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Life On The Line: A Cook In The Weeds

Thursday.
1:21 a.m. 
411 covers.

Service is over and Nopa is quiet, with only a few tables left lingering. Tonight was difficult—the kind of night where it feels like nothing went our way. There were re-fires, missed orders, and a pace that had destroyed the cooks before the first turn was over. Danny, who was working the sauté station had it especially hard. As a three-year veteran of the Nopa kitchen, he has paid his dues in full and carries the respect of the whole brigade. But tonight was not his night. An undercooked fish distracted him enough that he forgot to fire his osso bucco, which in turn led to him burning his side of peas. And as all cooks know, the ticket machine waits for no one. In a matter of minutes he was in the weeds, with almost no way to recover. Quietly cleaning his station, lips pursed, he had the look of defeat and absolute rage written all over his face. Thirty minutes later, when he clocked out, he said to me, “All I want is that first two hours back.”

There’s that old kitchen cliché that says a cook is only as good as his or her last service. Every cook has heard it at some point, and the message it carries is important. But most great cooks will tell you the reality is much more urgent than that: You’re only as good as the last plate you sent to the dining room. Moreover, you’re only as good as the standard you hold yourself to. Danny holds himself to a pretty high standard.

Coming in the next day he isn’t sulking, or assigning blame, or even acknowledging the previous night. I go over the menu with him, and he attacks his prep with an intensity that I’m taken aback by. In the first hour of service he’s getting hit hard. And yet somehow by the time I’m ready to call more tickets to him, he’s standing there, pans heating on the stove, like he’s waiting for me to catch up; 450 covers later, I pat him on the back. The night has been perfect, and Danny has dominated his station. I have no idea what he’s done differently, but I’m impressed. Over a beer, I ask him what the difference was. “I just took it as it came, assumed last night was my fault. It’s usually my fault.” That night, I’m as impressed by his maturity as I am by his cooking.