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Still Standing

It's been a tough learning curve, but so far, I'm still standing. For a while there I was stressing myself out, thinking that I might be close to getting fired because of the speed issue. I'm still noticeably slow compared to the other cooks that work the saute station, but I'm getting a little better. Speed is definitely a concern for my station, because the saute cook calls the fires for the grill, which means, as the orders are coming in, tells the grill when to start grilling steaks or chicken in advance of them being finished and plated. Also, the saute station is responsible for pulling out certain items for them to come closer to room temperature before being grilled. Besides being for timing, it's also part of the check and balance for inventory control purposes. When I fall behind in cooking, I also fall behind in reading the tickets, causing the grill to have less cushion time, and it becomes a problem for that station as well.

Getting faster in my case will mean improving in several areas: reading the tickets more quickly, but still with accuracy, juggling two or more dishes at once, saving seconds on each step, making fewer errors, and just increasing the pace without the quality or appearance of the plates falling.

It's very much a game of inches, so to speak, because the stove is quite powerful, and basically, they cook with the burners on high. So the window of time between cooked and burnt is quite short. Most dishes require two pans, one for sauce, and one for the protein or the vegetable/accompaniment. So to cook two dishes at once, there would be four pans on the stove, plus the two plates warming in the oven. The plates should be warm, but can't be too hot either, or the sauces will boil on the plate, and they won't have the right appearance or consistency.

The order of operations has a lot to do with saving seconds on each step, because standing flat-footed while a pan is warming up is wasted time. In general, this is how it goes for one dish:

Two pans go down first to preheat.
Then the right plate for that dish in the oven to warm it.
Put oil and/or butter in one or both pans.
Cook the protein in its pan.
Assemble sauce or vegetable component in the other pan.
Transfer protein pan into the oven, take the plate out of the oven.
Garnish the plate.
Place the sauce or accompaniment on the plate.
Check protein for doneness, place on the plate.
Final garnish and wipe the plate.
Put the dish in the window.

Some of those steps might have recipes, like a sauce might be two ounces of this, one ounce of that, half an ounce of something else, and salt and pepper, or some vegetables should get salt and pepper, some don't. To cook two dishes at once, you'd have to shuffle, juggle, and intersperse the steps for the other dish (another two pans and a plate) in between and in addition to the steps above, without burning anything. Sometimes you have to omit something for one plate, whereas the other one gets it (e.g., by customer request). While it might not be rocket science, it ain't exactly one plus one, either. The best guys have three or four dishes working at once, often varying numbers servings of each one.

Of course, all this is going on in close quarters with other cooks, knives, hot ovens, splattering oil, flambees, hot pans, grill sparks, dishwasher guys bringing out stacks of clean dishes, and finished plates all crossing paths. On top of that, this particular kitchen is open, with diners right at a bar in front of us, so we also have to work cleanly and without outbursts.

Another point of interest is that at this restaurant, the terminology is "fire" when an order comes in for something that requires two-stage cooking, like a steak would be marked on the grill and held, then "pickup" is used when any dish is finished and plated. At the other restaurant where I interned, they used "fire" to mean finish and plate, so I still get those mixed up occasionally.

You may know that I'm a gadget freak, and I do have my own knife kit, which includes my preferred gadgets (a peeler, Microplane grater, a thermometer, a ceramic "steel", etc). But at this restaurant, they essentially don't provide any smallware tools at all. I went out yesterday and got about a dozen ladles of various sizes, and am also bringing in three pairs of tongs and a whisk, which is what each one of those guys who works the station has. I'm all for cooks bringing in their own tools when it's something personal like knives, but standard 2 ounce ladles?!? I don't honestly know if that is common or not, but the fact that they push the responsibility for that back onto the very modestly paid cooks is a bit scandalous to me.

They're about to insert me into the regular schedule so that I work the station alone for a few nights a week, hopefully the slow nights.


I think that's kind of weird that they make you bring your own ladles.

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