Constant Motion - The Art of Working the Line
Even if you've never been to culinary school or worked in a restaurant or seen cooks putting out food in a commercial kitchen, you've probably eaten in a crowded restaurant and wondered, "How do they keep track of it all? How can they possibly feed all these people without screwing up or serving cold food?"
The answer is organization and division of labor. That is a deceptively simple answer, not simple in the sense of "easy," but simple in the sense of "basic." I've been back there and seen cooks hard at work during a busy dinner service. Even from a layman's point of view, it may be basic, but easy, it ain't.
The backbone of any service ”breakfast, lunch or dinner" in a restaurant is "mise en place". Each cook at each station is responsible for getting every component prepped for every dish that comes off that station. The trick is to make sure that, once tickets (orders) start coming in, the cook has everything he needs to fill those orders without ever having to leave his station. This can get very murky for a novice. Let me explain by illustrating.
Say a cook works the Panini station. (For those not familiar with Panini, it is a sandwich served hot or cold but most of us are more familiar with toasted Panini.) On the menu is a grilled vegetable Panini with goat cheese and herbed aioli on focaccia, a grilled Portobello Panini on ciabatta, a Cuban sandwich on Cuban bread and a bacon, lettuce and turkey Panini with Swiss cheese on seeded rye. All items come with fries, potato salad, side salad or chips. That doesn't sound like too heavy a load, but let's look at the mise en place for that station:
- Pre-slice, pre-toast breads
- Make vegetable marinade
- Marinate vegetables
- Grill vegetables
- Make herbed aioli
- Prep goat cheese
- Make mushroom marinade (if different from veggie marinade)
- Marinate portobellos
- Pre-grill Portobellos
- Slice cheeses
- Slice some cheddar"”there are always substitutions
- Slice pickles (or stage pickles)
- Cook pork shoulder
- Slice ham
- Cook bacon
- Wash and stage lettuce
- Slice turkey
- Make potato salad
- Have chips ready
- Oil for Panini press
- Salt and pepper
- Chopped herbs
Being Prepared For Anything
Not only does the cook need to make sure that everything is prepped, but he has to make sure that he has enough of everything to make it through service. While it might be no big deal to send someone back to the walk-in cooler to get another dish of mustard, it's a huge deal to need more grilled vegetables when the grill cook has the grill full of hamburgers. Often the cook will have two pans of their ingredients ready - ones at the station to start service and ones in the walk-in or in the low-boy under the station for back up.
In looking at this prep list, it becomes obvious that, even though the cook is making the sandwiches to order, it is vital to get as much of the preparation done before service as possible. The more steps that can be done beforehand without adversely affecting the final product, the fewer steps have to be taken when the order comes in, and the less time the customer must wait for their meal.
It is always a balancing act between high quality and short wait times. Savvy customers are willing to wait a few extra minutes to get a great meal, but nobody wants to wait while a cook marinates and grills vegetables for a sandwich.
The guys who work the line at your favorite restaurant come in hours before service starts to make sure that their mise en place is done and that their station is all set up. Still using the Panini cook for a reference, he needs to make sure that the Panini grill is hot and ready to go, that he cleans it periodically through service, that all his garnishes are on hand and that, if a side salad or fries goes with the Panini, those items are ready at the same time the Panini is ready.
This requires constant communication with cooks at the salad station and fry station. If the chef decides that too many salads are already coming off of the salad station, the Panini cook might be responsible for his own side salads. In that case, his mise en place grows: he has to prep his lettuce and other greens, prepare any add-ins like sliced onion or shredded carrots, and make sure he's got dressings to last him through service.
After two or three hours of steady preparation, service starts and tickets begin coming in. All action becomes focused, and the motion, while constant, is spare. No motion is wasted, and there are no wasted words. There is no time for that. There is only time for firing orders.
If you were in the kitchen, you'd hear orders being read and cooks repeating the items they're responsible for. You'll hear cooks talking to each other: "Where are you on Table 206?" "Two minutes "˜til window." "Two minutes, heard!" or "Drop fries for Table 27." "Drop fries, heard!" The kitchen moves to the constant driving rhythm of service. Everyone knows that if anyone misses a beat, if anyone forgets to drop those fries, they all go down together, and service grinds to a halt.
Let's go back to our Panini cook one more time. "Order in: one grilled veggie Panini with fries, solo." "Veggie Panini with fries, heard!"
- Brush Panini press with oil
- Get out split, toasted focaccia
- Give each piece a squirt of aioli
- "Drop fries for my Panini, please."
- "Drop fries, heard."
- Add grilled vegetables
- Add the goat cheese
- Add a sprinkle of salt and pepper
- Add chopped herbs
- Assemble sandwich
- Close the press
- Set up the plate
- Wipe down the station
- "Fries are up."
- "Fries up, heard! Plate me."
- Get fries from fry cook.
- Get Panini out of press.
- Plate panini
- Place garnishes.
- Wipe plate.
- To the window.
Now, this is just one solitary order. Imagine if that Panini cook has three or four other orders up at the same time, some of which go with a lot of other dishes, some of which request substitutions and some of which want aioli on the side! Now, multiply that times the number of cooks in the kitchen with the same issues! It is glaringly apparent that, if the cooks aren't working together, the whole system falls apart.
Fortunately for us, the dining public, most successful restaurants that have been around awhile have worked out most of the kinks. The guys in the kitchen are pros, their mise en place is always set, and they can put out great food at an amazing rate. Once they get in their groove, they repeat the same motions and the same dishes over and over again with precision and consistency.
The kitchen is a study in controlled chaos. Every cook knows that if one batch of fries gets burned, or one salad gets sent back for having too much dressing, everyone is in the weeds (another restaurant term for complete chaos). With that knowledge comes teamwork ”they all sink or swim together. An experienced line cook is never afraid to ask for help if he is "going down," and an experienced chef rarely derides them for it. There is always someone who has a few seconds to drop another batch of fries or make a salad "on the fly." In that way, the cooks keep service flowing smoothly, and the dance continues.