Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mother's Day from a Chef's Perspective

It kills me that I haven't been able to post as regularly as I would like or with the frequency that being a good food blogger requires, but part of writing as a working chef means that I am in the restaurant more often than not. These past several weeks have been pretty grueling, all of which led up to Mother's Day--hands down the busiest day of the year in the restaurant industry. So for this post, I thought I'd give you all a look "behind the scenes" of a restaurant and inside the mind of a chef on perhaps the most chaotic day of the year.


Sunday, May 10th, 2:00am--I'm lying on my couch struggling to sleep. I have two alarms set so that I don't miss my 5:00 wake-up time. Our new sous chef Stephen and I have spent the past two days prepping everything for this special menu. We have over 430 on the books, and I want to be prepared for everything. Chip, the executive chef, will be at the Vinings location all day, and our other sous chef, Jon, will be in to expo dinner. This means that everything good or bad will happen on my watch. I've already made itemized prep lists for us and for each individual line cook (everything they'll need--all the way down to salt and pepper) so that they can hit the ground running when they walk in the door. But what if one of my cooks doesn't show up?...What if the refrigeration finally dies upstairs?...Should I have called Chip about the plate set-up for the special ham dish?...I think we use the small potatoes for that one...Will my produce order be here in time? Too many thoughts are passing through my head for me to fall asleep. I roll over to the Heads-Up poker tournament on CNBC to see Brad Garrett playing some Moose Jockey in a hockey jersey. He and Ray Romano came in earlier in the week--super nice guys. Garrett loses. Time to find something on TV I can fall asleep to...ESPN Classic is airing 1980s pro wrestling--instant slumbers!

4:55 am--I wake up 5 minutes before my alarm goes off, and I'm already feeling alert. No time to take my requisite 3 pushes of the snooze button before getting up. I shave, shower, and get fully dressed here at the house--no time for putting on a jacket once I arrive in the kitchen--gotta hit the ground running.

5:20am--Being a coffee-drinker would probably be a good idea right about now, but since that's just not part of my routine, my breakfast of grocery store sushi (judge me if you want), Greek yogurt, and Propel will have to do. I set my iPod to "shuffle" and the second song to come up is Johnny Cash covering "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Kinda fitting, except that I'm coming down from fatigue. Almost to work...I hope nobody's sleeping outside by the back door today.

5:45 am--I get to work 15 minutes early and begin to turn on the equipment and unlock everything. No one will be here until 7:00, and I always seem to get the most accomplished when I'm by myself. I pull all of the prep lists and today's menu as a reference guide. Must start grits early--not running out of those today! I wrap the hams and put them in the oven at a low temperature, make a quick glaze for the ham, and start portioning the spinach-mushroom fritatta and the peach "french toast" bread pudding that I made the night before. Damn! I just stuck my finger with the tip of the butcher's scimitar--it's just a nick, but any cuts or bandage duties are a minor inconvenience when I don't have time for any of those today. Gotta get bourbon gravy started. I really wish I would have made that last night...

7:00 am--I'm really cranking now! Everything that needs to be heated up by me is already upstairs in the hot box. I even started the mashed potatoes and she crab soup myself--usually a duty referred to the prep guys. Speaking of whom, the doorbell rings and prep cooks Jaime and Omar, along with the most phenomenal dishwashers in the land, Armando and Mustachio, are at the back door. Mustachio's real name is Jose, but the guy's 'stache looks like someone took Burt Reynolds or Tom Selleck's from their heyday and stuck it on a 5'6" Mexican. Paul, the GM arrives bearing donuts, and we catch up, sharing a few needed laughs...mostly about colonics, of all things! I'm too wrapped up to eat anything at this point. Things are going smoothly now...I hope everyone shows up.

8:00 am--My fears are assuaged when each of my four line cooks arrive within 10 minutes of one another. Ozzie, my grill man gets in 15 minutes early...Joel, my stud of a middle guy, is right behind him. They both look ready to go. Orlando, my saute guy arrives 5 minutes early looking a little sleepy, but focused. Ariceli, my pantry gal, walks in on time as well. I hope she's ready to go. She has the most to set up, but will get the fewest orders. She usually moves with the speed of a quadriplegic turtle getting set up, so I politely stress the sense of urgency of today with her. She seems to understand, and is a little bit intimidated when she sees how long her list of items is. Steve also rolls in, and I briefly sit to confer with him about how the day should go. He's helping out behind the line today, and that really eases my mind. For the next hour, I try to help everyone get ready to go, while Steve sets about making brown butter sauce and poaching 3-4 flats of eggs in case we really get "dans le merde." Because the amigos' radio is out of commission, I crank up my iPod which has a special playlist for all of the major event days. For some reason, I work faster to funk music; so today's musical selection is a heaping helping of Sly Stone, Parliament, Rick James, Prince, and early Red Hot Chili Peppers. Gotta have sample plates of our "out of the ordinary" items--fritatta, peach bread pudding, glazed ham, and chocolate muffins--to show the servers at 9:30. 10:00 is showtime!

9:45am--Just finished line-up with the servers. Everyone was surprisingly attentive during my descriptions. I don't think I had to repeat anything, which I always appreciate. Most of the "A Team" is on the floor today (except B.A. Baracas), so I'm getting more comfortable with how today is going to pan out. I can't even tell if anyone's hungover--I'm really impressed! Paul comes up to me and tells me the soup of the day is scorched. I'm a little incredulous as I take a sample. It's not scorched, but it certainly doesn't taste good. Chip and I put in some time trying to save the cream of spinach and garlic soup yesterday, but it doesn't seem to have re-heated well. The garlic is way too overbearing and "off." Hating to lose, I try to come up with a new soup that could potentially feed a couple hundred and be ready in 30 minutes. Paul calms me down and tells me to just 86 (run without) the soup of the day. I taste everything on the line and confirm that all of the cooks are both physically and mentally ready to go. As line-up ended, we had our first 3 tables walk in the door. I grab a couple of wet towels for wiping plates, wash my hands, and get my large glass of ice water ready on the expo side. The printer spits out the first few tickets, and we're off to the races...

10:45am--My board is fluttering with tickets, and the kitchen is getting hit hard. Luckily, our menu is designed to be executed with ease--with as little time-consuming cooking as possible. That means no eggs made-to-order and no pancakes, among other things. What's this? A server comes up to me and asks if we can do pancakes. Why won't people order what's on the goddamn menu? I really don't mind accommodating special requests, but an ill-timed one could send the kitchen into a tailspin...I make the call to say no. Our peach "french toast" bread pudding is delicious...tell them to order that. The guys are keeping up nicely with the rush, and the servers are really running food faster than I could have hoped for. I check in with the guys, and everyone seems to be doing well and in good spirits. A good first turn! They all reload, and get ready for round 2.

12:30pm--Oh my God, we're flippin' busy! Joel's fryer is full of chicken, catfish, green tomatoes, okra, and croutons; and none of them can be ready fast enough. I'm calling out orders loudly so that I can sell as many check as quickly as possible. We're selling an abnormal amount of fritattas and bread pudding...Go figure, I guess people actually want breakfast foods at breakfast time! I bellow down to Omar to throw more in the oven. The kitchen comes to a standstill--they're out of plates! I rumble down the stairs to fetch some from the outside storage area. As I'm unpacking them, I realize three of them are broken...gotta remember to tell my Ed Don rep about that in the morning. Oh, just realized we were running low on rhubarb preserves...I quickly throw some more on and tell Jaime to check on it as I hustle the plates upstairs. I usually start singing whenever I'm in the weeds, and it's typically never a good song. Today's Cheffrey Jukebox selections are Al Green's "Let's Stay Together," Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie," and the Gourds' cover of Snoop's "Gin and Juice." Anything to work faster...

12:52pm--Some 11 year-old kid gets his fingers stuck in the holes on the back of a chair. Armed with a ramekin of butter, Paul arrives to the rescue to lube the little butterball's fingers out. That kind of service might cost you extra in Vegas.

1:15pm--For the umpteenth time, someone needs a kid's chicken fingers on the fly (fast as possible). I'm a little annoyed, but everyone's working really hard on the floor today; a few mistakes are inevitable. I translate this need to Joel, who is valiantly struggling to stay out of the weeds...he handles the hiccup like the true pro that he is. We get it out as quickly as we can. Hey, if the kids are happy, then Mom is happy. And that is the goal, isn't it?

1:27pm--A woman just requested to change tables because she thought that her server was trying to steal her husband. Read that sentence again, please. I seriously can't make this stuff up.

1:45pm--Jon arrived almost 2 hours ago and has started getting things ready for dinner. He intercepts me yelling for refills of things from the top of the stairs and passes them on to Omar and Jaime...More she crab! More grits! More fritatta! Whaddya mean, no more fritatta? I made 72 portions! I do some quick mental math and realize that yes, we probably have sold close to that amount. Hopefully sales of that item will dwindle as we delve further into the lunch portion of the day.

2:30pm--Ozzie tells me that he has to leave to start working at Ecco for dinner. I thank him for a job well done--he really busted his ass today and was a total stud behind the line. 86 fritatta! Thought I was going to make it on that one...Orlando moves over to grill and Steve takes on saute solo. Orders are still pouring in. I'm burning a hole in the 10 feet behind the bar between the main pick-up window and the pantry window...I've still got some hustle. Brent and Major were right--I am incredibly fast in distances under 10 feet. I think the guys are starting to lose focus a little bit...some of the plates are coming up a little sloppy...limp, flaccid bacon, giant fatty end of bacon in an otherwise tiny pile of collard greens, overcooked eggs...I hand each of the mistakes back to them and they quickly replace them with perfect plates. Gotta imagine there are some pretty happy guests today.

3:15pm--Everyone's nearly spent from such a grueling service. The fun is only starting, as we have two very large parties ordering at the same time. Even worse is that nearly every item has a special modifier on it..."Fried chicken, no mashed potatoes or green beans, sub scrambled eggs and salad; Shrimp and grits, no grits sub potatoes with sauce on the side; Loin of unicorn, poached in its own tears, served with piopini mushrooms and Grape Nuts...tartar sauce on the side. It's getting pretty ridiculous. I'm calling out what I need and calling for servers to run the food to the tables. I'm really losing my voice now...even the water or tea isn't helping...The servers are still running food with energy--Kevin and Rachel have been real rock stars today. The kitchen is putting up the last few tables when I hear, "Chef, no more grits." Aarrgh! I thought I had made enough! I find out from the tables that a few people don't mind having mashed potatoes instead. Whew! Crisis averted.

3:35pm--I find a quick break in the action to run downstairs and call my mom to wish her a Happy Mother's Day. She is so understanding that my profession limits my availability on the holidays, and is quick to assure me that we can celebrate whenever I'm off. So this Wednesday it is.

3:50pm--My dishwasher left at 3:30, and the dish pit is starting to overflow with dirty dishes. I shake everyone's hand, congratulate them on doing such a phenomenal job, and commence to washing dishes. I'm really hoping none of those glasses fall off the ledge...Nope! Guess I'll order more tomorrow. I wash my hands, grab two slices of pizza that Paul had ordered for family meal, and painfully stumble down the stairs to check how many covers we did. Let me tell you, cold pizza never tasted so good. 490 covers! Holy crap, that's gotta be a record here! Chip calls to see how service went...they did almost 750 for brunch at Vinings, and would go on to serve over 1,000 people. That's just ridiculous. He asks checks on the status of the smoked boneless rib roast he had planned to run for an evening special. I don't remember anything about it! Fortunately, Jon is on top of things and has it 30 minutes away from being ready...it comes out perfect. Paul congratulates me on not getting thrown off the train during the day. I feel like I can barely move, and I really don't want to summon the energy to think.

4:12pm--I'm starting to see if Jon needs anything for the night's service when just then, I hear it. The two words I've learned to fear more than just about any other. Jorge, my pm dishwasher utters the painful words, "Chef, agua." That usually means that water is flowing from a source from which it shouldn't...like a hose or the dish machine. He's right...the toilet in the employee bathroom is overflowing into the prep kitchen. I move everything out of the water's path, take off my watch, and grab a squeegee and some bleach...after such a hellacious service, I wouldn't feel right about ordering anyone else to clean it up. After thoroughly dousing the floor with bleach, we're good to go. I laugh to myself that it only seems fitting that after such a triumph, I immediately move to cleaning up toilet water. And I was voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school!

5:30pm--I start getting the prep list ready for tomorrow. Emory's graduation is that morning, and we should be super busy for lunch. Man, there's a pretty big load to have ready before 11:00...glad I'm in at 8:00. Ham didn't sell too well...that should make a delicious lunch special. I decide to truss and roast some turkey breast so I don't have to worry about it in the morning...I don't have the energy or the patience to make any sauces tonight. They're already rocking upstairs and in need of mashed potatoes.

6:30pm--I'm done for the day. I shake hands with Paul and Steve and slink to my car for the 30 minute drive home. Needing music that's a little more subdued, I pop in my Cast Iron Filter CD and think how glad I am that it's over. I make it home and have a series of the greatest post-work experiences ever: 1) I take my shoes off--wow, that felt great! 2) I grab a cold Turbodog out of the fridge and head straight to the shower. 3) Enjoy beer while taking shower. 4) Call for a delivery of Chinese food--my moo shu arrives just as Iron Chef airs a repeat of Mario Batali vs Paul Bartolotta. I think back to eating at both chefs' restaurants in Vegas and really wishing I could sample what they're cooking--it's battle rice, and both guys' food looks amazing.

10:10pm--Time for bed. I should be making a game plan for tomorrow, but I'm really thinking about how I've talked a beautiful food journalist into having dinner with me tomorrow night. For anyone who is a fan of this blog, I implore you to check out hers as well. .http://cometothetable-sally.blogspot.com/

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