The rush of orders built like the exercises in a ballet class.
One or two orders at a time, plies and tendus – straightforward, familiar, hard work. Then jetes, rond de jambes, frappes and fondus, four, five, six orders to be filled in quick succession – all burners hot at the saute station, the grill searing off tenderloin, the oven finishing chicken parm, the frier bubbling with soon-to-be crisp sweet potato chips. It was an organized sort of madhouse. I had known the rush was coming, but I didn’t really know what to expect so I wasn’t quite prepared for it – like I sometimes feel unprepared for any exercise beyond jetes in my ballet classes. It sprung upon the kitchen silently, with no particular pomp or circumstance, and all the staff just worked through it, quickly, efficiently and not without a tad bit of colorful language.
It seemed like the bottom line was not creativity, or pride, or joy, it was efficiency. Each dish had to be made in record time: started by one chef, finished by another, garnished and taken out to the guests by the servers. I don’t know if the chefs even thought about the diners outside, other than when the servers reported that some were being picky or impatient. A muscle-memory, tunnel-vision focus seemed to take over, especially when the orders were coming in quick succession. Chefs just did what the had to do, olive oil and garlic, shrimp, white wine, tomatoes, cream sauce, linguine, next dish.
I must have sounded so naive on my first day. One of the owners had asked why I wanted to be in the food industry and in reply, I had explained how right the process of food preparation and creating in the kitchen feels to me, how much food intrigues and excites me.
After the rush, everyone relaxed substantially, there were more laughs and teasing, drinks of water or iced-tea, snacking on a ruined creme brulee or a pizza that was sent back for one reason or another. The rest of the evening was fairly simple, one, two or three orders at a time, nothing too hectic.
The entire experience was not what I’d expected, or fantasized about.
None of it seemed creative to me. It seemed methodical, removed, compartmentalized. Again, a couple of the chefs told me I was crazy to want to do this. But if they wouldn’t encourage me to do this, why were they doing it? Didn’t they enjoy this job?
Maybe the restaurant industry itself is to blame for this seeming lack of creativity? That is, if we must play the blame game in looking for reasons… Diners expect food quickly, they expect it to taste the same if their companion orders the same thing; they expect fast, friendly, delicious service and they, we (because I’m included in this), more than likely don’t think about how.
Or maybe kitchen culture itself is at fault? I read the first chapter of Chef Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and I could see remnants of that culture in this kitchen – the macho chef, who can have the most orders going at once? Or maybe it’s just not kitchen culture to care about where the food you’re cooking came from? Or maybe the long hours and fast pace just slice the caring out of you so that all that’s left is the cooking?
Maybe you don’t really have time to care…
Maybe it’s just a different kind of creativity…
Maybe, maybe, maybe… Well maybe, it doesn’t matter. Isn’t it enough that the wonderful staff of this restaurant welcomed me into the their kitchen to watch them crank out dish after dish of delicious, beautiful food, providing their guests with a great evening?
I have no idea how to answer any of these questions and I’m (obviously) still very VERY new to this industry. I’m not comfortable with what I’ve seen, but when is anyone ever comfortable with having their expectations shattered? I am however, very intrigued. This was just one shadowing experience in one kitchen, and every kitchen and restaurant is different. I’m looking forward to other experiences, at this and other restaurants.
And yes, I still want to be in this industry. I still want to know what it’ll feel like on that line. It is not without some trepidation, that I look forward to finding out.