When I made the decision that I wanted to try working in a restaurant, I knew that I was not cut out for the business. I’m too old, too fat, and too lazy. I have some decent skills, but what works at home probably doesn’t translate to the restaurant kitchen. Speed is king in the restaurant, so I’ve been told, but not at the expense of precision. So, you have to go fast and still do it right, eh? No problem. That’s the beauty of volunteering to cook in a restaurant, as the worst thing that can happen if you fuck things up is that they’ll ask you to leave. So really, it’s no pressure at all.
I let the area’s restaurants know that I wanted to cook in their establishment, and frankly, I was astounded by the response. I had a couple of large restaurant groups extend me offers to work in any of their kitchens. I fielded offers from a handful of mid-sized places that typically do 150-200 covers a night. In the end, I decided on two places: Raleigh’s Globe Restaurant and Cary’s Herons Restaurant in The Umstead Hotel. Herons was a no-brainer, as Chef Scott Crawford is putting out some of the most interesting, tasty and beautiful food in the Triangle. The Herons kitchen is orderly and precise. Crawford has a calming effect over his kitchen staff. And it’s a really cool kitchen, too.
I picked Globe because I knew it was a small place, with only about 40 seats in the main dining room. I also knew Heath Holloman, one of the two chefs (and one of the three owners), as Heath and I co-presented a science night project at our kids’ school that focused on the wonders of yeast. Face it, if a guy can make yeast moderately exciting to kids, he’s all right in my book. I also knew that Globe put out a wide variety of food, but I was hoping that its relatively small size, and the fact that it is somewhat under the radar, would give me the opportunity to work at a non-frantic pace. Where I would get to see a fairly successful restaurant turn out good food for a reasonable number of people. I had no other expectations, but Heath and Gray Modlin, the other chef-owner, were very enthusiastic about my working in their kitchen. They don’t have much staff, as evidenced when I went there for lunch a couple days prior to my “gig,” as the only three folks working then were Holloman, Modlin, and the third owner, Henry Burgess, who runs the front of the house. Globe doesn’t do a lot of lunch business, but they remain open seeing they can staff the place fully with just the three owners, with no worries about extra payroll. And it was a good lunch, so I really looked forward to my nice, relaxing day on the line.
I arrived at 10:30 on a Friday morning and was immediately put to work. Heath and Gray were already working on a catering project that Heath agreed to, feeding thirty people a wide variety of hot and cold dishes, including ceviche, hummous, cheese, ham biscuits, and more. I started making various items for dinner service, including a smoked tomato relish, a pico de gallo, and more. I blanched fries. I baked bread sticks. I chopped tomatoes and cut up and wrapped polenta cakes. I washed a couple dozen heads of romaine lettuce in the largest lettuce spinner I’ve ever seen (and yes, I want one). And I got ready for lunch service.
Lunch was very manageable. A group of my friends came in, and I made their salads and a couple of cheese steaks. I learned that the plates had a right side and a wrong side. And I learned how to read the ticket — well, “learned” might be a bit strong, but I got an idea of what the customer ordered.
It was an easy lunch, and we served maybe 25 or so, which was a pretty typical Friday. It was only 1:30, and I was already sweating. And tired. And hungry. As I went off and ate an awesome Reuben sandwich that Heath made for me, I knew I was in trouble. Big trouble.
I kept up with the prep work, chopping more tomatoes and cilantro and mushrooms. I helped finish the catering work, finding perfect romaine leaves for the Thai chicken salad. I made espresso pasta — you heard me right — espresso pasta. I grilled zucchini and yellow squash. I cut and fried up a gallon or two of tortilla chips for the hummous — or was that for the dinner service? I couldn’t keep track of what the hell I was doing.
We knew dinner would be fairly busy, but we really had no idea how much so. A typical Friday night might bring in 50-60 covers. This particular Friday would be slightly busier, as it was “Restaurant Week,” where each restaurant offers a three-course meal for $30. Consequently, by Thursday afternoon, Globe already had reservations for 60 on their books. I jokingly asked Gray what was their busiest night ever, and he joked, “I think we did 130 covers one time, but we had more people in the kitchen then.”
We did over 120 covers on Friday, making it the second busiest night in Globe’s history. With a smaller, and less competent (thanks to yours truly) kitchen staff. You’ve heard of a kitchen being “in the weeds.” We weren’t in the weeds; we were in the goddamn jungle.
When the dinner service started, it was nice and simple. I got to work at the stove, making Moroccan meatballs and seared salmon. I made appetizers and salads and steamed tamales. I knew that when a chicken order came in, you immediately started working on it, as it took 20 minutes to cook. This wasn’t too bad. I could handle this.
Er, maybe not.
It started to rain — no, pour — outside around 6:15, and it didn’t let up until 7 or so. The rain kept the early crowd away and gave us a false sense of security. It also kept those who planned to come for an early dinner away, so that by 7:30, the dining room, the private dining room, the outside dining area, and the bar were completely full. Whereas we had complete control of the food an hour ago, this was bedlam. We had a couple of waiters out in the dining room along with Henry, and a friend of a friend who had agreed to be hostess for the night. We also had an awesome dishwasher. And, of course, there was me.
It was not nearly enough people.
I got kicked off the line, as there was no way Gray and Heath could take the time to teach me while 50 hungry people were waiting on their dinners. I suddenly had to do more prep work on the fly, chopping mushrooms for the risotto. I got stuck with dessert work, learning to use a blow torch for creme brulee. I sucked at it at first, but by evening’s end, right before we ran out of the dessert, I was the master of the blow torch.
But things were getting out of control. The waiters were taking food to tables out of sequence. With no one expediting at the pass, orders were getting botched. People were getting food, but not when they were supposed to. And with Henry also acting as bartender, his tables often waited longer than the other two waiters’.
It got worse at 9:00. The place started running out of food. We were low on tomatoes for the risotto. The creme brulee was gone (must have been the awesome job I did). And that’s when Heath and Gray decided, around 9:40, to stop seating people. They thought it would be better to turn people away than to seat them and not have half the things on the menu. They realized that they could not maintain the quality that they demand at this pace. And frankly, I thought it was a good decision, particularly under the circumstances.
They had reservations for 60, and it’s been their experience that typically as much as a quarter of those people do not show up. They knew they’d have a few walk-ins, particularly with it being Restaurant Week. But under no circumstances did they ever dream that they would get hammered like they did. This was the second busiest night they ever had since opening a couple of years ago. Yes, a lot of my friends and family members came out, and that added to the numbers (they only had 65 customers the next night), but this was insane.
I wished I knew how to do more, how to make more of the dishes. How to expedite. How to do something other than dessert. I knew that by doing desserts, I was helping, but I could have done more. But boy, I was exhausted. I went into the dining room to talk to friends, letting them know how unusual of a night this was. Asking them to be patient. I’m sure some folks went home that night, pissed off at the slow service. I, on the other hand, now know what it’s like when things get out of hand in a restaurant. It’s not that their not trying, it’s just that there’s only so much you can do. There’s only 6 burners on the range, and only two people making the food (no, I’m not counting myself). The key to surviving in a restaurant is preparation. This restaurant was fully prepared to feed 80 people on this Friday night, which would make it a very busy and chaotic night. It was not ready for 50% more customers than that. It’s like running a half-marathon, and as you get to the finish line, someone tells you to run another six and a half miles. You’re just not ready for it.
I heard one story that a table walked out without paying, after eating all their courses. Was the service slow? Yes, I’m sure it was. Did that relieve those customers of their obligation to pay? Not at all. I can’t imagine anyone doing the old “dine and dash” move, but it’s probably not that uncommon.
The last table I worked on was for my wife, daughter, and my in-laws. They arrived late and were one of the last tables to be seated, and even they had a long wait for their food. Heath sent them a bottle of wine. Gray and I put together some special desserts for them, cobbling together what we had left (brownies, cheesecake and sorbet/ice cream).
The evening had ended for me around 11:30, and I could think of nothing other than bed. As I was getting ready to leave, Gray gave me a Globe t-shirt and thanked me for helping out. He told me that it would have been a lot worse had I not been there to help. I sort of understood what he meant by that. I actually helped these guys out. I didn’t get in the way for the most part. But here I was, doing this for just one day. These guys have to come back, every single day, day after day. No way in hell I could do this for a living.
But in the end, it was all worth it. I learned about a frantic kitchen. I learned a little about myself.
And then, as I was heading out, Gray looked over at me and said, “You can cook in my kitchen any time.”
Hmm, what am I doing tomorrow night?