Patty Canedo is a chef in Palm Beach. She writes frequently about her kitchen exploits in this column, Half Baked.
A misconception about the restaurant biz is that holidays are the busiest time in a kitchen. When in actuality, while those days are particulary busy, a lovely concept called reservations brings control to the chaos. Very rarely do people dare to step out on days like Valentine's Day without a reservation. Special menus and a hefty staff can make the day smooth sailing.
It's those days leading up to the holiday that you dread; packed dining rooms, long prep lists and even longer hours. It's the unexpected craziness that tests your skill, patience, speed, and always make you to question, 'why do I do this?'
The Friday night before Valentine's...
"I wanted to get down there to help you clean the fish but with traffic and everything I know I'm not going to make it there and back before service," Chef was yelling into his phone.
"Ok, well I'm not quite sure what to do. I've never cleaned a sea bass before," I said. I was intimidated by the gorgeous piece of fresh fish that laid in front of me.
"Get one of the guys to help you," Chef lectured, protecting the expensive piece of fish in front of me.
"I already asked and none of them know how!" I was beginning to freak out.
"WHAT!? With all the freaking culinary degrees in that kitchen you're telling me not one of them knows how to clean a SEA BASS! USELESS DUMBASSES!" Chef was screaming, I had to pull the phone away from my ear so I wouldn't go deaf. I laughed to get him to laugh. It worked; he was able to calm down and walk me through the complicated process over the phone.
"It's going to be busy so you have to lead everyone though it, keep your head. You'll be alright," he said (trying to convince himself). "Have a good service and call me if you have any problems." He hung up.
I didn't have a safety net tonight. Chef was miles away running his other kitchen and I was running this one. But I had a good crew -- a small crew but a good crew. My sous chef and I were tag-teaming the hotline, the Garde Manager would cover his station and play expo, and the new dish kid, Joey, had only been with us a couple weeks but was young and quick.
Line up with the servers and the next thing I know it's 5 o'clock. Last minute-check of everything; we were as ready (trying to convince myself).
"Alright Patty, I'm outta here. Call me after service, I'll probably walk down to the pub. You guys should come down for a drink," Ben, the line cook, said.
"Yeah, I'm sure we'll need it. Night," I waved him off.
Dan (sous) and I double-check the line and huddle up with Dave (garde manager). Line was set and we were ready.
"Joey," I call to him in the dish pit. "Listen -- we're going to be very busy tonight so we may need you to run and grab stuff for us from the back as we get going."
"Alright." He gives me an unenthused look and pouts back to his pile of dishes.
5:30 hits and the ticket machine goes off like a machine gun. The board begins to fill but we sail. Order after order, we keep firing tickets. Dave is running, pushing out salads and apps, while expoing for the hotline and the servers.
"Dan, I'm missing a med rare on 37. Patty, fire that flatbread and the scallop app. Michael, run table 42 for Lucy..." Dave is getting the food to flow from the line to the dining room. Like a machine when...
"We need a dish pick-up," Lucy says to Dave. Dan hears this and calls to Joey in the dish pit.
"Oh, Patty," Lucy shouts to me from expo, "the dining room is full." I pause, breathe deep, and go back to cooking. Fifeteen minutes later...
"Can you grab Joey, get him to get these dishes," Michael asks Dave, who's knee-deep in salads at this point and plates are piling up at expo. Again, Dave calls for Joey. Another ten minutes go by when,
"Patty!" Collete, hostess and former Garde Manager, yells to me."Where can I find more silverware?"
"What, you are out?" I'm tossing three pans of pasta. "Where's Joey!?"
"I don't know. No one can seem to find him." She is able to get my full attention with that one.
"Check the men's room and then the dumpster. He might be smoking," I call and go back to work. She disappears for a few minutes.
"I can't find him," Collette whines.
"Who?" Lucy asks with a stack of dishes in her hands.
"Joey," I yell. "Where is he?"
"I think he left," Lucy says, stacking dirty plates on a pile that is already ready to tumble over.
"WHAT!?" I nearly drop my pan.
"Yeah, like a half-hour ago he came up to me and said bye, something like 'forget this place.' I don't know, I was too busy to pay him attention," she informs me. His words were just registering to her at that moment.
I grab my phone and start dialing his number and get no answer. Keep trying and get off the line to check the back myself.
"So?" Dan asks, with his grill full of proteins and trying to sautee.
"I can't find him," say. When I see Collette walking by again, I holler. "Collette! I need you in here! Put on an apron. Dave, tell her where you're at with tickets and please start some dishes."
The board is backing up and plates are sitting at expo. Collette (another culinary school grad), can't expo and work the station at the same time. I make another call.
"BEN! Bro, we need you!" I yell.
"Is he coming?" Dan asks as we are plating a dish.
"He's coming but he sounded like he's had a couple already."
Ten minutes later, I hear the back door slam.
"Where do you need me?" Ben's huffing; clearly he ran over. He's still in shorts and sneakers.
"EXPO!" Dan yells.
"Ben, you ok?" I shout to him from sautee.
"Yeah. Little buzzed but it'll make this more fun. You're lucky -- you caught me right before I opened another one," Ben jokes.
He starts calling tickets, expoing out the food. I pick my head up, Collette's in heels and an apron; Ben's at expo in shorts; and Dave's doing dishes in his coat. Somehow it all flowed and we didn't miss a step.
At 9 o'clock finally, we start to die down; the light at the end of the tunnel. I send Ben to the pub and tell him we'll be there shortly. My phone rings, it's Chef.
"Hey! You survived! How'd you do? How was service?" he asks.
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