Life On the Line: Sometimes Just a Single Order Breaks a Cook Down
The job of a line cook can be brutal, but the best nights are when you get into a groove. Thing is, you never know what’s going to derail you.
I’ll use last Sunday night as an example. Calling tickets on a grinding Sunday night can be a serious challenge. People dine out early, so the bulk of the night’s covers are crammed into the first three hours. Last Sunday, Chris was working the oven, and by midnight he’d already done over 200 orders. He kept his cool throughout though, quietly spinning dough, portioning beans and roasting cauliflower. And for the first time in almost seven hours, he had a moment to himself, which meant he could finally get a bite to eat.
His burger was being prepared when a party of six walked in. The group was a front-of-the-house crew from a high-profile restaurant downtown. They were dressed in suits and dresses—attire that belied their youth. And they stepped into Nopa at 12:45 am, 15 minutes before we close.
It’s important to note that most of the kitchen staff enjoys the late night rush. Seeing friends from other restaurants and the change in pace is a welcome relief from the earlier portion of the night. But sometimes, a single order can break a cook down.
The table of six ordered and my ticket printer started chattering with a long list: two courses, totaling fourteen dishes in all—and leaning heavily on Chris’s oven station. He was just about to eat his burger when I called his orders.
“Fire two flatbread, two calamari, beans, cauliflower.”
He rose from where he was crouching.
“What the fuck?!”
“Two flat, two cali, beans, cauli.”
Chris pursed his lips, and started to protest, then stopped. He portioned his beans, heated a sizzle platter, and pulled two balls of dough. Under his breath I could hear him muttering, “Man, fuck this shit. These guys come in every fucking night and do this shit.” I slid over and helped him plate.
“Is that it? We all in?” he asked.
“No, two pasta, two artichokes on the next course.”
And that was all it took. Chris lost it, his previous muttering now a full-blown tirade. All of the night's frustrations and pressure had finally boiled over. Then he went quiet, standing completely still for a minute.
“I’m sorry. Should I not have said that? I dunno. I’m sorry man. I just get sick of this shit. I shouldn’t have said all that.”
There was calmness in his voice—the resignation of a person who’s always on the losing team. He resumed his spot, leaning against his reach in, and bit into his cold burger.