Today, the cook who had the opening shift was late. The prep cook showed up at 5:15, the shift leader was there to unlock the doors at 5:30 and I was waiting for him. The diner opens officially at 6:00 am. Our regular early-birds were ensconced in their seats, eagerly awaiting their same-old same-old breakfasts we know by heart.
(Good-old eighty-something Bob sitting at one end of the counter – two poached eggs and a cup of coffee with five French Vanilla creamers; Dave in section one, reading two local newspapers, endless cups of coffee, a plate of fruit, vegetables, spinach, and mushrooms, followed by a cherry pie; a heavy-set guy with the nicest smile who runs a moving company seated at the opposite side of the counter from Bob – oatmeal and sourdough toast, one cup of coffee; Jeff, the contractor who likes to sip his sweet tea in a booth – soft bacon and over-hard eggs, no potatoes, lightly toasted English muffin, and four packets of strawberry jelly.)
Today they all had to wait. The cook walked in at 6:15, his eyes bloodshot, his movements slow as molasses. It takes time to get the kitchen going – all the grills and griddles need to be heated up from zero, the food brought up from the pantry and fridge, potatoes and hash browns need to be cooked – and while everybody had plenty of coffee, water, soda, and ice tea, the food was not coming in a timely manner. I apologized to each customer, explained the situation, and smiled my biggest smiles.
I know that some of them come to our diner before work and time is important. But most of them come for breakfast to kill time, exchange friendly banter, chit-chat with the other regulars, and feel at home. We are their “Cheers”.
I might have been frustrated by the cook not showing up on time, blaming drugs or alcohol, or any other unsavory shenanigans, but I know he is a teetotaler. I tolerated his throwing the pans around and purposefully ignoring my questions about the incoming food. I don’t know his story and it’s so easy to make up one that would fill up all the unknown parts.
Three more cooks were scheduled to work this shift. Two of them were late. I was ready to thrown them dirty looks as they huddled in, but a colleague told me that the nice, funny one gets out of his second job around 2:00 am and has to be at our place at 7:00… Who am I to judge when he probably doesn’t get to see his kids for more than thirty seconds between his shifts?
These men work really hard for hours, without stopping, in an incredibly hot kitchen. Their arms are scarred with burn marks, their faces slick with sweat. There is no glamour of the reality TV shows, just hour upon hour of never-ending orders spitting from a computer terminal like a crazed, flat-bellied snake.
It’s a stressful world, and heat and unrelenting stress sometimes cause explosions. Last week I yelled into the kitchen “No cebolla!” just as a cook was placing a few rings of raw onion on a burger (my ticket was over thirty minutes overdue and it clearly stated NO ONION.) He threw the plate against the wall and shards flew all over, ending up all over the place, in the skillets of scrambled eggs, on the griddles where the hash browns were browning, and on the plates half filled with food – of course, everything had to be tossed and all the food prepared freshly, after the shards were removed and surfaces cleaned. I don’t know his story to even venture a guess about my words being the last straw…
The people behind the kitchen counter make or break a restaurant. I don’t think I’d last a week in the “back of the house”. While the servers are out there smiling and schmoozing for tips, sometimes covering for kitchen mis-communications with well-rehearsed platitudes, the “cocineros” (and 95% of kitchen staff in southern California are Latinos) are an invisible army toiling in sweat for minimum wage, counting down minutes until their shift ends only for another one to start in some other restaurant.
The servers are the face of the restaurant. We are the conduit, the visible ones, the delegates, the representatives. We bring out your food, but we don’t prepare it. There is a prep cook who cuts the fresh fruit, slices oranges for garnish, makes salsa, and our beloved house dressing that everybody goes gaga about. There is a baker who makes our fluffy house biscuits, pastries, and pies that look so adoring in the dessert case up front. There is the dishwasher who slogs in solitude over mounds of dirty dishes. And then there are the cooks who expedite the orders, who make sure you get your hard-poached eggs, and extra crispy bacon, and plain and dry cheeseburgers, and fries with no salt, and your salads dry, and lightly toasted or dark-toasted or NOT toasted whatever… I know that world and I would not be in it even for a car-full of caramels.
All I ask is that you are patient and understanding next time you go out. The cooks really want to make your meal extra special. Sometimes they are overwhelmed and too busy to send out plate after plate within ten minutes, as the restaurant is full and the “ticket snake” has no end. Sometimes they make mistakes, just like you, just like any human being. And if you had a great dining experience and your food just touched your soul, please send the message to the kitchen staff – we, the servers would LOVE to pass it on!