[Back of House]
The weeds. A funny way of saying “getting behind.” What’s not funny however is being ten tables deep with a lineup of chits piling up and a customer breathing fire down your neck because his pizza is taking 30 minutes. On a typical night, without warning, the kitchen can go from warm to broil in a matter of minutes. Think about this scenario for a moment.
Friday night and it’s five o’clock. Servers, expediter and managers get a quick shift meeting to talk about what is going on that night. The kitchen is double stocking the cold tables and drawers, staff is ramping up for the service, prep is replacing everything we pulled from the fridges, and the Pivot is rolling up his sleeves and preparing for battle. At 5:15 the first order comes in; it’s an easy one. Table of two, 10 oz. NY, medium-well with an Asian Steak and Pear salads. No apps, real simple. Then five minutes later another order comes in; a table of three, easy as pie. It continues of like this for a few more minutes, but then you hear it. At 5:25 the chit machine starts to pick up its pace, and before you know it, it’s rhythmic chatter turns into a dubstep like roar of non-stop paper. The orders are pouring in one after the other in an endless stream of white paper filled with modifiers.
“Bullshit” the pivot mutters under his breath, “they’re holding the orders.” The silence and calm of the kitchen is now broken. He grabs the stack of chits and begins to rhyme the orders off at the top of his lungs to his grill, sauté, salad and fryers, all the while calculating the cook times, organizing the orders to arrive on time and hot. He puts the orders in front of him, lined up two rails deep. It’s on baby!
This isn’t abnormal, this isn’t even a problem yet. We’re not even close to the weeds. You see, the kitchen is still organized. The staff is in high gear and the pressure is on but things are moving forward. Then it happens. The host arrives on scene, “45 open menus!” he yells to you. One of the servers runs back to tell the front of house manager about a table… A table they forgot. “We need to rush this next order” says the KM. Shit… This is where everything starts to fall apart.
First it’s a missing order, then it’s a slip of the finger and a table gets a well done steak instead of a medium-well. Now we’re remaking meals. Then it gets really bad. The expediter grabs a chit before it’s been sold through the window. “I just need to check something,” he says, but he never comes back. Now were in the weeds; the point where everything weighs down on you so hard you can feel the your chest being crushed. Emotions run high as people are pushed past their breaking point.
One rush table, two remakes, a few missing apps on a bill that is two minutes from finished, and a rogue chit sitting on the expos garnishing station. “Fuck.” The orders are hitting the third rail and you can barely breathe, what do you do?
I’ll tell you what you do. You breath. Put your head down for ten seconds and just breathe. Then when you are ready, move like a machine. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of you, it doesn’t matter who likes you at this point, or who is calling you a bastard, or a dick. All that matters is the food. You yell down the line to rush the apps, sell the meal to the next available table that matches. Then you say it, those two words that everyone is dreading. “I need…” “I need steaks of every possible doneness and ribs and chicken and burgers! I need salmon! I need sauce! I need those pastas, and the salads tossed! You begin to sound like Dr. Seuss. I need this, I need that, I need everything, and don’t tell me you don’t have it just give it to me.
You sell through the window twelve chits at a time. Servers are cursing your name, wishing you the worst possible fate, but you just keep moving. Ten more chits, ten more tables, everyone is running to keep up. The orders never stop coming. New ones in, old ones out. Faster and faster each time. Don’t look up just keep reading, timing, and planning. Ten minutes for this, apps first, five minutes till it’s out, three minutes, two minutes, hold this order their not ready. And then all of a sudden it stops.
The sound of the chit machine that has been haunting you all night fades away. You’re not sure if its broken or if the rush is truly over. You look up and the window and rail are both empty. The clock says 8:22. Three hours have passed in the blink of an eye. You ask for a coffee and a cigarette as the line cleans up. You tell your staff they did great. “You guys were awesome tonight!” Then you look at the expo and the server who is practically crying into her shoulder, crack half a smile and say “Sorry kid, nothing personal, it’s just business.”
I can tell you from personal experience, having spent more than 30,000 hours chained to a kitchen; it is just business. The work is hard, hot and unforgiving, but at least it’s honest work. We have made servers cry, we’ve been hated, and we’ve even been threatened. Once I even lost a line cook who cut a finger off. They rushed him to the hospital, cleaned up the blood off of the line and I didn’t even notice until he was back from his stitches. It’s nothing personal, but when you are switched on and in the game, your only focus is pumping out orders. When you’re in the weeds nothing else matters except getting out, so you can finally breathe again.