In The Weeds: What the Customer Doesn’t See

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angry chefThe kitchen is not a part of the restaurant that most people are even aware of when they dine. Maybe the door swings open and closed, maybe a pan or dish clanks in the background, but that’s about it as far as back-of-the-house and customer interaction.

So what does that loud, good-smelling, secret universe consist of? If the average customer could trace the path of their tasty Nicoise Salad all the way back to its origin, it might go something like this:

First, an inexperienced or fresh-out-of-culinary-school cook will toss the vegetables in vinaigrette and arrange them delicately on the bowl. The tomatoes will have been cut and eggs hardboiled during the food prep time before the restaurant even opened. This kitchen greenhorn takes pride in the fact that while the rest of us boil green beans at home, he gets to blanch haricoverts for this salad.

Further up the line, a more experienced cook will be pan-searing some Ahi Tuna to put atop the salad. Oil will hit the smoking-hot pan, causing flames to shoot up dramatically, while making the cook feel like Van Halen entering the stage. With all the flames and theatrics of the kitchen, it’s no wonder that everyone back there is singing their hearts out, or at least whistling while they work.

A constant flow of orders come in and tickets start to spread across the line like paper lanterns in downtown Hong Kong. It’s overwhelming for the cooks to see the work ahead of them while they’re still doing the work that’s in front of them. It’s like every customer’s meal is being built on an assembly line at warp speed.

The chef stands at the front of the line yelling and cursing a string of expletives that a rapper would envy, but somehow it boosts the morale among the cooks and gives them the energy to get the food out as quickly as possible.

The cooks move around each other through the narrow space of the line gracefully, and when the work is flowing well, they resemble a bunch of tattooed ballerinas. But sometimes the tickets get backed up, a server drops a tray of food, a cook runs out of ingredients, a customer sends a dish back to be re-cooked, and the flow is ruined. A bad night is bound to happen anywhere.

If the customer has been waiting a half an hour for this salad, twirling this finger around the rim of his drink, chances are havoc is breaking loose in the kitchen. The general manager watches over the chaos which only makes the cooks more nervous. The chef barks orders and cooks are doubling their efforts to get the food ready. They are cooking and laboring with an exasperation the customer probably hasn’t even achieved on a tennis court in his entire life.

But as we in the restaurant business know, there is no way to really explain all of this to the average customer, besides with an apology, and another complimentary drink of course.

Last modified: February 12, 2013
Sasha Smith


This story is part of our Small Business Corner, a peek into the life and trials of small business owners.

Category: MPR Authored, Restaurants, Small Business, Small Business Corner, small business owners

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