Switching from cooking the lunch service to cooking the dinner service on the line is like switching from Coca Cola to cocaine. Both are stimulating, one slightly more than the other...
I arrive Friday afternoon at the restaurant surprisingly awake. It's the first time in a month where I haven't debated over whether to sleep in an extra ten minutes or take a shower. Some people can adapt to a 5A.M. wake-up call, but, I'm apparently not one of those people.
I get out of bed before my alarm goes off and head to the gym. I go for a leisurely swim then shower, blow dry my hair (a first), return home and pour myself a cup of freshly brewed coffee (a luxury), check my email, read the NY Times online, sharpen my knives, and head for the subway. A great start, it practically feels like I'm on vacation.
But no, I arrive at the restaurant during one of the busiest lunches of the year to prepare for the evening service. I walk through the kitchen to gather equipment and ingredients and notice the lunch cooks have this look of – well how to describe it exactly – not fear, but an expression of trying to hang on for dear life in a roller coaster with no seat belts.
There's really no time for fear while being whipped around the loop-de-loops. It's that stomach-in-throat sensation that either allows for tunnel vision to take over and control the situation or sabotages the best life saving attempts. Fight or flight. Adrenaline. Pupils dilated, eyes bulging, hand and body movements working in overdrive.
I set up my cutting board in the back prep room, grab another cup of coffee, and thank God I'm not on the line while all hell is breaking loose.
Stupid me. It's been a month and half since I cooked at night on the line.
Here's the pros and cons to cooking the lunch vs. the dinner service: lunch cooks always have more mise en place because they set up the kitchen in the morning for the day and night. The lunch cooks are responsible for the various stocks, sauce bases, and time consuming complex garnishes. But the actual service is quicker and they have the evenings and often the weekends to relax.
Dinner cooks have less mise en place but a longer service – about 3 to 4 hours longer. The menu is often expanded and the clientele order multiple courses. And dinner cooks always work the weekends, and often suffer from the absence of a normal social life.
But, if you're a cook, you want to work the dinner service. That is where it's at, so to speak.
I much prefer the energy in the nighttime. There is nothing like it. It's fun, physically demanding, and much more spirited during service.
However, I'll admit it's been nice to have the evenings and weekends off. And frankly, I can get more done in the morning because I can work on my station without spending precious minutes searching for equipment or ingredients.
But, as my chef nicely reminded me: "This is what you signed up for. Do you want to be an excellent prep cook or a really tough line cook?" I think the answer's obvious: I'd like to be both and retain some sort of normal life outside the kitchen while not having to wake up at the crack of dawn. Subtract an hour from the mise en place of the lunch cooks and an hour of service from the nighttime cooks and you've got a great schedule. Sounds reasonable, no?
I slurp my coffee in the back prep room half listening to the orders being fired in the kitchen and start to ponder how in the world I'm going to set up my station with no stove or oven at my immediate disposal. I put my potatoes on to simmer in the upstairs salon kitchen and come back down to begin all my cut work: chopping mint, parsley, daikon rounds, mushroom tops, baby turnips, baby radishes, scallions, etc.
An hour passes and I'm still blazing through my knife work. There's only 250 covers for the evening. Only. I check on my potatoes, which have been mysteriously removed from the burner they were simmering on and replaced with some other bubbling concoction. I refrain from freaking out, I know we all need to get our stuff cooked, and there are still a few hours left before service. Another cook offers up his burner and all is well.
The lunch service is winding down and the hot appetizer cook generously gives me some space on his burners for my turnips to simmer. So now I have potatoes cooking upstairs and turnips cooking downstairs and I'm in the back prep room equidistant from both kitchens.
I'm pretty much done with the knife work, but I don't have enough mise en place to make it through the whole evening and I'll have to wait for a second shipment of produce to arrive. No stress (yeah, right), I'll finish my prep work in between the first and second seating. I'm used to this by now, and besides, there's nothing I can do about it anyway.
My potatoes are done, I drain the water, bring them back downstairs, peel off their bursting skins, and grind them through a ricer. Then I pass them through a drum sieve to insure extra smoothness. I add enough melted butter to sink the Titanic and some milk. And they taste extra silky rich. Even the sous chef comes by to taste hoping they will elevate his mood – it's been a tough lunch service. They don't, I haven't added salt yet and his wishful hoping turns to disappointment.
"There's no salt!"
"I know chef, they're not finished!"
He walks away shaking his head clearly unsatisfied and we all laugh around the prep table in pity for our poor sous chef who has taken a beating all morning long.
It's 4P.M and the lunch service is still droning on. I'm anxious to set up my station and finish cooking the little garnishes I need to watch over. Instead I spend 20 minutes trying to find a Vita Prep blender so I can purée my turnips for my turnip-ginger foam. I run upstairs to see if anyone has the blender, but a cook has just taken it downstairs. I run downstairs and find the bottom for the blender then search the dishpit for the top.
Success! I have both the top and bottom but they are not working together.
"It's broken, you can only use it on the highest speed or it doesn't turn on", one of the cooks advises.
I set up the blender next to a cook rolling out pasta who looks at me like I must be on drugs and he quickly gathers his ravioli away from the on-the-fritz blender. I apologize in advance knowing since I'm a senior cook and his friend, he'll allow me this indulgence – total abuse of authority and our friendship. I cover the blender with a dish towel since the top to the top has disappeared and I have no time to look for it.
I flick the switch on to 'high-variable' and the motor kickstarts spewing turnip purée everywhere. But it's not too bad, his ravioli are safe. And now it's time to clean up my mess and get on my station.
My station looks like a bomb went off. No one is at fault, the lunch was a whirlwind and my morning counterpart is trying to tidy it up while I'm trying to set it up. We're both in each other's way. Cooks are running back and forth down the line yelling "Behind you! Hot! Behind you!" trying to get their various stations set up.
It's a race to the finish line, but the real finish line is still 7 hours away.
Family meal is put up on the passe and I'm starved after my nice relaxing morning swim and the half marathon I have just run between the upstairs and downstairs kitchen, but I have no time to eat. The smell of rich beef stew with puff pastry crust wafts down the line and my salivary glands start to water. I take another swig of cold coffee hoping it will satiate my hunger. It doesn't.
I work in one of the best kitchens in the world, and I'm starving. Go figure.
The Monk Station lunch cook stays late to help me get everything set up and he makes more of the complex garnishes since they were depleted during lunch. I tell him to go, I know he's tired. But the adrenaline has got to him and he's still in overdrive. Finally he crashes, wishes me well, and packs up.
It's 5P.M. and the evening is off to a slow start, which is not a good thing. It buys me a little more time to get my station set up, but I've been cooking long enough to know it also means we will get hit all at the same time. And we do.
The tickets trickle over from the Garde Manger and Hot Appetizer side of the kitchen to the Entrée line and they are long complex orders. Everyone is working as hard and as fast as possible and the plates are lined up – practically piled up – around the piano to be finished and flashed in the oven and raced to the passe.
The young and talented Saucier is setting the tone and the pace for the entrée line keeping our spirits high and shouting out the fired orders as well as the ones coming up so we can prepare and think ahead while focusing on finishing the immediate dishes. How he is not already exhausted is a mystery. The Saucier creates 25 sauces (maybe more) every day and every night which is no small feat.
The first seating winds down, I'm out of just about all my mise en place. I need more braised romaine lettuce (which thankfully has arrived), more corn canolloni, more, more, more... I manage to cook off enough of everything in the fifteen minutes of rest before the tempest hits again.
The second seating begins and now I am more confidant. I have a better feel for the station at night with all the tasting menus and a more accurate sense of how much preparation I need to do for the next time. The only thing that is ruining my flow are two garnishes for the Saucier's dishes which utilize the deep fryer. These garnishes are rarely part of the lunch-time service so I'm not yet comfortable with the pick-up's.
To complicate matters, the deep fryer is not next to my station. It's on the other side of the piano. This means I have to scramble over to the hot appetizer line and drop my eggplant or wedge potato fries or whatever, while trying to plate dishes and poach halibut on my station. Luckily the Veg. Station cook keeps an eye on the fryer for me.
I'm getting dominated by the tasting menu orders and a sous chef comes down to bail me out. He too is not used to the deep fried garnishes, and we grumble light heartedly about the pick-up. He's fun to work with on the line and as my energy starts to wane his humor and focus keep me going.
The second seating peters out and I'm set for the 3rd seating with mise en place but the heat, lack of food, and dehydration are taking their toll. I'm tired. It's way past my 10 o'clock bedtime.
The 3rd seating is not so bad, but steady nonetheless. There's no time for a break. I'm on overdrive and my muscle memory has taken control which is a good thing because my mind is mush. And I'm so thirsty I could drink a lake.
And finally we get the last order. The rest of the kitchen is cleaning, but the entrée line is finishing the very last touches on the very last dishes. I'm delirious, but happy. I attempt to clean my station, but my mind and body are not working together and my effort to organize is futile. It doesn't really matter anyway, the chef takes everything on my refrigerator shelf and dumps it in the trash. He does this to everyone's shelf to make sure we start fresh the next day. I'm not happy about this, but it does makes clean-up easier.
Thankfully some of the new young cooks come over to help us polish the stainless steel piano, brick the flat-top spotless, and run mountains of pots and pans to the dishpit so we can all get out after a very long 12 hour day and have a much. desired. ice. cold. beer.