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Special Restaurant Issue | Lotus Land | 800 words

Cooks on Fire

June 19, 2005|Dan Neil

I've had some pretty awful jobs. One summer I worked as a coal monkey in a mine in Wyoming, shoveling salvageable ore out of the freezing, knee-deep slurry that collected under the machinery. Buried six stories underground, I spent 10 hours a day scurrying like Quasimodo under the bawling conveyor belts, with only my helmet lamp to see by, while a steady rain from the dust-suppression system soaked me to my underwear.

That was paradise compared to being a short-order cook.

If you haven't done it, you don't know. You couldn't be expected to know, because when you walk into a busy Denny's or an IHOP--at 1 p.m. or 4 a.m.--it all seems so brightly lit and inevitable, so orderly and obvious. So easy. The server writes down your order--wheat stack, two eggs over, sliced fruit, bacon black, hash browns--and in a few minutes the plate arrives, hot and brimming with cholesterol. No clue, really, to the pandemonium from whence it came. More coffee?

But back in the kitchen, war is raging. Well, not war, but a fevered game of multi-level lightning chess played in 100-degree heat on a slippery floor, a game that requires you to plan 10 moves ahead and keep planning and keep cooking as fast as chemistry and physics allow, a game where the best outcome is only a momentary stalemate, when orders get plated and picked up--saved from the flavor-murdering heat lamps--and tables get their food all at once, and you have a free hand to take a drink and wipe down the prep table and whisk some life back into the hollandaise, a game requiring supreme concentration while six people talk at you at once. Chef, Pittsburgh that Mex burger I need a turkey melt with wings where's my rye toast REORDER!

Few things to my eye are more poignant than the little sprig of parsley laid by the eggs just so, with the stem tucked under the crisp fringed edges. In the suffocating crush of a busy kitchen, with the window chandeliered with orders, someone has taken the time to dress the plate with that bittersweet garnish--a green boutonniere, a small, valiant flourish that he or she well knows will be laid aside absently, if not with mocking scorn. Is there a purer expression of the work ethic?

Imagine that it's 10 a.m. on Sunday morning at, oh, let's say Jerry's Famous Deli in Marina del Rey. You are running the hot line--that is, the grill. People are coming through the door as if they are escaping gunfire. You look up and you have 10 new orders--that is, 10 tables with servings for 46 people.

You scan the tickets. You're looking for dishes that will take the most time, because you have to start them first--six burgers, two bacon-cheese, three cheese (one Swiss and one bleu), one fried-egg burger . . . one rare, three medium, two well. Five orders for steak and eggs. Sixteen omelets, Denver and Greek and Spanish, three with egg whites, which if you are really lucky your pan man already has started.

At least there aren't any Monte Cristo sandwiches, which take agonizing minutes to make.

Chef, I need a Monte Cristo!

With the long-blade spatula, you clear off a spot at the top of the grill so that you can drop the patties and steaks in a line. Well done on the far left, rare on the right. All the food moves diagonally across the grill, left to right and top to bottom, in a slow tide. The nearer the steak or egg or pancakes or hash is to the right corner of the griddle, the closer it is to being done. You try to keep table orders together in ranks on the grill, but inevitably, entropy invades. The sweat and the heat wilt your fresh paper toque.

When the egg orders are 30 seconds out--you know that because they have reached that place on the grill--you start dropping toast: four rye, six wheat, six white . . . . No, damn it, we're out of pumpernickel. You yell through the window. Brad! '86 the pump!

Once in a while, a still point: The four waffle machines are seething with batter. Every fry basket in the place is bucking in the rolling grease. If you are lucky and very good--with the mental clarity of an air-traffic controller and the dexterity of Kali--you can actually have a laugh.

I was never that good. With the possible exception of the martyred St. Lawrence, no one has suffered over a grill more than me.

We lionize great chefs, and even the not so great, giving them TV shows where--Bam!--they over-season their food or run ill-conceived Manhattan trattorias into the ground. But the best chefs I've ever seen--people who, in another time and place, might be called geniuses--were these short-order warriors, who do an impossible job and make it look easy.

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