I finished my last writing on “my life as a chef,” begging the question, “Can I handle the heat, or should I just get out?” This day happened soon after posting that piece, and was the first time I felt I got the hang of this "working the line" thing. This short piece was originally written as part of a longer piece about working in a kitchen which is still in progress, so stay tuned!
It’s Labor Day weekend, Sunday night, September 2nd. Weekends working at any resort town are pretty crazy, and holiday weekends are like normal ones, but on steroids. The head chef had worked the morning shift and was on his way out, and so was the only other more experienced cook there. I was left with two guys – one Romanian seasonal employee I had trained, and one part-timer who had started close to when I did, about two months ago.
You know when things start getting out of control so you look to find an adult but then you realize you are the adult? That’s kind of what it was like. As expected, people began pouring into the small seafood restaurant and soon the line was out the door. But we had our game faces on. We thought we were prepared. Key word: Thought.
As I was finishing up making my sixth crab Louie, as well as a table of 12’s order, I heard the Romanian exclaim,
“Ah! We are out of shreeeemps!”
He had to run to the back and get some more shrimp defrosting because we hadn’t even prepared any, meanwhile I used up the last piece of fish for fish and chips (our most popular dish), and had to grab the butcher’s knife mid-rush and start cutting filets of Haddock.
The main “Front of the House” guy came up to me and asked what the wait time would be so he could tell customers. I looked up at the rail. We had tickets out the Wazoo. My brain said definitely at least 45 minutes, but out of my mouth came,
“I dunno, maybe 20 minutes or so?”
“Okay, 20 minutes, I’ll let people know when they order,” he said.
What did I just do, I thought as I continued cutting lettuce on the line because we had failed to prepare enough before the rush. Then, we ran out of batter for fish and chips, but good thing those are easy to make because we pre-measure and prep the dry ingredients, and all we have to do is add beer. Well, we looked in the place where we keep said pre-prepped bags, and whaddaya know? We didn’t even have any of those! In a crazy, frantic rush, the foreign guy ran to dry storage to begin getting the ingredients to make the batter completely from scratch.
“Not all heroes wear capes,” I said as he returned to the line with a fresh batch of fish and chips batter. Meanwhile the other cook had to scramble downstairs because we had run out of those little cups we used for condiments and coleslaw. After running out of a few more items, it seemed as if we had everything under control, despite the ten un-called tickets still hanging from the printer (Some cooks call this “growing a tail”). That was until I heard the foreign guy again,
“We are out of shreeeemps!”
“Again?” I said, in disbelief.
You know that moment when a stressful situation becomes a comedy? Like things are so out of hand all you can do is laugh and roll with it? That was us. At around 7pm on a holiday weekend evening, there we were, laughing at ourselves for being completely and utterly unprepared. As he ran back to the freezer to get more shrimp, we continued working through the rest of the tickets until the rail was almost empty.
Towards the end of the rush, as things began slowing down and you could count the orders left on one hand, I began looking at the time shown on the ticket (when the order was placed), and comparing it to the time we sent it out. Lo and behold – almost no one had waited longer than 25 minutes for their food! The three of us had overcome all odds and delivered what we promised – not sacrificing time for quality, or quality for time. I felt alive, on a high, almost, like I had reached some kind of milestone in my 2-and-a-half month career as a restaurant cook. That night, I learned that although failing to prepare means preparing to fail, there’s still a chance to pull through if you are able to think on your feet, handle pressure well, improvise, and most of all, find a little humor in it.