Tuesday, April 3, 2012

See you one the other side...

'The battle plan' before and after;
the MEP list from last weeks tasting.

There's a strange air that hangs in the kitchen the week leading up to a menu change. A discernable unease that comes with the impending unfamiliar. It’s something you can see in the face of your fellow cooks. The garnish chef that sets up his station the same way, service after service. Each container of MEP (mise en place) arranged in a manner designed for maximum efficiency. He’s a guy whose been shooting out the same dishes, day after week after month, and he just knows where everything should be in order for that to go as smooth as possible. That’s his set-up, his system for not ending up in the shit. May God have mercy on you if you try and mess with it. There’s the chef de-partie that places his orders five times a week. That’s checking the hotel’s occupancy for the week, looking at the events figures and checking kids in house with front desk. They’ll then use that information and to make decisions like, ‘Well there’s X amount of lamb in there so I’ll order Y for tomorrow and that should be fine to see us through the weekend.’ or ‘We’re really low on sweet potatoes, but it’s used for a low-selling dish so only X amount will still be enough until next week.’ This is the routine. The slog of the day to day running of a kitchen. Specials still go out on weekends or exceptionally busy midweek evenings, but by and large, the menu changes and then that’s it, the same 5-6 dishes that your section’s responsible for the next few months, until it’s time to change again. The ticket comes into the cook on starters and it reads, ‘terrine, two scallops, cured salmon’ upon seeing this, said cook then goes into an automatic routine of movements, a well-rehearsed pattern that is the result of shooting out each plate, with little variation, dozens of times a night for weeks on end. For this reason he sees the order and doesn’t need to think about what he needs to do in what order, he just knows. The same goes for everyone in the kitchen.
          The stress of these periods of change can unhinge a kitchen. If it’s been done well, when those doors open at 6pm the servers will have been well briefed on the new dishes, their components, how they’re prepared, what is suitable and unsuitable for certain allergies, etc. The cooks will have all their MEP in place, know through multiple tastings over the previous weeks (at times months) how the dishes are to be plated, how the components are to be prepared and executed and should soon fall into the groove and routine of the new dishes. They’ve had the dress rehearsal, this is opening night. But if it’s done badly *closes eyes and nervously runs hand over head as the memory of terrible events are recalled* if its done badly, the staff will turn up the day of the changeover and will never have seen the menu until then. Will never had been involved in the ordering, never had time to practice any new techniques required that were unfamiliar to them before, have no notes or recipe cards on the dishes components and (worst of all) never have ever seen or tasted the finished dish. Instead, the chef will spend the day barking at section after section, orally listing off garnishes and preparations that they’ll need for the service ahead. And when asked about how these intangible elements and MEP that you’re frantically preparing are going to come together, they simple dismissively wave away your concern saying, ‘I’ll show you when it comes in.’ In these conditions there is only one thing that’s going to happen. You, and all you co-workers that you’ve been sharing nervous glances with all afternoon, are about to have a really fucking bad night. I know because I had such a night, which I and everyone else spent being sworn at and avoiding airborne missiles that were aimed for us. That night was the beginning of the end of my time there. I would be gone within two months.
          Going into tomorrow I’d like to think we’re in the former. We have an idea what the deal is and the alarm’s been set a little earlier so we should have enough time to get everything in place for service. But it’s because of the above that new menu time has everyone on edge. That’s why as I write this I’m on edge. Because for me and the rest of the team, that time is tomorrow. Because we’ll be prepping our MEP and be thinking, ‘Is this enough of this item? Am I doing this right? Where’s the best place to put this on my bench?’ this and a dozen more questions of anxiety. The same goes for ordering, we’ve no idea which dishes which sell. We can guess, but it’ll be a few weeks before we’ve got it down. Before that it we’ll either be smashing a dent in our food costs because we over-ordered and over-produced a dish, or face an annoyed dining room and an irate chef coz, ‘who knew on a busy Friday that everyone would be in the mood for Salmon?’ But this is all copper coins to the gold nugget of stress that is, the first service. As with the starter cook, everyone in their section was working on unconscious knowledge. They weren’t thinking about what they need to do, before the plate can go, they know. But tomorrow cooks will have copies of the menu on their stations, photos for last week’s tasting will be printed and handed round like targets to a group of hit men, a chef will discreetly pin lists of each dish’s garnish to their docket slide like cheat-notes. That first service you’re working blind. Unconscious ignorance, you don’t know what you don’t know. And tomorrow we won’t know shit until that first table comes in.

Photos from tasting;
Top: the passe after plating starters.
Middle: the bench where I'd been prepping all day.
Bottom: 'like it never happened' cleaned down, next week it's
for reals...