Tuesday, December 07, 2010

On not having The Fear

Hell of quenelles
Hell of quenelles: Caramelized onion and crimini mushroom duxelle, to go on cream cheese tart puffs. These, plus tomato-bacon jam on black pepper cheddar crackers, were the apps for Thanksgiving Overkill 2010, to be written about at a later date. Instead I'm writing about something that all line cooks know well...

The restaurant I work in is fortunate enough to be busy basically every night. Dealing with this busyness night after night is not easy; along with three to four hours of prep work, we work a seven or eight hour service between happy hour, dinner and late night, and since almost all of our patrons are walk-ins, we never really know exactly how much of anything we're going to sell. Some nights it's all steaks, and some nights I'm getting killed on pastas and fish. More often than not all the stations are getting hit equally hard. I prep as well as I can, trying to get ahead a day or two to lighten my load, and I'll still frequently find that I'm well wiped out for mise en place at the end of the night. Nothing like a monster prep list the day after getting killed the night before. It's definitely a routine that takes getting used to.

Despite the insanity of service and feeling like I'm over it by the time the last few tickets roll in, I noticed recently that it's been a while since I had The Fear during service. Recognizing The Fear in a cook is quite easy: It's the deer-in-the-headlights panic, sweat beading down his temples, limbs flying, pans clanging and catching fire, filthy apron and side towels, moving too fast for his own good. It's what cooks call "going down", as in "in flames". You're brain is overloaded, you've lost control and you have no idea how you're going to get any of your plates out. You're trying to do too many things at once, your station is a total mess, and worst of all The Fear is paralyzing--you're rudderless, a sinking ship, and you're taking the rest of the line down with you.

It's not a pretty thing to observe and it's downright horrible to experience. It's gut-wrenching, nauseating and disorienting and tends to leave you in a haze for hours, sometimes days. After a Fear-dominated service, your coworkers keep their distance; they don't really know what to say to you, except your chef who is most likely gearing up to give you a verbal ass-kicking.

Thinking back on it, the first few months of working the hot line at my first restaurant was almost entirely dominated by The Fear. I would wake up dreading service, stomach in knots on the way to work, quietly wigging out while attempting to concentrate on prep. Once service started I constantly needed my chefs and coworkers to pull me out of my mess, and I didn't see how it was humanly possible to put out so many perfect plates in such a short amount of time. I could feel my coworkers' eyes boring holes into my slow-as-molasses head as they impatiently waited for me to catch up.

But I'd watch my chefs and fellow line cooks do it, seasoned vets that they were, putting up beautiful plates (and a lot of them) while hardly breaking a sweat. They were busy, no doubt about it, but watching them cook was mesmerizing. It was an effortless grace, no wasted movements, their stations cleaner than I could imagine. It was possible--I was watching it happen right in front of me--but I couldn't wrap my head around how I would ever be that fast or clean.

I remember one night during my first few months of line cooking, after a particularly bad pickup my sous chef pulled me aside and admonished me for being sloppy and unorganized. He saw the resulting consternation on my face, shook his head and pointed down the line to the saute cook who was putting up multiple plates. "Look at his station. It's spotless, and he has eight plates coming up. He's totally organized. You need to work like that." I suddenly became acutely aware of the mess on my station--my filthy knife askew on my wet cutting board, my counters and ranges strewn with salt and herbs and sauce, even my chefs' whites that were no longer white, thanks to various handprints and food stains. I felt ashamed and defeated. I'm pretty sure I went home that night and cried, but I came back to work determined to improve.

Organization and cleanliness have everything to do with The Fear. When I first started cooking, I was learning things and practicing habits that now seem like second nature. Arranging your 9th pans in the same order, putting your pepper grinder and oil bottle back in their place every time, lining up your plates the same way, wiping your station after every pick-up--it's mise en place, "everything in its place". After you've done it for a while it's easy to forget that cooking is a learned skill. I didn't go into the kitchen knowing that putting everything where it belongs was so essential.

You practice organizing the right way night after night, and slowly but surely the other good habits start to creep in: timing all your picks just right, keeping an eye on the heat on six different burners, knowing what's in your oven and when it comes out, watching the color on your sear, using the right utensils for each action, knowing exactly what you have on fire with what allergies and what amendments without having to look at the tickets. Seeing five minutes in the future and 10 steps down the road at all times.

Two years after my sous chef's admonishment, I'm finally beginning to feel like I have a pretty good handle on this thing. It's rare that The Fear rears its ugly head, and when it starts to creep in on an insanely hectic night, I can bat it down with a few deep breaths and a quick stop to reassess my all-day. I don't claim to be completely free of The Fear, and I'm certainly not the most organized cook. My first few days on saute were peppered by several Fear-like moments of panic, feeling gut-wrenched from over-searing a chicken or forgetting that half-order of pasta. I've settled into saute pretty well, however, and I'm really enjoying line cooking again. I'm rediscovering cooking in a way, and it feels damned good.