Posted On: 05/01/2006
Ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at your favorite restaurant? Why your food takes so long, or how they get it cooked so quickly? When everything goes well, dining out is a wonderful experience, but restaurant work is challenging and not quite as easy as it appears.
Time to make the donuts
Very few employees walk in with the day’s first guest. Cooks, servers, bartenders and even busers arrive early to get ready.
At Eleven Eleven Mississippi in Lafayette Square, executive chef Bruce Piatek must think even further ahead if he wants to serve the Wild Boar Ravioli appetizer. He has to order the wild boar, which comes from a ranch in Vernon, Calif., seven days in advance. The ravioli themselves are constructed one day ahead of time, when prep cooks make the pasta dough and ravioli filling.
Employees at South City’s Blackthorn Pub and Pizza start preparing in the middle of the afternoon for a 5 p.m. opening. Dough is made fresh every day, and sauce is prepared in five-gallon buckets, enough for two or three days.
Starting at 7 a.m., prep cooks at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Richmond Heights work on everything from lasagna to tiramisu. Servers come in early to roll napkins, make sure their stations are spic-and-span and get all the non-food items, such as lemonade and coffee, ready to go.
Even before guests arrive, accidents happen. Jason Jones, a kitchen manager at Maggiano’s, once had five gallons of cream spill in a walk-in cooler. Without cream, he couldn’t make Alfredo sauce or the cream-based soup of the day. Jones scrambled to borrow enough cream from other restaurants to make it through the day.
Essentially, a server’s job is to orchestrate your dining experience in a timely and pleasing manner. RaeAnn Arrowsmith, who has served at Eleven Eleven for two years, has worked hard to perfect her role. She’s available to expertly explain the menu and is nothing if not professional –
an attribute high on Piatek’s job description for servers.
But as friendly and helpful as servers want to be, they often don’t have time for long conversations. “Guests can also take away from you,” Kathi Mitchell, a server who’s had her time monopolized by guests, pointed out.
Service is minimal at Blackthorn, where everyone does every job: Orders are placed at the bar to a bartender/cook/dishwasher/prep cook and picked up there as well. Unlike most restaurants, Blackthorn doesn’t use a computer system for ordering; staff members write everything on checks. Eleven Eleven and Maggiano’s both have computer systems that allow servers to enter orders and time the courses.
Patricia Emert, a server at a large restaurant, said she puts her orders into the computer right away, whether she’s written them down or not. “It’s too much of a consequence if you forget; it’s too priority,” she said.
In the kitchen
Kitchens are home to a whole range of employees: chefs, sous chefs, kitchen managers, specialized line cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers and stockers. And all of them must work together to produce successful dishes that arrive at the table in a reasonable amount of time.
Efficient teamwork is so important to success that both Eleven Eleven and Maggiano’s have someone in the kitchen organizing orders, managing the cooks and acting as an intermediary between cooks and servers. This person coordinates cooking times, so everything on one check is ready at the same time. If one dish is finished before the others, it could “die in the window” and acquire a glazed look, a result of oxidation.
Eleven Eleven’s Wild Boar Ravioli is prepared by the sauté cook. The sauté cook blanches the ravioli in stock and finishes them with a vodka-tomato sauce. The ravioli take five to seven minutes to prepare. Other items might take longer, but Piatek said the kitchen at Eleven Eleven is “set up for speed.”
Miko Fleming, a manager at Blackthorn, said a Chicago-style pizza takes 50 to 55 minutes to make. The Chicago-style has an extra layer of cheese and crust under the toppings and takes at least 40 minutes just to cook. And if you didn’t like that? “Quit your whinin’,” Fleming said.
At Eleven Eleven and Maggiano’s, busers bring bread and water to guests. “Food runners” make sure dishes are served as hot and fresh as possible.
Some diners complain when their food is delivered by someone other than their server, but without food runners, guests would often have to wait while their food sat until their server could get to the kitchen.
Food runners sometimes take the wrong item out of the window. If one wrong dish goes out to a table, another check is shorted, and two tables have been affected. If the rest of the food was ready, it sits in the window waiting – if everything doesn’t have to be remade.
“One little thing can turn into a huge, huge problem,” Mitchell said. It’s because, in restaurants, every task is connected, and everyone must do his or her job efficiently in order to keep things flowing smoothly. Cooks rely on dishwashers to have clean dishes ready as needed, for example, and backup prep cooks keep supplies flowing during busy periods.
The host staff has a tremendous impact on the work flow in restaurants. If they seat too quickly, the kitchen gets swamped, resulting in long cooking times and mistakes. Hosts find it difficult to explain to guests why an empty table doesn’t mean they can be seated right away, and when they give in, everyone is affected.
I’m allergic to everything
At one end of the allergy spectrum, you’ll find servers who have to guess if a dish has nuts. At the other end, there’s Maggiano’s, where allergies are taken very, very seriously. Executive chef Eric Kolk said, “Food allergies are becoming more and more prevalent. The chef’s job at Maggiano’s is to make sure every guest feels confident that they can enjoy their meal without having to worry.”
As soon as a server hears the word “allergy,” he or she goes straight to the kitchen to inform a chef and fill out paperwork, which includes detailed information right down to where the guest is sitting. A chef then visits the table to discuss options for the meal.
The chef then makes the dish, removing himself or herself from other kitchen operations to heat a new pot of water to boil the corn pasta, thus eliminating all traces of wheat, for example. Because the chef does the extra work, the cooks can remain focused on regular orders.
Blackthorn uses separate utensils for vegetable pizzas and meat pizzas, so vegetarians don’t have to worry about cross-contamination. Other than that, Blackthorn isn’t concerned with allergies or special requests. “People know what’s on a pizza,” Fleming said. “If you’re allergic to dairy, don’t
Guests sometimes feel as if they’ve been singled out for a bad experience, but the truth is servers and cooks hardly have time for that. The goal is to do as many things as perfectly as possible, and it’s frustrating to restaurant employees, especially those working for tips, when guests aren’t happy.
Emert said she’s had complaints about everything from waiting too long for food to the noise level in the restaurant. She’s worked in stations far from the kitchen on busy nights, when the tables “kept coming and coming,” and she had to continuously run to the kitchen to check on food that wasn’t coming out when it should have. “It was just crazy,” she said.
Holidays can be stressful, as Todd Stringer, another server, knows all too well. He once worked at a new restaurant on Christmas Eve, only a few months after it had opened. The weather was bad, and no one expected much of a crowd, so only a minimal staff was present.
“People started pouring through the door,” Stringer said. “It was totally insane, but the managers kept seating tables.” Two parties walked out – one couldn’t get the first course and the other couldn’t even get drinks. “It was a pretty ugly situation,” Stringer said.
Mitchell once worked when another server had a large party celebrating a birthday. The party brought its own large, decorated sheet cake for dessert. The server, who insisted on carrying the cake herself, dropped it, face down, in the lobby of the building. “That’s not something you can fix,” Mitchell said.
Us against them
Many restaurants experience tension between the “back of the house,” or kitchen, and “front of the house,” or servers, bartenders and busers. Blackthorn avoids this problem by having everyone do every job. Eleven Eleven doesn’t worry about it, because the two areas work “extremely well together,” Piatek said.
But at other restaurants, the tension can be an obstacle for both sides. Guests are affected when servers seem unwilling or unable to honor special requests or when the kitchen sends out less-than-stellar dishes.
“It’s frustrating as a server,” Emert said, “because there’s nothing you can do. You can’t make food yourself, so you just have to wait on the kitchen. It’s awkward going back to the table when they’re complaining and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Restaurants sabotage themselves, too,” Mitchell said. She once saw a manager fire the entire staff of cooks during a busy Friday lunch shift. On the way out, one of the cooks threw all the tickets in the broiler, where they went up in flames.
The next time you dine out, keep in mind all elements that must work in harmony to deliver your meal. As Jones said, no matter what challenges arise, a good restaurant’s staff will always try to “make it happen.”
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