I’ve been working in the kitchen of No 9 Park for nearly 3 years, spending the last year as sous chef. My responsibilities have changed, my focus has broadened, my stress transposed. I work the line less often, and when I do it is a different station each time, which frankly, is more fun than you can imagine. I split my time between cooking the line and expediting, where I manage the tickets, call the orders, the fires, and send food to the dining room. A conductor rather than a violinist.
“Do you ever get nervous working the line?” “Is working the line still difficult, or is expediting more challenging?” “Ever make mistakes on the line?”
Some people like to ask. First of all, I’ve never been worried a day in my life. Yes, working the line can still be difficult, but not like before; expediting offers novel challenges now that I am learning to overcome, and; yes, I make mistakes still. I just understand how to fix them before it is a problem.
Working the line requires a peace and calm of mind, not unlike that which is described during meditation. Quiet the mind waves. Let the noise and the chatter wash over you. Focus solely on that one idea. And a million ideas. And no ideas. All at once. Get distracted by the noise, focus too much or not enough, and that calm mind can get lost. It is often where “beginner’s luck” comes from. First day on a new station, don’t know enough to worry about details, and the terror jolts you into a state of focus that can be ideal.
More simply put, you have to be thinking 5 minutes ahead at all times. Once you’ve got muscle memory, cook your station. But in your head, you’re working 5 minutes in the future. For instance: Chef has just told you to fire a duck going with a hake. Billy calls 5 minutes. Other orders continue to come in, and you have 3 other ducks on the range in the process of cooking.
0. Start flashing duck in the oven. Get veg for this plate in the pan. (As soon as this pick is done, fire another duck leg in the oven). 1. Baste the other ducks on the range. (Gets pans on for the next two picks). 2. Flash plates in the oven. (Check my drawer – I think I’m out of cabbage). 3. Continue basting other ducks. Slice the breast for this pick and let it bleed. (If I don’t get something to drink, I’ll die; Need to start flashing another duck in the oven in 2 mins). 4. Puree down, duck on the plate, veg on. (Change my spoon water, check temps on all three ducks I’m cooking). 5. Sauce plate and push to window. Flash duck for next pick. Fire duck leg. (After this pick, wipe down my station).
Distractions, not staying calm, and panicking lead to chaos.
Expediting has a different feel. The station is designed such that you aren’t thinking 5 minutes ahead, but 10 or 15. You can see how many menus are out, how many tickets are rolling in, how many tables are fired at the same time. But you can control the pace, and the tickets. They cannot control you. Or all is lost. While you manage the tickets, you field questions from servers, questions from the line, help plate. You wipe, salt, and garnish every plate. Call for runners. Some nights, you never stop talking.
“Ordering 3 tuna, 2 prune, followed by 2 duck, 1 hake, 2 lamb.” Make sure they all call it back. Get plates for cold apps. “Next entree pick, 3 lamb, 1 is medium and sauce on side, and a duck.” Get plates for entrees. “Order fire truffle gnocchi and a steak tartare.” Fire table 31 mains. Fire table 35 mains. Fire table 54 mid. “How long on entrees? Next entree pick, 2 more duck, 3 salmon, and 2 ribeye.” “Ordering in 2 greens, 2 prune, and a corzetti, followed by 5 ribeye, 2 are midwell, 1 is rare.” Garnish the apps. “Runners!” Entrees in the window at the same time. Garnish and wipe them all. Check the entrees, oh god d– “Which one of these lamb is medium? And do I have sauce on side? Can I PLEASE have one of these medium….now.” Send the apps first. Fire table 40 mains, Fire table 60 mains, Order in 2 tasting. “RUNNERS! Table 35, tuna 1, tuna 2, tuna 3, prunes to 4 and 5. Nice looking tunas cold apps….” And so on.
When the pace is perfect, there isn’t anything better. No matter how busy it is, controlling it perfectly so the line feels the rhythm, so you feel the pulse, nothing is better. Why be worried?