I can tell you, with great certainty, how good a restaurant is going to be by the temperature of their plates. If I get a stone cold plate with hot food chances are the dinner will be average. If I get a cold salad on a warm plate just out of the dish machine, again, I know the rest of my dinner has more of a chance being bad then good. It tells me whether or not the kitchen cares.
When I worked in commercial kitchens it was a bone of contention with me and those who worked for me. Your plates needed to be hot for hot food and cold for cold food, period.
There was a time at home, back before we had kids, when I would always warm our plates in the oven. Probably sounds completely retentive, for all I know it might be, but I have never really given a rats butt what others think. I did it because my wife and I enjoyed being at the table together, taking our time eating, and having some quality conversation. Hots plates keeping your food warm is a nice touch.
We had this for dinner the other day, I warmed the plates.
2 each 6 ounce boneless skinless chicken breast
1/4 cup pepperoni, 1/4 inch dice
1/4 cup Picholine olives, pitted and halved
1/4 cup tomato, diced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 tablespoon currants
2 teaspoons flat leaf parsley, minced
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
1. Season the chicken on both sides with salt.
2. Place a heavy bottomed sauté pan over medium high heat. When the pan is hot but not smoking add enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Gently lay the chicken breast, what would be skin side down, into the pan being careful not to splash hot oil.
3. Brown the chicken on both sides. Adjust the heat as necessary to keep the oil from burning. Once both sides have caramelized remove them to a plate or pan and let them rest. Pour out any excess grease.
4. Meanwhile put the pan back on the heat and add the pepperoni, olives and tomato. Stir and toss it around until fragrant then add the white wine to deglaze the pan. Using a wooden spoon scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Once the wine has reduced by half add the pine nuts and currants.
5. Give everything a stir and then place the breast back into the pan. If the liquid in the pan seems at all dry add a 1/4 cup of water. Braise the breast until they are cooked through which shouldn’t be long if you browned them well. Taste and adjust the seasoning, add the parsley and stir to combine.
6. Place the chicken breast onto warm plates skin side up, top with the sauce, serve immediately.
The sun is just peeking over the horizon. The ninth-hole green looks beautiful in this light. Seems odd that a golf course can look so beautiful, but it does.
It’s five in the morning when I pull up to the back doors of the clubhouse. The double doors aren’t very welcoming, and a smoking station acting as the de facto doorman doesn’t make it any more so. The entire area is hidden from view by a privacy fence and some pine trees. Even if it isn’t intentional, this space reminds you: You are the help.
I open the car door to be greeted by the stench of dead food. A few days’ worth of food scraps–the shit the club members left on their plates mixed with the kitchen trimmings that are no good to anyone but the rats–is rotting in the dumpster until a truck comes to pick it up. The golf-course irrigation system kicks on. I search my keychain for the back-door key I rarely use. I rack my brain trying not to confuse the pin number of my debit card with the alarm code.
Inside, the kitchen is cold. My hours spent here usually center around dinner service, when the kitchen has had all day to become miserably hot. The cold is unfamiliar. I walk to the heat lamps and turn them on, then turn on the flat top.
The thick steel of the flat top takes forever to heat. The hash browns need all the cooking time I can give them to become golden brown and delicious before service. From the walk-in refrigerator, I get out a tray of shell eggs and start cracking them into a bain marie. These will be omelet eggs and scrambles. Lots of kitchens buy their eggs already cracked, but we don’t. I’m not sure why, since the nasty, fart-smelling liquid eggs we use for scrambled eggs on the buffets are cooked right in the plastic bags they come in. I whisk the eggs then strain them through a china cap to get rid of any albumen lumps. I put a six-ounce ladle into the mix. One ladle equals one omelet and no thinking.
Sunday breakfast duty sucks. None of the staff likes it, and hate probably isn’t a strong enough word, either. This is a lunch and dinner club, not a waffle and egg diner. Breakfast is only served once a week, so there’s no rhythm in the kitchen and no one is familiar with the menu. I come in early to do the prep. I don’t have to, and I wouldn’t be here at this hour if it didn’t make it easier for me. I have been making the French toast egg wash, waffle batter, traying up bacon, and countless other crap on the menu for months. I have been expediting food, filling in for whoever’s missing from the line, and we always get the job done, but barely.
My employees are kids who don’t give a shit. They don’t imagine their life will be that of a line cook, dish dog, or salad bitch. The ballcaps they wear are always slightly tilted, and as they grow to care less about their work, their hat becomes a give-a-fuck meter. The more the bill moves from the front to back, the less they give a fuck. The backwards rotation only gets faster as more customers cram into the dining room. If you’re lucky, their hat won’t be completely backwards until the very end of their shift.
I start in on the sausage gravy. We save all our bacon grease. A full scoop goes into the pot and, like a good magic trick, it looks like it sinks through the bottom of the pan and disappears as it transforms before my very eyes from a white solid to a glistening liquid. I add an equal amount of flour, which sizzles a little at the outer edges of the pile until I stir. Thick ribbons begin to follow the spoon as it goes round and round. I cook the roux until it smells like someone cooked popcorn in the microwave. I finish the whole thing off with two gallons of milk, a half sheet tray of cooked sausage, and a whole lot of black pepper. I keep whisking. It comes back to a boil and thickens.
The alarm on my watch goes off–my half-hour warning before service. As if I don’t believe my watch, I look up at the clock on the wall. Shit, it’s pushing seven and no one’s here yet. Usually someone’s made it in by now, if only because they’re out of coffee at home and came in to get a cup.
I hate having to call people at home to get their ass in to work. It’s never surprising to have people just not show up, to hear that a line cook is in jail, or to have a dishwasher scoot out the front door when the cops come knocking at the back. It’s the middle American restaurant business, after all. We’re not talking fine dining, just a run-of-the-mill feedlot.
A server comes in. I feel a perfect storm brewing and decide it’s a really good idea to prep the shit out of every station. The thing is, it’s the middle of summer, so there’s a damn good chance the breakfast service will be extremely quiet, and all this prep will go to waste. People go boating, have cookouts, or do yard work, plus it’s the beginning of the month so the members don’t have to use their minimum for food at the restaurant yet.
The only good thing about a Sunday morning is you ease into the rush. Not too many people are clamoring at the door to get in. They take their time, go to church, read the Sunday newspaper, then mosey on in for breakfast. So as the morning grinds on, it gets busier.
Finally a salad kid shows. He barely knows enough to make salads, but at least he can keep an eye on the bacon in the oven. A body is a body. Now a dishwasher comes in. This kid has worked at restaurants before. He’ll do.
I had a good prep and the people are streaming into the dining room at a nice pace. I’ve found my rhythm. Two omelets, French toast, and an order of pancakes is nothing. It all comes together with sides, all without thinking. I know the routine and I’m feeling good, even smiling, like I’m invincible behind the line. Every bit of this order comes up at the right time and all the plates are under the heat lamps waiting for a perfect omelet, great looking pancakes, and crispy-edged French toast, all at the same time I’m firing two other orders. Two tops, four tops, and more two tops. Keep it coming at this pace and I’ll be fine.
In my mind, though, I feel it coming, like two busloads of senior citizens showing up at a busy McDonalds during lunch hour. At the first lull, I restock everything that’s even remotely low at the stations, but this is like having five sandbags for a hundred-year flood.
Suddenly, it gets busy. I’m in the weeds but I’m turning waffles and flipping over-easies with a sense of urgency and working my way out of it.
And now the tsunami rolls in. I’m beyond busy. My ass is getting handed to me on the very plates I just sent out with that server.
For some reason, everyone wants omelets, then a few scrambles, then even more omelets. Which is great. I can stand at the stove and turn out omelets all day. I have the dish kid making toast, English muffins, and working hash browns like a champ, but we’re still getting buried.
When I’m short hands on deck, a ten top easily becomes the iceberg that sinks the Titanic. And as soon as I think it, a dumb-ass server says it out loud: “A walk-in ten top just came in.”
If I had the time to jump over the line and strangle the bastard, I would, but the row of tickets hanging in front of me is the chain that holds the dog back.
I keep flipping eggs. The ten-top order comes in. Ten omelets. I grin.