The most important thing.

photo by mark linthicum

What do you think is the most important thing for a restaurant to have? Great ingredients? A passionate staff? Nice cooking equipment? A great wine list? Caring but discreet service? Clean bathrooms?

The answer is yes. And no. Of course you need all these components to make things work. But what a restaurant, and more specifically, a kitchen needs is great communication--on all levels. Let me explain:

(I'm not very good at math, so please excuse my poor algebra.) 90db noise + hot, cramped kitchen + a group of people that don't speak
the same language + intense pressure = a perfect storm of poor
communication. The Chef needs to be communicating with the sous chef who needs to be communicating with all of the cooks and prep cooks and dishwashers who in turn need to communicate among each other so they can go back and communicate with the sous chef who will communicate with the Chef. It's a whirlpool of nouns and verbs and lines like "so like fuckin, the fuckin peppers are fuckin from yesterday, and fuckin, they like, look, like, fuckin kinda beat." Decoding the essential information takes more brainpower than a chess match.

The thing that makes communication so important (and difficult) is that rarely is one piece of information more important than the other. How much fish you ordered--the AM shift needs to know about that. The nozzle on the hose in the dish pit is leaking--the sous chef needs to know about that. There are only 9 chicken left--the front of house needs to know about that. But wait! The am sous chef ordered squab, and its already been prepped--the Chef and the sous chef and the front of house need to know that. And that fish special has been coming back to the dish pit with plates almost full all night--the whole kitchen needs to know about that. Add to this the constant chatter between stations during service, the Chefs critiques on the plates coming out, or the GM letting you know that a food critic just sat upstairs, and you've got a lot of information flying around.

What serves us in the Nopa kitchen is that we all speak the same language--and I dont mean English or Spanish. We all understand the timing on the food, and what exactly "five minutes!" means. (in my experience, a minute in a kitchen is never actually a minute) The sautee cook knows what I mean when I say "watch your color" and the grill cook know what i mean when I point at his grill while he's plating. When it's all clicking, it's a special thing to watch.

photo by mark linthicum

i used to give new cooks homework. culinary terms to look up. articles to read. places to eat. it's interesting, how many cooks think the job ends when they leave the kitchen. sure, cooks like to look at (not read) cookbooks, and sure, they like to eat out...but how much information is being absorbed there? there is no way to grow if you're only focused on whats going on where you work. having said that, there is really no way to grow if you're only focused on the type of cuisine you cook. (i had a duck dish at slanted door that would probably have been more at home on chez panisse's menu, and it was inspiring.) get together with your fellow cooks, trade books and articles, and eat out as much as you can. just dont drink too much.

  • im trying to write, but this vice-presidential debate is making me want to stab myself in my eyeballs
  • sundays. they're never, ever fun.
  • "she looks like a cross between maggie gyllenhall and john goodman." "she looks like she's spent a lot of time in tents."
  • moleskine. why did i not have one before?
  • my wife sings bad country music while she cooks
  • two quarts of asahi might be too much
  • bloodsugarsexmagik on rock band. hells yes.
  • what the hell is a shlada?

the flat top at dotties. yum

you've been warned

al's got links.


marquitos said...

sundays: agreed. never.

kirchartfour said...

Wondering: did you have to complete a tasting for your spot at Nopa?

Richie said...

no, no tasting...nopa's not really that kind of place.

WendellJ said...

VIPs in the house ...

International Ms Leather 2008
Southern California Ms Leather 2006
Northwest LeatherSir 2006

We had a great time at Nopa - thanks for interrupting the Saturday rush to take some time to chat. I hope that the Microsoft Get Out Of Jail Free card comes in handy.

An awesome dinner to fuel the debauchery that followed on Saturday night and Sunday -
Folsom Street Fair *totally* rocked.

I'll never again look at a bottle of hot sauce without a wicked grin on my face ...

kirchartfour said...

What do you mean "not that kinda place" -- what would denote "that kinda place"?

Richie said...

i mean that it's not formal like that. my chef is less interested in a cook showing what they can do than he is in their attitude and intelligence. i did plenty of cooking on my stage, but all for service.

Sarah said...

I like this one better. It is the most important thing, and now when I have something to shout over the pass I'll fuckin be like fuckin clear about what I fuckin gotta like say.

takeyourtime said...

curious about what articles you assigned as homework for new cooks? i'm always up for more.

also, generally curious about training techniques. i started 6 weeks ago at a resto that's pretty disorganized and has a checkered past, and, consequently, i'm now considered a 'senior' person and i'm training people. we'll also be hiring tons of pretty green cooks for the summer. the french laundry it is not :)

training has without exception been terrible at all the restaurants i've been at ... typically, a couple of awkward nights shared with another cook who may know what they're doing, but barely knows 'how' and has no clue how to talk about it.

i always had to ask a ton of questions and be pushy to get comfy in a new place. i'm finding that most of the folks i'm training don't ask questions. they're too submissive and so they learn slow.

i guess the ideal trainer communicates well, encourages, checks in for understanding, and is precise, consistent, professional with all that they do. those are the qualities of a good trainer, and i'll do my best to emulate those ...

any instructive experiences as trainer / trainee out there?

or thoughts on how to best incorporate lots of green cooks into a high-volume seafood bar & grill?