students who are only required to be in class from about 6pm until 10:45pm. So reservations for that service are only available between 8pm and 9pm. That makes the dinner hour in the kitchen so short that it kind of rolls through the kitchen like a wave: first the canape station is busy, then the garde manger (appetizers), then the fish station, then meats, and finally desserts. The chef instructors can sort of babysit one station at a time. Later in the service, everyone will at least have some orders being worked on, but because the dinner hour is only an hour, only one station at a time is at risk of getting overwhelmed and being "in the weeds."

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