Steve Jaeger with a behind-the-scenes look at a restaurant, Friday night, 7 pm.
Chef P stood on the outside of the pick up window staring at the printer which was ominously silent. He said to himself, “Friday night, 7:00 and where are the customers?” On the other side of the line his crew waited. Beano, on the char broiler, the young guy from El Salvador who looked like he belonged in a Catholic Relief Poster. His sweet angelic face hid a soul as black as pitch. The only thing that kept P from firing him was the fact that when the shit hit the fan, Beano was a monster. Nicky on the sauté station was tall, thin and nervous. He had a problem with running off at the mouth at the servers especially after a couple of shift drinks. Betty was on Garde Manger and could put together a beautiful plate but got bogged down trying to make every plate photo ready. None were ideal but they were warm bodies and could hang when things got hairy.
What made P nervous was that on a nice warm Spring night the place should have been humming by 7:00 and it wasn’t. That meant only two things, they were going to have a very rare slow Friday or the floodgates would break and they would get buried. You never knew in this crazy business. He reminded his crew to have all their mise ready to rock and not to let down or they’d be in a hole as soon as the printer started spitting. Maybe it was a good thing they were slow, they were a man short and P was exhausted.
P was on his ninth consecutive straight double. His Sous, John B was on vacation, fishing down in Tennessee. P was working from 8:00 in the morning doing prep, ordering and working the lunch line and then going into dinner prep and working the expo station through the dinner rush. If he was lucky he only had to do twelve hours a day. He had not had a full day off in more than a month and was getting loopy especially after pounding at the bar for a couple of hours after his shift. All he wanted was to not have to get up by an alarm for a couple of days but right now he was in the barrel and if he didn’t like it. That was tough shit.
Donny, the owner walked in through the out door. He did shit like that. He called out in his Goodfella voice, “A-Team! How are my horses?” Donny, who loved the biz as well as convertibles, waitresses and Cocaine owned the place by accident. He had come in with two other partners. One ran off with a bartender and left his wife and kid behind. The wife got his share in the divorce but never set foot in the place. The other partner sold out to his father in law who decided in six months that he hated restaurants as much as he hated his wife and sold his share to Donny for sixty cents on the dollar. Donny, who’s daddy owned a successful contracting company had never really worked at anything in his life thought that showing up to the place at 7:00 in the evening and spending the next five or six hours schmoozing at the bar to be hard work. He walked down the line and speared a piece of bacon out of the tray under the heat lamp. He chomped it down in a few bites, burped loudly and said, “Damn, that fucking bacon you get is deee-liscious!” He whacked Beano on the back, a little too hard and sauntered out of the kitchen and took up his position next to the service bar where he would get in people’s way for the rest of the evening.
P was beginning to think they may get off easy when one of the waitresses, a ditzy blonde named Liz, stuck her head through the in door and said, “Here they come y’all!” P started barking orders to his crew, “Beano! Get ready. Nicky, how’s your mise?” Nicky looked at his station and said, “Maybe at little more marijuana.” P called out, “Betty” and got no answer, “Betty! Get in here!” Betty half ran out of the dish room where she had a small prep area and said, “Yes, Boss?” P, watching as the printer started to spit tickets said, “chop Nicky some parsley right quick, come on get in gear, here they come!” Betty turned and ran to the back room to get some parsley from the walk-in.
P grabbed four tickets off the printer and said in a loud voice, “Order!” and began to read off the items. He called them by course and then said either “Fire” or “Hold”. He stuck the tickets on the rail and slid them down to the end, keeping his eye on the printer as it began to spit more tickets out. “Nicky! Fire two Peelers! Beano, drop the tuna and goddamit, don’t fuck it up, I want it rare!” Nicky dredged two large, cleaned soft shell crabs in seasoned flour and tossed them into a smoking sauté pan. One of the crabs began to swell and then popped with a loud bang shooting a jet of boiling hot grease onto Beano’s arm. “Aiee, PUTA MADRE!” he screamed and grabbed his arm. P said, “Don’t be a pussy Beano, suck it up and watch that fucking tuna!” Beano picked up his pint glass of ice water which in the heat had become no more than cool and dumped half of it down his arm. The broiler was filling up with meats and so much smoke was rolling off it that the exhaust hoods could not keep up and the greasy smoke was rolling out into the kitchen. The fresh air vents were pulling in the warm humid air from outside and with five or six burners lit and the steam table going full on it was miserable.
Betty got a rash of orders so P moved into the back to help her. “Nicky, watch the wheel” Nicky spun around gave a snappy salute and said, “Yes sir Chef sir, you can count on me!” P muttered, “fuck” and went to help Betty. Five minutes later a server stuck her head in the back and said, “Um, Chef, you’d probably better get back out there.” P gave Betty some instructions and ran back up to the line. The printer was clicking non stop, the roll of tickets was half way to the floor and Nicky was standing there looking at it with both hands help up in a gesture of complete helplessness. P grabbed the paper and began separating the tickets. “Come on Nicky, hang in there you can do this” He began calling out orders and checking what was working and called to a busboy, “Go get a manager we need to get this food out of the window and out to the tables.” A minute later Donny sauntered in and said, “You kids need some help?” He looked at the ticket rail, the food piling up in the window and took in the mayhem around him and said, “I’ll go find someone” and left. P said to Nicky, “Now we know how to keep him out of here, just get crushed every night.” Nick was too busy trying to keep up with the orders to answer. Betty walked back to the line with an armful of appetizers and salads and said, “How do you keep so calm Chef? “ P said, “Someone has to.” And turned back to bark out more out at Nicky and Beano, “How many strips are working Beano?” Liz the server came in and said, Mrs. Fuller is here, she wants a side of wild mushroom sauce but doesn’t want the mushrooms in it and wants to know if she can get the crab bisque with extra crab in it?” P looked at her and said, “Tell her we are too busy to take special requests tonight.” P was on the verge of throwing something and would have been happy to take a bowl of bisque out to Mrs. Fuller, a regular customer who liked to write her own menu and dump it on her over styled head. He took a deep breath of the smoky, over heated air, coughed it out and grabbed the tickets coming off the printer.
Photo: Karen / flickr