I’ve always had a desire to work in professional kitchens, but other than a few months over 20 years ago at Green Gulch Farm (in Marin county, part of the San Francisco Zen Center), I haven’t done it. So I’m taking a few months off from my day job to intern and see if it is something I really enjoy. The folks at Cafe Flora, the much-loved Seattle vegetarian institution, have been incredibly kind to let me work there and learn the ropes.
My first night I worked the pantry station. Pantry is responsible for all of the cold food that we serve: making a few different green salads, a soba noodle salad, a (vegetarian) pate plate, cheese plates, and plating and saucing all of the desserts. I was trained by T. who was in her last few nights on the job before moving on. She was great at getting me up to speed. After watching her make a few salads she let me try it and it went ok. The main thing is to have your station set up logically, so when you go to make a dish, all of the ingredients and utensils you are going to need are already gathered together. That way you aren’t likely to forget anything.
The good feeling is when you get a nice rhythm and routine going. For example, here’s how I make a Caesar salad:
- ticket hits the printer, check it for any special requests (to go, dressing on side, split, vegan, substitutions, etc.) and whether it is small or large
- put on gloves
- grab a cold plate from the middle reach in and put it on the counter
- grab the bowl and tongs from the other reach in cooler and fill it with the right amount of romaine
- add croutons
- grab the drip-cut pitcher with the Caesar dressing, pour a healthy amount on the greens, toss them with tongs, and mound on the plate
- return the bowl to the cooler
- top with fried capers and parmesan
- wipe the rim of the plate
- slide it to the server pick up area and tear the ticket
- clean up any mess
It sounds like a lot to remember but it is actually easy because each step leads you to the next. You don’t want to have to think, it should just be like tying your shoes. You don’t question it and do it in a different sequence the next time unless it is intentional because you think you might have found a more efficient way. At the same time, you do want to use your head to figure out what order to do things in when you get busy, making multiples of the same salad at once, or doing several salads and then several desserts for example.
The next night I worked with T. again but I made most of the plates and she helped out by bringing backup ingredients from the kitchen. Today I graduated to running the station by myself, coming in early in the morning to prep and set up, doing all the plates for lunch, and then taking inventory, re-icing everything and cleaning up to hand off to the evening pantry cook before I left. It was a good feeling to know I could handle the station myself for a moderately busy lunch. We’ll see how I do when we are slammed and I’m getting five tickets at a time!
Pantry at Cafe Flora is unusual because it is in the dining room. It has been fun for me to be in the front of the house, paying attention to how the servers do their job and the very pleasant atmosphere. I definitely have a different awareness as an employee instead of as a customer.
One thing I’ve understood much more clearly this week is how much a restaurant depends on good prep to serve good food. Every day there is a general kitchen prep list as well as specific lists for some of the individual stations. There are yam fries to be cut, stocks and sauces and soups to make, vegetables to be cleaned and chopped, cheese to be grated and portioned and so forth. And each of those things needs to be done with attention to detail, to make sure that the end result you are going to serve is delicious. It is also critical to be organized and know how much you need of every item so that you neither run out nor need to waste it, and to have everything properly labeled and placed so you can find it.
I’ve also worked a couple shifts just doing general prep instead of pantry. There is a definite learning curve and everyone has been really patient with me, happily telling me where to find ingredients and equipment and showing me exactly how the prep of each item should be done. We have recipes of course, but it really helps to have someone show you how the chanterelles should be cut for the risotto cakes, or the safest way to drain a huge stockpot. It feels great to be getting to the point where I can look at the list and see several things I can do confidently, and then be able to ask for an overview of a few more.
Anyhow that is the report after my first 5 shifts. I’m hoping to have the opportunity to help out and train on some of the other stations, so I’ll keep you all posted about what I’m learning.