It's high summer around here. We hit our first really hot days this last week. You know how the song goes, "summertime, and the living is easy" - am I right? TFB has been humming along in a lovely, low-key, warm weather rhythm (for those of you who like a quieter vibe in the dining room, might I suggest that this would be the perfect time to join us for a casual weeknight dinner?) Anyway - there's been a little more time lately to complete daily task lists and solve whatever problems come up, and a little less urgency to finish everything ten minutes ago.
And so it was that on Bastille Day last week, when Josh asked if I would jump in and help do dinner prep, it seemed like a great idea. I can always use a little "hands on time" - you know, show the kids how I still "got it" and all. It was a fun afternoon. We made a little extra of everything and crossed our fingers that we'd get a good crowd that night. At about 4 pm, Hall came downstairs from the office and mentioned that reservations were starting to pop, which seemed like a good sign.
I pushed a little harder to get everything done and get a break in before service started. The kitchen felt like somebody put the outside air inside - majorly hot and sticky. So at about 5:45 pm or so, my list completed, I wiped down my workspace, and got ready to go feed the Borzoi (that's my dog, The TessaMarie) and shower. I was looking forward to a few minutes of quiet time before I had to head back and take up my post in the dining room to greet arriving guests.
Chef Dan was in charge in the kitchen that night, fresh off his Australian vacation. Backing him up on salad, frites and good vibes etc., were Andra (who has only been with us a week or two) and Josh (who normally works out front). Just before I was about to leave, I heard the ticket printer going off on the pass. We must've gotten a few early tables. I can stay a few minutes, I thought.
It's fifteen minutes later, and the ticket printer is still spitting order tickets at me - it's mocking the idea that I would get to go home and clean up before dinner. Now when this happens - and it does sometimes, kitchen rules state that you don't freak out. You put your head down and work through it. Besides, I think, at this point, we've surely gotten a ticket in from every table in the restaurant, so it can't get worse, right?
Well, I had overlooked all those fancy new picnic tables in the garden - oh snap. In a cruel parody of Lucy in the chocolate factory, the ticket printer then decides to spit out another 20 or so orders. I consider "disabling" it - as in throwing it forcefully into another room. Josh, at my urging, stops cooking, grabs a fist full of tickets and begins calling out to me what he needs - as in "eight frites and eight mussels", stat.
I look around for anyone that can help. Andra is loading 4 orders of fried green tomatoes into a single skillet, while setting up multiple orders of polenta and eggplant. She's doing great, but she's pretty new to this and she's definitely not going to rescue me. Dan, down on the grill, looks indistinct. I realize this is because he's moving at the speed of the Tasmanian Devil.
So I eyeball what should be around eight orders of frites and stuff them in the double fryer. I scoop eight orders of mussels out of a bain-marie and into the largest sauté pan I can find, ladle on tomato sauce, toss in a generous helping of fennel confit with my tongs, move the pan onto the fire and cover it. Then I immediately uncover it to add all the stuff I almost forgot - a healthy splash of Pernod, more salt, and a handful of chopped parsley.
Realizing I can neither shake nor stir the mussels with so many in the pan, I ad-lib. Leaving the mussels to self-supervise, I run to the back and grab the largest aluminum bowl I can find. I dump the entire mix into the bowl and flip the mussels in broth before stacking them as neatly as I can into eight bowls and finally draining the remaining broth as evenly as I can over the top. Let me stress, this is not how we usually do it.
Our server Whitney breezes by the pass, looking much more put together than I feel, and politely asks if we can please "fire table 11." Normally this is how we communicate that table 11 will be ready for their entrée course. "NO" I hear myself barking back - oops. I try to walk it back. Whitney looks at me like maybe I went off my meds and heads out toward the garden.
I go back to what I'm focused on, handing off all those mussels and frites to Josh. As I move 16 plates of food into the pass, I have an incredibly brief moment of thinking, "yeah, I still got this." Josh rings the bell that tells our manager Hall that there are plates ready to go to tables. It goes unnoticed, so he rings it again. Hall glares at Josh - he's looking at that bell with the same deep disdain that I've been looking at the ticket printer. It seems that that Josh and Hall are thinking about something other than how cool it is that the owner can still fill in on the line. "I need seven more frites and nine bowls of mussels," Josh says to me tersely.
Honestly, when all was said and done, I realized a couple of things. First - I was really proud of everyone in our kitchen for hanging in there, not freaking out, and getting it done - we don't get a lot of nights like this during the heat of summer, and we were thrilled to be so busy. But it also became clear to me that we've gotten pretty darn good at this. Even our junior folk seem prepared to act like champs when things get crazy.
And at the end of the evening - I was able to step back and say that we had a wonderfully busy dinner service with no major mishaps. My late night swing through the dining room for customer feedback suggested that we actually kept up much better than it had felt back in the kitchen. As for me, I'm just going to say - not bad for somebody who doesn't do this very often anymore. I'll leave it at that.
I went to Boggy Creek this morning, and I'm working on a fresh prix fixe for our dinner this weekend. I'm thinking about wood grilled shrimp (or possibly scallops) and polenta with some tarragon chili butter. I hope you can join us.