Friday, June 17, 2011

What It Is to Prep

Last night's service, as you recall, was full of all kinds of things not normally part of the cooking agenda: mutilation, serious sharing about one's culinary past, almost-tearful thanks and extensive displays of gratitude. This is not, in any kitchen, a standard night. The thing that you don't see in TV food shows and cooking broadcasts is that the moments of drama are few and far between. Shows like Top Chef, and even shows with master drama queens like Gordon Ramsay at the helm, have to splice together hours and hours of footage to create the tension necessary to sustain a suspenseful narrative. Here, in a normal day post-dramatic self-mutilation, is what happens in a kitchen.

Assuming you are conducting a dinner-only service, you arrive at 1:00pm, showered and with your mid-long-length hair tied back in a kerchief. If you have any major cuts, you freshly bandage your injury, and slip your injured hand into a rubber glove, which you will remove and replace about 30 times in the next eight hours. You tie a clean apron, and squirt a bit of soap and a tiny pour of bleach into a bucket full of water. You drop a clean rag into that bucket, wring it out, and carefully wipe down your station--first to clean it, then to keep wet in case you need to sanitize the counter again.

At the head chef's request, you first think of bread: the oven has to go on, then the dough that's been rising since yesterday has to be portioned out. You must be careful not to overhandle the dough--any starter recipe that's been around for over a century shouldn't be kneaded or messed with in any unnecessary way. You turn out the dough onto a floured board, and you use a serrated knife to chop off loaf-size hunks and pile them into floured bread baskets. Everything becomes about lining things up--because once the service starts, and the tickets start coming in, it'll be impossible to spontaneously bake off a new batch of loaves.

You wait to see what needs to be done--are there sauces to be made? Ingredients to be chopped? Herbs and greens to be gathered? You take inventory of your station--what are you running low on? Which plants, so beautiful and photogenic yesterday, now need to be tossed for fresher, prettier pickings? Are there specials that you need to prepare for? Your senior chef instructs you, and you move forward. You chop rhubarb--bags of i, to stir with lots of sugar and vanilla bean for cobbler. You pick apronfuls of fennel fronds, tarragon, mint, and basil, and handpick nasturtium blossoms to top your salads. Certain greens need to be prettier than others, so for the greens that won't be chopped, they need to be shiny and beautiful leaves. Your apron is bulging with freshly picked ingredients, and for a second you imagine yourself as a pioneer woman set out on her farm, harvesting berries for a freshly baked pie.

You carry it back, and you lay out your station--cleaning out every bin, and refilling each one with fresh ingredients, fresh flowers, freshly scooped cheese and sliced bread and chopped vegetables. You wipe down your space, laying out clean cutting boards, clean knives, and clean towels. You prep staff meal--a few flatbread pizzas, maybe--then sweep out the oven to keep it clean for future baking. You think you've got everything covered, every dish answered for, until you peek into your "low-boy," the refrigerated space below your station and see that there are, at most, three slices left of one of your desserts. You notify the waitstaff that it's a limited supply, and you tell your head chef so he can plan to limit a few orders tonight.

And then there're a few last steps to take... you move some desserts to your "speed-rack", a series of slotted trays below your oven so they're within easy warm reach. You turn on your convection oven so it's ready to heat up any warm desserts, and lay potholders on top of the machine. You stir up your sauces, throw clean spoons into each of your ingredient bins, and churn out fresh ice for any oyster orders. You spread out your various garnishes, and fill up any little cups that aren't quite full enough. (You place the little envelope full of chocolate sauce atop your convection oven, so it's nice and warm in case you need to write some special messages on a dessert plate.) The waitstaff come through and deliver coffee--it comes sweet and cold, and you park it on a corner where passerby can't see you sipping at it as service takes off.

And then you wait. You wait for 5:30, for the dining room to officially open, and then for your first tickets to splutter out of the machine. Once they start, you whip out clean plates, throw tongs into giant metal bowls, and start tossing up greens. When a ticket comes in that carries two orders of the same dish, you prep two salads at once--two bowlfuls of ingredients ready to go, tossed with dressings and herbs and a dash of salt and pepper. (You silently wonder why one table would ever order two of the same dish, when it's so easy to share and sample from each other's plates.) When you finish up a ticket, you slide it up onto the counter with the dishes and yell out the server's name. If your dish is part of a bigger order at another station, you call that you're "up on" your table, and hope to God that the other station wraps things up before your tower of greens decides to self-destruct. If they're all waiting on you, for you to finish shucking a handful of oysters or assembling a platter of charcuterie, you tell them to wait, and you do everything you can to speed up the process.
When you round corners with trays, you make sure you shout as you're moving. "CORNER!" as you round a corner, "BEHIND!" as you cross behind someone with a big tray. You never know when someone will decide to double-back, or to jerk straight up, so you give them as much warning as possible. "CORNER, HOT!" as you round the corner with a tray of freshly poured bowls of hot rhubarb compote. "HOT!" yells your entree chef as he deposits a few freshly-used pans into the dish bin.

Your dishwasher, saint that he is, dunks any hot dishes in water, sprays them off with soapy water, then loads them into a plastic rack and slides them into an industrial strength washer. When the washer goes on, all the faucets in the kitchen go wimpy and weak-streaming for a minute. Then a great puff of steam emerges, the faucets go back on, and the dishes emerge hot and sparkling, ready to dry off and load back onto the racks. And they're desperately needed--waitstaff are running through the kitchen, picking up orders, and dropping off dirty dishes. (It's amazing that their shirts stay so immaculately white--people spread their food from neat central arrangements to the very outer rims of the dish. It's a messy business, eating elegant food.)

It's round 7:00, and suddenly the tables that started to order salads an hour ago are ordering up cobblers and slices of chocolate tart and cheesecake. Your vanilla ice cream is melting right under your scoop, but your chocolate sorbet won't budge--you rush to plate quickly so you can throw your ice cream back in the freezer, and let your sorbet sit out to soften. You get down to your last slices of angel food, and reserve the last slice for a late-night order, to go to the server who can sell it off. You can also see the problems coming down the pike--the vanilla will run out, as will the candied ginger for the cobbler, so you start chopping up slivers of fresh ginger, coating them in sugar to cut the sharpness of the fruit.

It starts to round 8:00pm, and the waitstaff fills you in on who's still to come--a 6-top (6 people) at 8:30, delayed. A few locals wander into the bar, and you're suddenly unsure if you have enough

salad greens to last out the night. But they're locals, so they know what they like--oysters, a basic salad with blue cheese and hazelnuts, nothing too taxing to churn out as you're cleaning up. A server comes through and takes your end-of-night drink order--red, white, light or dark beer. The entree chefs start to unload their bins, laying out bowls of leftover pasta, rice, and potatoes for staff meal. One of them shreds up leftover cuts of beef and weaves them into the potatoes, creating a deconstructed shepherd's pie. (At 10:00pm, there's nothing as satisfying as a giant spoonful of potatoes and meat to wrap up your day and send you off to a good night's sleep.) You clean out your salad station, tossing the little odds and ends of chopped cucumber, avocado, and herbs into a big bowl. (Not all ingredients can be carried over into the next day, so little scraps of pre-dressed fish and lettuce make for perfectly good salad components.)

Finally, the last orders come in, and you wrap each bin of your station in a fresh layer of plastic wrap. Your drink arrives, and you load up a plate with the best leftovers imaginable--hot risotto, crusty bread, bowls of leftover mushrooms cooked in stock and tangy tomatoes, and wildly flavorful greens. You wolf it down--partly because you've been on your feet for 8+ hours, and partly because hours of cooking leave you hungering for an actual meal. The wine never tasted so good, and the company never so entertaining--swapping old stories of infamous crimes and misdeeds around town, laughing as you squeal with pain as you clean off and rebandage your wounds, and pitching in as you assemble breakfast plates for the next morning. You run your towel of water, soap, and bleach over your station once more, make notes as to new ingredients for the next day, and finally take off your bandana and let down your hair. It's been a long night, but your last memory is of feeling a deep physical satisfaction with the work you've done. If every night of a desk job ended this way, I'm not sure if anyone would ever retire.

1 comment:

  1. I had no idea. Gives one a whole new appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes...