Friday, 23 September 2011

Won't you please, please help me?

This post is more a note to self than anything else, but highlights an important fact of life for anyone embarking on a change of career - there will come times when you need to ask for help, and you should feel comfortable doing so.

Two and a half months in to working in a restaurant, I am beginning to master running the counter by myself. Although not a kitchen, I do have my own mise-en-place of sorts; I set things up as I like them, and know where to find dressings, which fridge holds components for which starter, and strive to keep surfaces free of debris and always ready for an order. Whilst reading 'Kitchen Confidential' I was pleased to note that I had pre-empted a vital survival strategy just by instinct. Anthony Bourdain recalls a head chef who used to press his palm to the workboard of a line cook who was falling behind the incoming orders, show him the varied debris that stuck to it and tell him that the mess represented his mind. Work clean, work effectively.

Sometimes, however, this is not enough. Sunshine on a Saturday means a lot of customers hungry for salads or ice-creams, and, naturally, all will descend at once and order in unison. Within moments there are orders for at least five tables to contend with. Some will be a mixture of hot and cold dishes, and this is a blessing as it buys you a little time to deal with the four salads and two sticky toffee puddings that were ordered by neighbouring tables at the same time. However, just when you feel like you could handle the situation, in walks a wandering shopper, feeling peckish. They need to be talked through the different takeaway options before they stand and ponder - and this is not time to use for prepping one of those four salads, as this customer needs your undivided attention. If you go back to those salads, they will decide what they want just as you spoon the first component on to a plate, and this is not a good strategy. So you wait, and you hear the seconds ticking in your head as you realise that those hot starters will be ready quicker now, and you've not started on the rest of that table's orders as you'd decided to get on with the salads and sticky toffee pudding instead. Naturally they will order a ham baguette as this requires fresh carving (mind you, who wouldn't? That's just what makes it the best option), and then you not only need more time but more space and will need to clean down the board afterwards. In addition, all waiting staff will magically disappear just as the customer needs to pay, and there will probably be problems with their card to contend with. None of this is anyone's fault, of course, just difficult circumstance. But before you know it, you are swimming upstream trying to get orders out before they are asked for by a waitress holding the hot half of that table's order.

It's on busy days like this that having spare salads prepared, and extra quiches and salads brought up from the kitchen chiller in readiness for a deluge of orders is just common sense. It's also on days like this that you need to accept that no amount of politeness is going to get those clean plates brought up by the kitchen porter before your stack runs out. If the counter is becoming demanding, that is what I also need to be.

What you don't want to happen is what happened to me two weeks ago. Our first sunny day in weeks and the end of the school holidays meant a lot of customers, and a lot of salads. I felt prepared, having backed up all of the deli options, and had even overpowered the schizophrenic toaster through a busy breakfast, with a distinct absence of the burnt toast haze that had plagued Nick Clegg's visit the week before. What I didn't reckon on was all the orders being for the counter, more awkwardly-timed baguettes than was fair, and running out of absolutely all of my prepped salads just in time for one of the directors to walk in. And all while starving and parched as I had neither had breakfast before I started my shift nor taken the opportunity to stop for ten minutes before the rush, and now couldn't seem to track down the goat's cheese, let alone a glass of water.

Should this happen again, I will do what happened next a lot earlier. If the orders were all for the counter, that therefore means that the kitchen is quiet, and two staff there against one here is not doing anyone any favours. So the manager asked one of them to come up, and this was a revelation. Suddenly salads started to reappear and surfaces became visible again, and I could even find and grab a gulp of that water.

I wasn't alone in my struggle, at least. On lovely days like this the bar also gets slammed with cold drink orders, and it's at its busiest when a customer like this walks in:

As I left work that day I told the manager that I don't know what I could have done differently that day to counteract the mania of all of those orders at once, but I do know now. Asking for help is not an admission of defeat, it's acknowledgement of a situation that needs additional control to stop it from causing damage. Next time there are more orders than I can handle, I'll know to order help.

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