Sunday, February 23, 2014
Expediting Styles, Tricks of the Trade
It's funny how no one ever talks about how we get the food out of our kitchens in time. You'll often hear chefs discussing recipes, sourcing or the like, but expediting service is one of the most important things we do. There are a bunch of styles and it seems that everybody has their own little tricks or techniques.
One of the easiest styles of service is primarily used in Italian and some small plate restaurants, where as the food is finished it's brought to the table. So if the calamari takes less time to cook than the gnocchi, you'll get the fish first, if ya know what I mean. The only disadvantage is that some diners think this is a shortcoming, especially if they *aren't* sharing plates. Tickets can also get lost during a busy rush this way, and if the table in question gets their squid in two minutes and somebody burns your pasta sauce, the recovery of the table gets trickier for your waitstaff. I've found that you do tend to generate more comps with this, however the food cost for small plates usually runs low, and if this style allows your to burn through your board quickly... it may be worth the possible damage.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the coursed degustation menu. In some rare instances, this is used without running an a la carte menu option. This requires the chef to keep track of service with a constant, obsessive watch on the diners, usually through food runners, essays, servers and the occasional manager who happens to be within reach. Time is also of the import to keep track of, I personally write the last two digits of the time each course leaves the kitchen and cross off that course with a marker. It's a good idea to then move the ticket into a different grouping with other tables that are on the same course.
Some decisions have to be made as to who fires the tickets then. Is it solely the waiter's responsibility? Or does the Chef fire if the servers are overwhelmed with the rush? I take control when I have not seen a waiter and someone reports the table is cleared, and the way I keep track is the 15 minute rule. If fifteen minutes go by without a fire, I send someone to check the table or to check with the waiter. In some instances of smaller portion size, the time gap can get shortened or if a particularly large course is being served, the gap can be extended. After a while it becomes second nature, intuitive to question when something seems even slightly amiss.
Any other restaurant runs a hybrid of these two extremes. Space available in your kitchen oft dictates any other changes. Cooks should be expected to verbally call out in response to ordering and firing from the expeditor, and times left for cooking should be exact. The order which tickets are placed on the deck should always be consistent between all who run the station on a given property, so if someone has to take over in the heat of the evening rush, tickets are not pulled out of order.
It must be noted here that expediting service also entails a high level of quality control and a hawk's eye on the cooks and servers. Don't forget that the food and plate as far as hot food needs to stay that way. Hot. Keep in mind that cooks will lie, cheat, and cut corners without a shred of guilt towards the customer. Servers will handle your plates like oxen, thumb your clean plates and hold shit at a 45 degree angle if let run rampant. Most expeditors then finish the dish with any last minute garnish and wipe any smears on the plate as it exits the window. I've found that knotted cheesecloth cut into little 2-3 inch "nubbies" works the best for this task. If you do not want a smear on expensive plates, damping the cheesecloth in vodka or gin prevents the same type of streaking you would get, similar to avoiding streaking on windows by using window cleaner instead of water. An expo station is every bit as important to set as a cook's station. Mise en place is key. Respect the set up and you run less a risk of put yourself and your kitchen in the weeds.
Every time you have a re-fire, either because of a kitchen, front of the house, or diner preference, your flow of food is jeopardized. It's basic time management. You want less steps for you and your team, as any extra steps sets back the remaining tickets during a rush. Keeping track of re-fires and pushing out of your domain is of the utmost importance then. Before a server leaves the kitchen, you need to know the table number, position and quickly write it down on a piece of paper and hang it on your docket so to prevent any mistakes. If you can get a seat number or position as well, this works in your favor in getting the food to the guest in a timely manner. All communication between the front and back of the house needs to be brief, clear and concise in order to waste the least amount of time. Shortening dish names and giving cooks that have long names a shortened name can often save you a sore throat during extremely busy services.
In extremely busy restaurants, especially those that have theater rushes or other intense periods of business, multiple expeditors are run, usually with a focus on a particular station. This can get really loud, with multiple bosses barking out orders. Even more so with open kitchens with the diners and any music adding to the din. Thus the sore throat comment earlier. It ain't a library. This often can lead to the misconception that chefs are always angry. Some of us are. Others just need to be heard so they can steer the ship. Those of us who aren't sadists keep this to as dull a roar as possible.
In case of most hotels, several menus may be pushed out of the same space. Restaurant(s), bar, room service and even banquets can be drawn off the same line. This adds to the need of having clear lines of communication between departments. Walkies, headsets/earpieces, and land lines in connection with a point of sales system (or God forbid written system, does this even exist outside a small handful of independent restaurants any more?) are needed to ensure a smooth service. This multiple outlet rush can destroy even the most stocked and efficient line if no one sees it coming. Measures and concessions can always be made to streamline service if forewarning is given. Perhaps this is why some restaurants don't succeed? Not being able to handle a rush due to not preparing in advance can piss off a lot of diners in a short period of time. And this brings me to my next topic.
Hosts & Hostesses are very important. They set the pace. When possible they stagger the tables as to not crush the waitstaff or overwhelm the kitchen. Their communication with the front of house management is a must to a successful service. It's always a good idea to keep in the loop with the reservationists to foresee any VIPs, strange dietary concerns, or the general flow of traffic for the evening.
Am I forgetting anything? I hope this is useful to anyone that expos on a regular basis.