What did you do for Valentine's Day?
I worked a sold out Saturday night with a lovely prix fixe menu designed especially for V-Day. My usual Saturday night role is back kitchen expediter, which, in my kitchen, really means helping out with anything on pantry, restocking plates and mise for the line, firing desserts (sneaking mint chocolate chip ice cream when I can), and organizing the walk-in fridge and dry storage in my downtime, which, on Saturdays, is rare during actual service. It gets pretty insane sometimes, and truth be told I didn't like it at first, but I've come to see how much I've gained from having to turn my focus on so many stations in such a short period of time.
When I work, I like to have a specific focus, which is what I like about working the hot line. I have my own space, my own equipment, my own setup, and the particular dishes that come off my station. When I time things perfectly and I'm on top of my game, it's like doing an elaborate dance with my coworkers. We're tangoing to the tune of the ticket machine.
But to be more than just a line dog is to be aware of everything else around you. Being back kitchen expo on the busiest night of the week for the past three or four months has made me much more aware of how all the stations work together in time. The kitchen is an engine, and we're the ones who make it run. In order for it to run smoothly, we all have to be on the same page, all understanding what's happening not just on our stations but all around us. Plates must come up at the proper times, and the three minutes that a salad sits and wilts in the window while waiting for something to come off of grill station will most certainly mean a re-fire. We don't put out wilty salad, dammit.
But I digress. Back to the most romantic night of the year. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I ended up on grill side for the evening. One thing I caught onto pretty quickly about kitchens is to always expect the unexpected. It's such a tired cliche, I know, but there's nothing truer when so many things, I mean a ridiculous number of factors, can go so, so wrong. Factor in the basics: Hungry customers, sensitive equipment, HEAT (and lots of it), hundreds of time-sensitive ingredients, confined spaces, money, the wide range of personalities on a restaurant staff... It's amazing to me that every restaurant in the world hasn't just self-imploded. And I'm certain that many already have.
But you get a bunch of people together who thrive on what they do, take pride in their work, and make every effort to work as a team to get the job done, and things can go pretty smoothly. We sat the equivalent of a VERY busy Saturday night, and it went so smoothly that it was nearly uneventful. I came into work determined not to repeat my New Year's Eve mistakes, and though my back had definitely had enough by the end of the night, I felt a slight sense of redemption knowing that I could actually work a notorious restaurant holiday without feeling entirely overwhelmed.
I came home exhausted but pleased, and treated myself with a bubble bath and a few episodes of 30 Rock. And then I wrote this blog entry. How very romantic.
Onto this week's five things I learned this week:
1. When your grill catches fire due to accumulation of dripping fat, don't use flour to put out the flames. They may suffocate the fire, but the flour will burn in the process and make the entire restaurant smell a fright. Salt is the key. Lots of it.
2. Related: There is something incredibly satisfying about scrubbing down a crusty grill from top to bottom. This may sound strange, but I feel like I'm finally starting to "get" my equipment, trust it, learn its quirks, respect it. My oven, my burners, my grill, my lowboy... it all needs love and respect. And I know they're not just mine, but I can't help but feel a little possessive towards them.
3. Never get comfortable. This doesn't mean that you can't revel in what you're doing and enjoy the time you spend doing something you love with people who are essentially family. Good cooks, I think, move on from a place once they start to feel comfortable because they never want to settle. They always want to be pushed. I definitely (and constantly) still feel pushed to do better.
4. A cappuccino foamer makes a decent foam, but an immersion blender is the best and fastest way of getting a good, lasting foam.
5. What's the best-tasting or best-looking dish (or part of a dish) may not always be the best period. One must consider a number of factors; namely convenience, speed of fire/pickup time, cost-to-profit, labor-to-profit, and the simple fact that it may not sell. It is a business, after all. But some of the best dishes are the ones that have the most care and time put into them. It's essentially about the love and passion we put into our work, and hopefully that'll translate through the food.
Happy Valentine's Day, everybody!