Kitchen Observation

restraunt kitchenLast night I had my notion of what constitutes a hard day’s work  radically altered.

Last night I had a chance to observe the line at Zingerman’s Roadhouse.

I’ve been reading a lot about professional restaurants lately.  I’m under contract to write 2 books with a main character who is a chef in a New York restauraunt, and, as you can imagine, research is needed, but this was the first time I’d had a chance to actually stand and watch a full blown dinner rush from behind the scenes.

I’m also a regular customer at the Roadhouse.  The service is always good, the food is always excellent, so I was confident I was going to get a look at a well-run establishment.  It’s easy to find kitchen horror stories these days.  I wanted a look at a place that works well from the bottom up.

And this is what I have to say:  Wow.

These are raw impressions.  I’m still processing what I saw, and I expect I will be for awhile yet.

Here’s what I knew going in: kitchen work is hard, it’s dirty, it’s hot and it’s high pressure.  A working kitchen is not the clean, polite controlled sort of space you see on The Food Network.  Fortunately, the Roadhouse kitchen is also not one of the homes of debauchery that Anthony Bourdain delights in describing in KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL.  It’s a serious, highly-skilled, fast-paced, cramped, crowded environment with everybody moving at top speed.  And the environment is actively OUT TO GET YOU.  Pretty much everything is either hot, flaming, steaming, slick or sharp.

And then there’s geography:  a professional kitchen is a warren.  There’s a place for everything and everything’s in its place, but if you don’t know where that place is, you’re SOL. I was at one point asked to take a bin of unuesable bread to “the back table.”  Simple, right?  Unless there are four different possibilities for what the back table might be, and you’re wandering to them while trying not to slip on the floor that has just been swilled down with hot water for the upmteenth time that night.  By the end of the evening, I couldn’t even remember what _level_ the office I left my purse in was on.

I didn’t get to see everything.  I didn’t want to be wandering around getting in people’s way (see above remarks about the environment), so I mostly stayed put.  I mostly stood next to Javier, who worked the wood-fired grill (I will admit, of all the things I expected to experience, a trip to the woodshed was not one of them).  It was Friday, so early on, Javier predicted it was going to be a burger heavy night.  And he was right.  It was burger after burger, with breaks for ribs, chicken and multiple types of fish, oh, and oysters.  I didn’t know you _could_ grill oysters.  Javier had burns on his arms and asbestos fingers.  He could also keep track of ten different orders put on the grill at ten different times while managing a wood fire.
At the beginning of the night, he had 8 tickets on his station.  By the time 8 pm rolled around, 8 was clearly a low-water mark.

Next to Javier was the flat top where, from what I could see, was mostly used for toasting bread, but that could just be because there were so many of those burgers.
Near that, Chef Keiron was hard at work, doing about a dozen different jobs at once.  Between four and five he had enough time to show me around, and show me things like the board where they keep their projections and expenditures, so everyone know’s what’s happening with the bottom line, and let me meet the farmer who was bringing in buckets of REALLY fresh really gorgeous ingredients like fresh potatoes, carrots, and heirloom tomatoes.  Once rush really hit, at about 6pm, he got on the line and stayed there.  Mainly, he was expediting, that is calling out the various orders, and getting the finished plates to the servers.  He was also handling a lot of the plating and keeping track of what was going on up and down the line.

The cook top, what we at home call the stove, was Maria’s domain.  Maria was amazing to watch.  I didn’t get a chance to do more than say hi to her, she was too busy to chat with the audience.  But what Javier did with the grill, she was doing with pans.  She is said to be able to manage a dozen sautee pans at a time.  I watched her get at least seven going at once, with greens, pasta, meats, all manner of sides, all begun at different times, all needed NOW.  Oh, and did I mention the occasional four foot gouts of flame? Chef Alex said it takes about 5 or 6 years to learn to handle her station so smoothly.

Chef Alex, who did me the great favor of letting me into his kitchen and who runs the show, mostly was in the back, but every so often he would come out to the line, and stand there, watching.  Just checking in, just making sure everything was okay.  And he’d if help was needed, he got in there.  He’d pick up empty containers, he’d bring in fresh plates, he’d check the stations to make sure they were well stocked and check in with Chef Kiernon to make sure he had what he needed.  No shouting or rock n roll.  No immaculate white coat heading out to press the flesh or any of that celebrity schtick.  Just a calm manager, confident and in control enough to let his people do their jobs.
Then there was the man who was introduced to me as Charlie, but whom by the end of the night I began to think of as  Mr. Charles.  I didn’t get an exact job title for Mr. Charles, but the man never stood still.  If  a container was empty, he was the guy who got it filled, so he spent a lot of time in the back.  But when things got hairy, Mr. Charles was on the line too, assembling burgers, cleaning stations, organizing tickets, scooping, filling, plating, finding, fixing and generally making sure the job got done, whatever the job was.

And this was only a snapshot of one part of the the operation on what was described as a relatively slow night, because the patio was closed.

Slow?  Slow?!  I was already feeling like I’d never worked a day in my life compared to the people I saw and that was SLOW?!

I said it before and I’ll say it again.  Wow.




Kitchen Observation — 3 Comments

  1. Wow. I do believe I’m going to have nightmares.

    I’m so glad I’m not a cook, and I’ll definitely appreciate the kitchen staff more in the future.

    Thank you for this glimpse into their world.

  2. During my brief experience as a waitress in college I was both fascinated and exhausted watching our cook and his assistant (it was not the sort of joint that had a chef, let alone line cooks) juggle multiple orders. I came to the conclusion that, rude customers, fallen arches, and short tips notwithstanding, I had the easier job.

  3. Yeah, you did. The wait staff had time to stop, shake my hand, introduce themselves, and no matter how heavy the rush got, they still had a minute or so to get a drink, take a breath.

    After 6pm, the line crew didn’t even get that minute.