The line cook chronicles: Part 2

The weeds

Have you ever heard the expression “in the weeds”? It means you’re falling behind in a big way. I had never heard it before working in a kitchen but lately I have heard a lot of people in other fields use the term as well. The first night I worked by myself on the line, I got so deep in the weeds, a fucking John Deere lawnmower couldn’t get me out. It was so bad I almost quit on the spot and I was sure , at the time, there was no way in hell I would or could ever become a chef. I remember the look on the chef’s face when he saw all the tickets hanging in my rail, disgust ,anger,frustration, fear. It was bad. Real bad. Like so bad you need to rethink your life bad. But let’s start from the beginning.

I had trained on the station for about two weeks. They called the station garde manger but basically it was every cold or hot appetizer. All told there were about eight dishes plus any specials. Like I said I had two weeks training, I knew the dishes. I had copious notes and diagrams to remember how the station should be set up. I had worked the station but never by myself, and usually if it got really busy the cook training me took over. But I felt I was ready. The day before I was to fly solo we prepped the station like crazy so I wouldn’t have to do too much the next day and I wouldn’t have to stress so hard. I checked with the sous chefs before I left, only thirty reservations, a slow day, that helped also. The next day I came in at nine in the morning, I was working a double, lunch and dinner service by myself. I was early but I was so nervous and I just wanted to make double sure I was ready for service. Lunch service was very slow, allowing me to get a lot done for dinner service, also allowed my stomach to relax a little, it was doing somersaults all day. I was anxious but gradually some of that tension started to slip away. But as lunch was winding down I overheard the host tell one of the sous chefs that reservations were picking up, to which he replied “Good, usually Mondays are so boring”. I had a mild panic attack but got it under control, it was still Monday right? How busy is it going to be? Later in the afternoon the sous chef came behind the line to check our mise en place, and told us “ We are picking up for tonight, make sure you are set up for a decent service.” One of the cooks asked him how many reservations we had. “ I think we’re up to about one hundred” oh God. Oh God. Now I was getting panicky. That was fairly busy for one cook on that station, on busy nights there were usually two. I took a deep breath, trying to steady my nerves. I calmed down a bit. I started to go through all my mise en place again, and made back ups where I could. After the pre shift meeting I had calmed down, but I was still a little nervous. The executive chef walked up to the line and said,

“ Alright guys, we’re up to 175, it’s going to be a good night! I guess there’s a convention in town no one knew about. Everybody better be ready! “

I almost fainted, in fact I did feel light headed. 175? That’s fucking busy! We usually did about 200 on a Saturday! Fuck! I was going to get destroyed. I knew it now. How in the hell could we go from 30 to 175? In a day? Actually I found out later the almost everybody fudged the numbers to motivate the cooks to move a little faster. I was having a massive panic attack, so I closed my eyes took a deep breathe and tried to relax somewhat. When I opened my eyes there was a double espresso sitting on my cutting board and one of the other cooks winked, and said “you need it, good luck new guy.”

I drank it in one gulp, checked the time, and waited for the tickets.

The first few tickets came in and I coasted. Maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad after all. That espresso had seemingly made my head vibrate but I was in control. I could see the dining room from my station and didn’t look too full, so far so good. I wasn’t really paying attention to the rest of the line because I was so focused on my own station. If I had looked around I would have seen the pizza guy getting crushed because there were so many people waiting at the bar to sit down. Alas, I was too busy obsessing over my mise en place. I did notice it start to get louder, a sort of murmur was building in the dining room. Clinking glasses , laughter, cocktail shaker shaking, could be heard coming from the bar area. I looked up to see a steady stream of people being escorted to their tables. I also noticed they were all four tops, no dueces. Fear and self doubt had crept up on me from behind and were going to stay for a visit. Now the dining room had built to a cacophonous roar of loud conversations and occasional guffaws. The worst thing that can happen was happening. The dining room was almost full, but there were no tickets in the kitchen. That usually means you’re going to get slammed out of your mind, meaning all the tickets will be fired at the same time. Sure enough the POS printer started humming and clicking off tickets, first two in a row, then three, then a few more.

“ Here we go guys, be ready for pain.” One of the cooks uttered while giggling.

I was sweating bullets trying to keep everything together. The pace of the tickets was increasing but I was just able to hold on to it, praying the whole time. When you’re busy cooking, time slows a bit, you become so focused you don’t notice what’s going on outside of your personal zone. All I could see were tickets, and a blur of white next to me, the cooks next to me seemed to be getting busier, they were the pasta guys. At that moment the chef walked up to the line, he had a pad and paper in his hand, he looked at the board which was full of tickets, then looked at me, then wrote something on his pad. He ripped the sheet off and stuck it in my ticket rail. It said 7 mussel soup, VIP. He looked at me, said “ Pick up, VIP” , he started to walk away then turned and said “Langoustines will be next.”

And that was it, I was horribly, horribly, weeded. There were so many tickets I just started turning around in circles. I’ve seen line cooks that worked for me do this and always made a point of walking up to them and telling them to calm down and focus, that we were here to help. But that wasn’t happening for me. I had the idea do all the easy dishes first just to try to get some tickets out. So I started making salads, sort of ignoring the hot food figuring I would get to it in a minute. As I was doing this one of the cooks walked over to me and asked me if I needed help. I nodded, and he grabbed all the tickets and started asking me what I had working, I told him I had three salads made.

“What! None of this is fired! Dude! Fuck!”

Dude fuck indeed. He gave me an all day ( how many of each dish) and started helping me. I remember looking out into the dining room and a few of the captains were staring at me, and looking at thier watches. Some of the front waiters were congregated around the pass looking at me. Then I saw the sous chef stop to talk to them, then look right at me and start to walk over to me like his shoes were on fire. My insides were melting and I desperately just wanted to run away as fast as I could. I knew it was bad.

“Are you in the fucking weeds dude? The food is taking forever!”

The sous chef grabbed all the tickets, rearranged them, and told me to step aside a little. He then told the other cook to go back to his station. He then cooked everything, told me to plate it, told me what to do every step, he wasn’t particularly nice about it but I didn’t care I just wanted to get those tickets out of the kitchen as fast as I could. As I watched him I was struck by how seemingly easy it was for him, he didn’t rush, even though now there was a crowd of servers and captains waiting for their food. He tasted everything he plated, seasoning every sauce, every garnish, never getting anxious. The executive chef had walked over and was watching, giving me a look of contempt. He pulled me over.

“What’s your name again?”

“Mark”

“Mark, bro, you need to do a lot better, what the fuck was that? “

I didn’t know what to say. So I just muttered that I was sorry.

“You should be sorry, what the fuck?”

The last few tickets he made me do, but the sous chef stood next to me and talked me through it. When the board was clear he looked at me and let out a big sigh.

The chefs walked away together and I heard one of them mumble

“Fucking new guys.”

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