An evening in the weeds

Chef Charlie Trotter, one of the masters.

In this industry, there is almost nothing as daunting as working a PM hot line shift.  Especially in a busy restaurant or hotel.  You walk in to a vortex; a spiral of never ending insanity, you never have enough time, pressure keeps mounting, and as the clock keeps ticking, stress- your own stress and every one else’s- keeps rising.  Maybe you’re on your tenth straight day, haven’t slept more than 5 hours in a row all week… It’s a mental pressure cooker.  Not knowing what will happen… Not knowing if you will make it, or go down in a giant fireball….

And then it begins.  The nonstop barrage of orders.  Your micros machine starts spinning out of control, and after the second or third ticket, you’ll know if you’ve got what it takes.  If that first table goes out right, and you hit your mark from the beginning, then you might have a chance at surviving the night.  If not, you’re in for a long evening.

It’s interesting, you can always tell how well managed a kitchen is by the noise level.  Quiet kitchens are usually much more efficient machines that the louder ones.  When I say loud, I mean the kitchens in which chefs scream at people, cooks yell at each other, and everyone yells at waiters and runners.  Mario Batali claims that a chef who screams is simply acting out his own lack of preparedness on others.  Usually on the least prepared cook.  I feel safer in a quiet kitchen because people are more focused.  A chef will be watching you, checking on you, and recognizing your weakness probably before you do.  A good chef will take that opportunity to ‘re-align’ you, make you clearly aware of what you’re doing wrong, and do whatever it takes to get you ready before service.  A good chef will not let anything get in his way of a perfect service.

I, like many of us, have worked in hostile kitchens where a chef will yell and scream (I have also been in quiet kitchens).  It happens to everyone at some point.  I remember a few times after having been screamed at, that my hands were shaking so badly I was unable to sauce a finished plate.  But, no matter what a chef does during the military like assault of a busy service, one thing is certain: it’s never a personal attack.  Don’t take it personally.  A cooks’ best strategy is to put his head down, call back ‘Yes Chef!’ and work his little heart out.

A service is, for those of you who have never had the delightful experience of one, a delicate thing.  Let’s say, for example, a restaurant seats 40 people within half an hour.  The kitchen will now have probably 12 tickets to deal with all at once.  That’s 40 salads, soups, appetizers, entrees, and desserts, not to mention amuse bouche, wine, breads, and so on.  Coordination has to be perfect.  The filet medium has to be ready at the same time as the seared tuna, lamb mid-well, and roasted halibut.  Maybe three tables are picked up at the same time.  Maybe 4.  Everything has to be made to the chef’s standards.  Everything picked up at the same time.  More diners are seated.  Special requests come in.   Gluten free, no salt, no pepper, onion allergy.  Each cook has to be completely on top of his or her game.  The spinning begins.  Pick up table 23, 4 top!  Pick up table 8, 2 top!  A cook doesn’t know what table is going to be fired next.  He simply needs to be as fast and as ready as possible.  And the chef is in the middle.

Cooking is hard work.  You have to be fast.  You have to be able to make split second decisions.  You have to understand the food you’re making, to ensure it’s made right every time.  Prep is key.  You have to be tough.  A cook who can’t handle having someone in their face won’t make it.

What is the point?  Why do this??  It’s like joining a club.  You go into battle with your co-workers, get beat up, and at the end of the night, you go out, drink, and unwind with the same people, who are now your friends.  You build relationships with your co-workers that only people in the industry will understand.   And when you become a chef, it’s like you’re the club house leader.  You understand your people, and they understand you.  And you can handle getting slaughtered every night, because your friends and your chef are going through the same thing.  In the end, after a few short hours or mayhem, it’s cold beer, good friends and a chance recap on the triumphs of the evening.  

Spicy Steak Skeat

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 10 minnutes
Yield: 4 portions


2 dry habanero chili
1 tsp light brown sugar
1 tsp whole cumin
1 tsp whole corriander
1 tsp fennel seed
1/2 tsp black pepper corns
2 whole allspice
2 cloves
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp garlic powder
kosher salt
juice of 2 limes
vegetable oil
2 lb skirt steak


In a heavy bottomed dry skillet, toast all whole spices over high heat until highly fragrant (make sure your work area is well vented, peppers will be strong).  Place toasted spices in a spice grinder and grind to fine powder.  Add all other spices except salt and mix well.  Rub the steak with the lime juice.  Lightly coat the steaks with vegetable oil and work the dry rub in.

Prepare a charcoal grill to high heat, making sure the grates are clean and well oiled.  Liberally salt the steaks and grill.  Char both sides, leaving the center mid rare.  Let rest 5 minutes and slice, against the grain, thinly.

Serve right away.

Serve with cold beer, excellent quality French bread, brie cheese and maybe more beer.


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