by Lisa M. Brefere, Karen Eich Drummond, and Brad Barnes
8 A.M.: The phone is ringing, and I feel like I'm saying hello, but I'm dreaming. The phone continues to ring. In my half-conscious state, where the mind is willing but the body feels last night's exhausting covers, I grab the phone and say hello, wondering who dared to call this early. Static, and a voice saying, "Yo, Chef, I got the gold." I can't make out who it is or what is being said in my semi-awake state. "Who is this?" I ask. "It's Jimmy from J.J.'s, the winters are in, and you're the first to know." The sleeping chef in me comes to life, wide-eyed and fantasizing about my next creation with these morsels of black magic. "Get me a pound," I eagerly reply. I laugh as I hang up. "Truffles," I sigh, eyes open with anticipation of the day ahead. My husband lies next to me, unaffected by the episode. He is my Sous Chef, equally committed to the passion that drives us in our profession. I'll get up and let him sleep in.
The pitter-patter of little feet comes running across the house. "Mommy, Mommy, are you UP?" It's my five-year-old son, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, getting ready with the housekeeper to go to school. I make it a point to see him off on the bus every day or let him sleep in with us a few times a month. The life of a restaurant chef isn't conducive to the stereotypical American family schedule. You eat dinner many nights at 9:30 or 10 P.M.; you work nights and weekends, and with luck you grab a slow Sunday off, depending on your restaurant business. You miss many family gatherings unless you can carefully plan with coverage for the Chef, which is difficult. Many restaurants close to give the Chef and crew time off for vacation. The lifestyle is addicting. Your routine, even with children, revolves around your work schedule and allows minimal compromise. So begins another power-filled day. The home is secured, the boy is off to school, and my mind races with newly imagined dishes.
I arrive at the restaurant at 9:15 A.M.; the buzz of the morning's production is well underway. The scent of veal stock fills my nose with the aftertones of lobster bisque. Just then another scent disturbs these priceless aromas. "What's burning?" I blurt out with fear that a hard-earned sauce or soup has been trashed. "Just a burnt pot of coffee," replies a waiter. In a split second, with a dark roast in my hand, I'm creeping through every inch of mise en place—or meeze, as it's known in the industry—for the lunch menu. I'm called downstairs for every order arriving, to weigh, touch, smell, taste, and return if needed. It's Thursday, and the weekend prep must begin. The setup for lunch is stocked and ready for service to begin. The ma î tre d'stops to review the lunch specials, carefully taking notes and asking questions so he can instruct his well-trained staff.
Next, a quick recap of yesterday's sales, purchases, and expenses, together with another flavorful java. Price, cost, waste, utilization, and profitability are real words you must live by daily. Indulging in underutilization, excess, and extravagance doesn't work in our occupation. I love the best—but still we need to make money on every dollar earned. We are here for all the above and more. We are magicians in our field, taking simple goods and creating masterpieces. My train of thought is interrupted by the hum of lunch service. The typical business crowd demands value, quality, and atmosphere. In our 70-seat restaurant, we work diligently to please the masses by constructing cool sandwiches, innovative appetizers, assorted organic greens topped with goodies, entrées with sparkle, and desserts to die for. We want guests in the seats, not dust on the tables. The key is to understand what customers want to eat and then figure out how to entice them in a style that pleases you and suits the kitchen's philosophy. Don't ever make the mistake of thinking this is easy!
The turn from lunch to dinner is quick. There is a mellowing silence before the next meal period hits. The kitchen is madly prepping all the final details of a wonderfully planned day. We are anxious and excited, anticipating the rush of 150 reservations already on the books.
Dinner is elegant and trendy yet comfortable, with style and class. The bar will rock with guests dining on a wide range of interesting appetizers that express the culinary path of their creator. Experience is something a chef can always fall back on, an archive preparation from years past, a specialty from a previous job. Knowledge is the secret that keeps the adrenaline and enthusiasm flowing from day to day, year to year.
The staff prepares a casual and tasty family meal for themselves. All sit and enjoy the last supper before the wave of the evening's reservations. Headwaiter Andy walks around collecting a buck from staff members predicting the evening's covers. One hundred fifty now on the books, a 20-top with a set menu at the same time as the bulk of the reservations. You get used to everyone coming at once. It's important for the staff to keep cool, calm, and collected so the dinner chaos in the back goes unnoticed out front. I review the specials with the waitstaff and do a plate presentation and tasting. The front-of-the-house staff is my link to the customer. They must be educated on my style and philosophy as well as my passion for pleasing.
Just 20 minutes to showtime, you've been cooking and tasting all day. You scan a quick panorama of your kitchen: Production is cooled and put away; cook's mise en place filled, ready, and displaying their magnificent natural colors; the cooks are hanging, telling war stories of other busy nights; sauté pans are neatly stacked like a Doric column only an arm's length away from the stove; refrigerators are stocked with seasoned proteins awaiting the first click of the POS; preparations on the cold station are lined up perfectly like soldiers in battle formation waiting their first command. It's a feeling you must live, a feeling that mixes pride, perfection, obsession, and the need to delight your guests. We strive to be the best we can, and we try damn hard.
There is a flow through the evening's slam; we work meticulously to expedite each diner's request. Like a conductor in front of an orchestra, the chef controls the tempo, dictates the beat, and balances the rhythm. The line fills with dupes, table 6 appetizers for 7 people, table 8 pick up entrées for 4, table 15 VVIP special amuse, table 5 rush an extra mushroom flan, table 12 steak black and blue, Bar needs 2 appetizer samplers. When it's on, it's on, sending a cool rush of accomplishment through your entire body. The last of the dinner tickets is completed. The cooks'challenge all evening is to keep their station as organized and neat as possible. This shows their skill level and intellectual preparation. When the last ticket is out, we all high-five each other. "That was awesome," I comment. We all feel pretty high from the great success, but there is still dessert and cleanup. The hum of the dining room is still in full swing with last-minute requests, wine service, and chitchat. I make my way among the tables, greeting, smiling, and making small talk with those guests who are looking for my attention. You want to be available, approachable, sincere, but not annoying to your clientele.
It's 10:25 P.M. I wonder how my son is doing. He's at Grandma's tonight, I quickly remember. I make a mental note that on my day off we will take him to the zoo. What a great kid he is. My thinking is interrupted by the maître d'.
Read Culinary Careers in Restaurants in PDF format at Wiley.com.
This page created October 2008
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