Your dining room is full of happy customers looking forward to a great meal. You are proud of the job you’ve done putting together some crowd-pleasing specials that the waiters are having no problem selling alongside your classic dishes. The orders start coming in and, at first, things in the kitchen are humming right along. But before you can begin to relax a little and start to enjoy the well-oiled culinary machine you thought you had assembled, you notice a few things aren’t quite right. Entrées coming off the fish station are looking dried out and over-cooked. The veal chops are taking forever to come off the grill station. A little while latter, the vegetable cook is looking nervous at the same time that the side dishes on several plates are looking skimpy. Waiters are returning with plates that have been sent back. The expediter tries to correct them, but ends up screwing up other tables’ orders in the process. As more veal chops are ordered, more plates are dying in the window waiting for the chops to make their appearance and complete their tickets. As dissatisfaction among the guests takes its natural course and rolls downhill, the waiters become less jocular and more ornery. Just then, the expediter calls for the entrées for the 25 guests in the private dinning room to be picked up. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Saying that it’s a lousy feeling to be in a kitchen that’s going down in flames (figuratively or otherwise) doesn’t put a fine enough point on it. To lessen the chances of ever being in that situation again, let’s look at the primary reasons it happens, and what we can do to prevent it.
From a chef’s point of view, prep time is one of the most important parts of the day to examine for things that he or she can control that can easily cause service to back up. First, an accurate prep list needs to be written early enough so that orders can be placed soon enough to have all the raw product in house in time to prep. Extra attention needs to be paid to unusual ingredients needed for any specials that are planned. When orders are delivered, be sure to check them in for accuracy. It’s easier to correct any mistakes at that point than hours later, when your cooks are looking for product they need immediately that’s not there.
The next part of successful prep is to have sufficient staff scheduled to get all of the work done on time for service, without burning your crew out before they even plate their first order. If part of your prep consists of butchering whole fish or primal cuts of meat, make sure you have people on hand who are trained and experienced at doing it. It’s even better if you can have others assist them, so that you are continually training more of your cooks to do more and more of everything that goes on in your kitchen. With this system, everyone wins. The same is true of any specialized, high-skill job you need to get done, whether it is perfect braising, sauce making or fine knife skills. When the cooks on your line have done most or all of the prep that they’re handling at service, even just occasionally, they’re more likely to treat if with respect, resulting in greater quality going onto their plates, and less product going into the trash.
The other part of successful prep that will prepare your kitchen for a busy night is clear direction from managers, coupled with sufficient follow-up. The two basic points to cover are quality and quantity. Just what exactly do you want your cooks to prepare, and how much? If someone is portioning fillets, should they be 6, 7, 8 or 9 ounces each? And how many should they cut? Telling them the answers is a good first step. But without making sure they are using a scale, with some enthusiasm, even 20 minutes into the task, and possibly stacking the deck in their favor by telling them how many PSMOs to use (and counting them after they get them on their station), there is a good chance something will get lost in the translation. Getting these points correct during prep will avoid steaks being returned at service, and lessen the chance of running out. The same is true with everything being prepped. Sauces should taste good, as well as filling up the correct bain. Garnishes should be attractive, and stored in a way that they’ll still be attractive in a few hours, in sufficient numbers to last the whole shift. And so it is with everything being produced during this very important part of the day. A chef should never feel like his kitchen’s prep time is on autopilot. It’s always time well spent for him to take periodic laps around the kitchen and give respectful, constructive corrections where needed. Even if everything looks good, it’s a great opportunity to tell someone, “In my twenty years in the industry, those are the best (fill in the blank) I’ve ever seen.” It’s OK to exaggerate to make a point.
Next, comes the actual service. It’s very important for each line cook to have a clear expectation of just how he or she needs to have their station set up, and by what time. This includes having all necessary utensils such as specific ladles, pans and knives handy, and having grills and steamers at the proper temperatures, as well as having the right amount of the right food. If a busy night is anticipated, everyone needs to be aware of how much more prep they should have on hand as compared to a normal night. A sous chef or manager should always check each station to see that expectations have been met. If any stations are not up to snuff in terms of quality and quantity of food and equipment, corrections should be made immediately and the reasons ascertained (although acting on those reasons might be better served at another time.) If there is a cook on a station that is new to them, it’s a good idea to pair them with someone who has worked that station before until they get the hang of it. Any specials should be demonstrated to the cooks who will have to produce them, and the waiters should get a description and a taste of the specials to help them sell the dishes. In addition to the line cooks at each station, there should be enough managers to expedite, check for quality and jump in if needed.
Although our focus is what a chef can do to insure smooth service from the kitchen, we shouldn’t forget that the wait staff certainly plays an important role in this endeavor. Ultimately, we’re trying to get our guests the food they want, exactly when they want it. The waiters are in a unique position to communicate this information to those of us in the kitchen. Hopefully, we can assume that a good system is in place for the waiters to take orders and get them to the kitchen. One way the wait staff can really help the kitchen do its job is to be aware of any nuance taking place at a certain table, and then take the time and effort to let the chef in on the secret. Anything having to do with special requests, whether it’s that Table 16 has to be finished with dessert no later than 7:30 to make a show; or the couple at Table 20 is having a very romantic tête-à-tête, and is in no rush whatsoever; or that the rib-eye at Table 12 must be very well-done; or that a gentleman at Table 3 is deathly allergic to peanuts, should be clearly related to the chef in time for him to do something about it. It’s a green chef who doesn’t appreciate a waiter who can calmly and clearly explain the problem at a particular table, and then suggest what they think needs to be done to alleviate the issue. And wouldn’t it be nice if the waiter in charge of the large banquet let the kitchen know that it would be fine to wait 10 minutes before firing the entrées? Of course, this kind of cooperation goes both ways, and a chef is much more likely to get it if he reciprocates on a regular basis. Just as any kitchen can be helped or hindered by the front of the house, the opposite is also true. As a chef, do everybody a favor and always help the waiters however you can. It’s as important as good prep work in terms of keeping your kitchen out of the weeds.
Now, back to the kitchen staff. The jobs description of your stewards in the pot washing station is straightforward, but crucial in keeping the food coming out of the kitchen in a timely manner. Your cooks can’t do their jobs without sufficient amounts of the right equipment, and it’s the rare restaurant that has enough to get through a meal period without washing and re-using. Make sure that you have enough stewards scheduled and that they have the equipment and training they need to do their jobs. Soap, scrub pads and hot water are not glamorous, but don’t ever run out of any of them. Also, be sure to treat these members of your team with all due respect and professional courtesy. If a screaming hot sauté pan ever finds its way to the pot station without clear warning, the experience should end up being worse for the cook responsible than for the hapless pot washer who inadvertently grabs it.
The two main problems you can have with your line cooks at service are quality issues and timing issues. Good initial training and regular reinforcement can keep both in line. As far as quality issues go, don’t take anything for granted when a cook first starts working the line. Even if they have great experience at another establishment, take the time to show them exactly how you want things done. Then keep a close eye on what comes off their station and don’t put off making corrections when things start to stray from what you have in mind. The beautiful, golden brown seared sea scallops you showed your cook how to do will only have to go through a few less-than-beautiful iterations before they start to look poached. Nip even small problems in the bud before they become large. As far as timing goes, make the effort to teach your cooks specific ways to handle a super-busy night on their station. Show your grill cook what a good idea it is to keep a few veal chops pre-cooked to medium rare so he can get them to medium or well-done a few minutes sooner when the need arises. Conversely, if you see him using a similar technique for snapper, let him know it’s not such a good idea.
Your sous chef’s or kitchen manager’s main job during service is to orchestrate the entire show in terms of timing and quality. If they can pull that off through a combination of experience, paying a lot of attention to what’s going on around them and effective management of the crew, you should have no worries about having anything but a seamless night. We’ve already mentioned the importance of your line cooks getting very regular feedback about the plates they are producing. This fact needs to be stressed to your managers, as they are the ones who will be giving the feedback.
The manager’s other major task is expediting. As much art as science, knowing just when to call for which plates, and when to wait, requires a big-picture understanding of what’s going on in the kitchen as well as the dinning room. The person expediting needs to be keenly aware of how each cook is doing at any given time, in addition to having his or her finger on the pulse of what is happening at each table. Clear, courteous communication with the waiters is key, and should be constantly cultivated.
Finally, the managers need to realize that one of their most important functions is to solve problems that come up as quickly as possible without causing more damage somewhere else. Systematic changes to prevent a particular problem from reoccurring can happen later, but while in the midst of a situation, everyone needs to take a deep breath, stay focused, solve the problem and move on. Within a few hours the shift will be over, and everyone can pat each other on the back for another great night in the kitchen.