As restauranteurs and chefs, we do a lot of planning. Almost everything we are responsible for getting done requires that we think things through early enough to get the ball rolling soon enough to get each task accomplished by the time it needs to be done. We have to write our menu in time to source the ingredients, and have an inventory done in time to place an order by the deadline to get our delivery when we need it, schedule enough cooks to do the prep and work the line, and then make sure they are all shown exactly what we want them to do before they head off too far in the wrong direction; and on and on. We give so much thought to what we want to happen, and spend so much energy explaining to people what role we want them to play in our grand design, that it’s easy to leave out a very important step at the other end the equation. We need to get into the habit of doing very simple, easy checks after our plans are made and set in motion that will give us or our sous chefs a quick, accurate and clear indication that all of our plans are actually being carried out the way we intended. This is one of the best ways to insure that the deck is stacked in our favor in terms of our guests truly enjoying our vision of hospitality. The various stations on our line are where the rubber meets the road vis-à-vis what we picture and plan for our guests to enjoy while in our dining rooms, and what they actually experience. Great, friendly and timely service as well as beautiful, delicious, consistently prepared food will only be realized if your line chugs along with no more than the very occasional hiccup.
The two basic issues that we are trying to control on a well-run line are quality and timing. First, we must establish good systems and procedures (including proper staffing) for our line. After that, the three components of our line that have the biggest influence on quality and timing are technique, prep and equipment. Each of them can be easily observed, quantified and adjusted. Let’s look at just how to do that.
The simplest thing to do to insure that your line operates like the well-oiled machine that you envision is to see that each cook has the tools he or she needs to do their job as easily and efficiently as possible. First, as the manager, don’t nickel and dime your staff with equipment so that the hardest and most frustrating part of their job is to get a hold the ladles, bains, side towels and sauté pans they need before their colleagues do. Have enough equipment available for your staff to do their jobs. Having said that, it’s the rare kitchen that has enough equipment to get through a busy shift without washing and reusing. Have enough pot washers – and soap, scrub pads and hot water – available to clean things like sauté pans during a shift, and have a system in place to move the equipment to where it needs to be at any given time. In the course of service, one of the things managers should be paying attention to on the line is whether the cooks are using the best utensils for the job at hand (specific spatulas, knives…) and that the major pieces of equipment, like ovens, steamers and grills are working properly.
One of the most important parts of having a line that will be able to handle the busiest of shifts is to have every line cook and every chef understand the importance of each station being completely and correctly set up on time. If the chef decides he wants the line in place and ready for action at 5:30, then 5:35 is not close to being good enough. Giving a menu-driven checklist to each cook of all the prep and equipment that they will need on their station during their shift is an easy way to help them in their efforts to not forget anything. This is especially helpful for new employees or if there are specials or new items the crew is not yet familiar with.
The most basic thing that needs to be right for a line to function well is the prep on each station. A sufficient amount of the correct food, properly prepped and held at the correct temperature needs to be available to each cook. This, of course, requires planning and effort going all the way back to placing accurate orders in time with reliable vendors, having good systems for receiving and storage that are consistently used, and well thought out and supervised prep time with sufficient staff.
Even with this level of planning and effort, mistakes will happen. And something as important as your line being set up for success from the start is too important to not have a second set of eyes being involved with the process. It should be part of your procedures to start every service by always having a sous chef or kitchen manager go down the line to double check whether or not your cooks have everything they need at hand to do their jobs. While your cooks intentions are hopefully good, distractions, confusion about just what a dish they need to produce requires, or running out of time before they need to have their stations ready will invariably lead to occasional lapses in a perfect set up. (If a cook consistently has trouble getting their station set up on time, either you need to revisit your expectations and requirements, or you need a new cook.)
Whoever is checking to see that each cook has the food they need on their station should have a thorough understanding of the products, as well as knowing the menu like the back of their hand. They should be checking for a number of factors. Is there enough of a certain item on the station to make it through the shift? If not, because of space limitations, is there more readily available to replenish with? This is also the last chance to check for accuracy in pre-portioned items. If what is supposed to be six ounce fish fillets look right, great. If not, now is the time to decide to turn three orders into two, if that would effectively correct the mistake. Also, if you serve a six-ounce beef tenderloin at lunch and an eight-ounce tenderloin at dinner, make sure the correct steaks are where they should be. All items should be checked to make sure that they are being held at the correct temperature. Whether you have on-line refrigeration or depend on ice in hotel pans, seafood, dairy and meats need to be kept cold until cooking begins. Use an instant-reading thermometer to see that sauces are being kept at above 140°F. If they are not, bring them up to temp on the stove before returning them to a clean bain. In addition, freshness shouldn’t be taken for granted. A quick sniff of any item that might be less than perfectly fresh, whether seafood, meat, dairy or anything else, could easily save the day in averting a disaster in the dining room. It’s hard for a customer to forgive a restaurant when it serves them even ever so slightly spoiled anything.
Last but not least, don’t assume that just because an item is on the line in a reasonable quantity, looks good and is at the right temperature, that it tastes right. Check sauces, relishes and dressings for salt content, degree of spiciness, acid/fat balance, and any other pertinent criteria. Not only does a quick taste of any preparation on the line make perfect sense as a last minute double check on your cooks’ work, but it lets them know that management cares about what goes out of the kitchen, and that they need to do everything they can, all the time, to make and serve their very best work. The guest in the dining room can seem a distant, abstract entity to someone who never leaves the kitchen, but a direct supervisor who is paying attention, and who offers both compliments and constructive criticism is very real, indeed.
As important as it is to make sure that each station gets off on the right foot at the start of every shift, realize that your line is a perpetual work in progress, and the goal is to keep it as well-stocked and ready for action as service develops as it was when the first table went out. Your sous chefs or managers should always have their fingers on the pulse of how each cook is doing in terms of the quality and timing of their work, as well as the basic necessity of just having a supply of the prep they need to get their plates out. The kind of checks they did at the beginning of each shift in terms of the quantity and quality of prep on the line should continue as the shift progresses.
Clear and efficient systems for replenishing the line should be in place and followed. If your situation warrants it, separate staff should be available to bring more prep out to the cooks as they request it. The cooks should also understand that everything takes time and that it’s better to ask for or go get more tuna, for instance, when they’re a few orders away from running out than when it’s time to fire four orders and they’ve had none for the last fifteen minutes. If you have separate staff to replenish, you can use them to do prep work to get ready for the next shift, whether it’s butchering meats and fish or slicing fruit for breakfast.
Besides the correct ingredients, the other thing your line cooks need to succeed is a high level of ability at whatever techniques are required to produce the plates that come off of their stations. No matter how proficient they are at grilling, roasting, sautéing, poaching, frying, slicing, saucing, or whatever, in the same way you shouldn’t take for granted that the prep on their station is beyond reproach, you shouldn’t assume that every plate they make is prepared perfectly, without any oversight, either. First, take the time and effort to train every cook to prepare your food the way you want it to be. No matter how much experience they’ve had at other restaurants, don’t assume the way they do things are what you’re after. Then, after they understand just what your standards are, during each service, keep an eye on what they’re turning out. It only takes a few orders of lackadaisical cooking before what started out as golden-brown seared scallops start to look poached. Nip problems at the bud, quickly, politely, but firmly. Most people are happy to do the right thing if the goal is made clear and they’re appreciated for always accomplishing it.
Pay attention to each individual cook and ascertain just how comfortable and adept they are at running their station. The best thing to do is to have them train on the station with someone who has already mastered it. Take the time to show them little things they can do to help with their timing. For example, if you serve thick, grilled veal chops, it might be a good idea for them to keep a few aside on a busy night, already cooked to medium, so that they can get a well-done order out in time to go out with other orders on a particular ticket. On the other hand, if you notice them using a similar technique with snapper fillets, point out that not only won’t they need that time to get any grilled fish order out, but they’re turning your expensive snapper into something resembling baccalà. Similar attention should be paid to how each line cook handles every one of the myriad tasks they are responsible for in the course of a meal. How they wield a two-ounce ladle, handle a slicer, place a few ounces of salad on a plate, arrange medallions of roasted meat on a plate, operate a sauté pan, clean a plate’s rim….all of these things and more will teach you volumes about each of your workers, if you pay attention to them during service. It might be better to offer suggestions for improvement during a less-intense time than in the heat of battle of a busy night, but make observations to yourself during service and act on them when it will do the most good.
Of course, each cook should be trained to scrutinize every plate before it leaves their station, and the chefs should do their best to do the same before it leaves the kitchen. Your customers certainly will as soon as it arrives at their table.