Saturday, March 10, 2007

lenten journal: saving time

First, an update: the shrimp was served (along with the lobster ravioli) and no one died.

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I left the Inn at 10:30, reminding myself all the way home that it was really 11:30. We may be saving daylight, but it’s going to kick my butt in the morning. When I got home, I looked up DST and learned something I didn’t know from Wikipedia: the name is actually Daylight Saving Time, as in we’re saving daylight by screwing with our clocks, not Daylight Savings Time, as if we have some sort of passbook account in the solar system. (Both are acceptable names because so many people add the S that it’s become standard.) The omission of the S lets the name make sense for me.

I also learned that our friends across the Pond call it “summer time,” which is humorous to me because on our side of the water we’re now trying to save daylight for eight out of twelve months. I wonder if it’s working.

I wonder if there’s a way to save the night?

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Running (or working in) a function kitchen is different from cooking on the line in a restaurant. On the line, we prepare all the things we think we’re going to need and then wait for folks to come in and ask for them. Though our guesses are fairly informed by historical patterns (you kind of know what to expect on a Tuesday night), they’re still guesses. One night I served twelve Iceberg wedge salads in the course of the evening and then didn’t sell even one for the next three nights. We offer what we call a Bistro Burger on our menu – caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, Boursin cheese – and we had gone almost two weeks without selling any at lunch. Then one Friday, I sold sixteen of them in an hour and a half. My theory is the customers all get together at the convenience store across the street and plot how they’re going to try and mess with us before they come into the restaurant.

The other thing about the line is it’s streaky. During dinner service, there are at least a couple of hours when none of us leaves the line. The tickets are six or seven deep, we all have jobs to do, and we all depend on one another to get them done. Once the rush is over, it’s time to start cleaning.

In the function kitchen, we know way ahead of time how many are coming and what they want to eat. The preparation is much more specific and how the meal rolls out is more controlled. Tonight the meal had four courses:
  • Hors d’oeuvres: (stationary cheese display, coconut shrimp, veggie egg rolls, smoked salmon with dilled cream, baby endive spears with Roquefort mousse and spiced walnuts)
  • Lobster ravioli with red pepper sauce and shrimp or caramelized onion and roasted Portabella mushroom tart (vegetarian)
  • Boston Bibb salad with Parmesan crisp, roasted grape tomatoes, carrot curls, and peppercorn vinaigrette
  • Entrée: (Statler chicken breast with wild mushroom demi-glace and red onion-teriyaki jam; roasted salmon with lemon sage cream sauce; eggplant parmigiana over penne – all served with haricot verts and toasted almonds and truffled scallion mashed potatoes)
The bride was Hindu, so we had many more vegetarian meals than usual, for us. But I knew that going in: sixty-eight chicken, sixty-four salmon, twenty-eight eggplant. I had my list, on which I put things in the order I want to get them done, on the bulletin board next to the walk in. Every time I finished a task, I marked through it with my Sharpie. While I was cooking, the event staff was setting up tables, stocking the bars, and doing all the stuff they do upstairs that I never see. Along with helping me do some of the cooking, Alfonso and Pedro counted the plates for each course and plugged in the plate warmers. Cooking for a function is different because it is so much more of a team effort.

When it came time to pass the appetizers, four of the servers took turns going upstairs with the different things. Meanwhile, others put the dinner rolls in bread baskets. While I plated hors d’oeuvres, Alfonso and Pedro plated the salads and stacked them on these really cool plate racks that hold eighty-eight plates each and take up hardly any space at all. When the cocktail hour ended, the dressed the salads so they would be ready to go up at 8:45. Then we started getting ready to plate the lobster ravioli.

The part of the evening that still amazes me is how quickly four or five of us can prepare a couple of hundred plates to be served. We plated one hundred and thirty five servings of ravioli and twenty-eight mushroom tarts in about eight minutes. When it came time for the entrees, we did all three in less than fifteen. But the speed is not what makes it most different from the line. It’s the sense of camaraderie and the conversation. By the time we are to the place that it’s time to plate, the hard part is over. We make sure everything looks and tastes great, and we’re having fun.

There’s also less distinction – maybe distance is a better word – between the servers and the cooks because we share the same space. In the restaurant, there’s the front of the house and the back of the house. In the function hall, the servers are hanging around in the kitchen between courses and there is time for us to talk together. I think we also have the sense that we are all pulling together. It’s not so much “your job” and “my job” as ours.

One other thing to remember: always make a few extra dishes as you go because the staff gets to eat them. And they like the chef better when there are leftovers. I’ll even admit to having a slice of the eggplant myself.

Maybe we saved the night after all.

Peace,
MIlton

3 comments:

T.Gray said...

Milton,
I wanted to share with you a letter I received from an old friend the other day, a friend I haven't heard from in quite a few years.
Shalom-Tom
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You are really on to something with your writings on food and faith. Other than sex, I believe that even today a good meal is the most intimate thing you can share with someone else. When the meal is prepared with love and care, it is a metaphor for the servant heart of Jesus. Millions of people catch a whiff of the smell of God when they cook for family and friends. The celebration meal shows the fingerprint of God walking by wearing his creation overalls. Add a wee-bit of spirits and the joy of the Lord dances through the dining room. A well prepared dessert and good cup of coffee, can bring on the same feelings of well being as the realization that I am forgiven.

enzgrrl said...

would you share the Salmon recipe, please? and the mushroom tart? and...

don't eat alone said...

Tom

Thanks for the letter. Whoever wrote it is right on track. We need to all get together for dinner.

Enzgrrl

I will post the recipes in the next day or two.

Peace,
Milton