Friday night at Cafe Flora, and I’m working the pizza / grill station for the third or fourth shift. The past few times have been pretty straightforward, never more than a few things to make at a time, and plenty of slow moments when I could get my station back together and even help on prep, although the line cooks had plenty of tickets.
Tonight started out much the same, maybe even a bit mellower than usual. A Portobello French Dip here, a Purple Potato Pizza there, no stress. I was wishing I’d get a few tickets to make things interesting. Then K., the expediter says "here’s a ticket that is all yours" (which is rare) and hands it to me. Three burgers, all with special requests, and a French Dip. No sweat. Those are easy things to make, you just put them on, set up your plates, and serve ’em up. Let the line cook know when you need them to drop fries. No sweat. "Michael, you need any help"? "Nope, I’m good".
Before I even got those fully on, "Fire a purple (pizza)". Ok. I can do this. "Make that two purple". Surfs up! Get out the dough, and the double pizza peel. The dough has been sticking so use lots of cornmeal. Make the pizzas. Recheck, darn, one is still sticking. Lift it up and put more cornmeal under it. First one goes in the oven fine. Second one sticks. Shove again. Bad move, it bends over on itself and catches on the oven roof. Gonna have to get it out of there and remake.
Just then "Fire two quesadillas and another French with salad". My head is now spinning. I’ve got a doomed pizza that needs to get out of the oven, a new one to make, plates and garnishes to set for all that other stuff, gotta figure out all the special orders, and I can’t even remember what else I haven’t fired yet. Don’t know what to do next. Realization: this is it, I’m "in the weeds".
Every line cook has been there, many many times. Fortunately, we have a lot of experienced hands in the kitchen and they all know I’m just getting started. I’m actually proud of what I did next. Rather than trying to tough it out and getting in a position where the line cook was going to come up with all her food and I wouldn’t have my stuff, I just said "ok, K. I need some help over here". K. jumped in and fixed the pizza situation and made the French while I finished the burgers and five minutes later we were buzzing the waiters and life was back to normal.
So, ok, good. It sucked to be in the weeds. The part I didn’t like was that it wasn’t simply that it was going to take awhile to make everything. What was annoying was that I was slightly paralyzed, unsure of which thing to try to take care of next or even what all the things I needed to do were. And of course this is a laughably small amount of orders to get in the weeds over. Experienced line cooks often have 5 times as much stuff as that fired at once, and all of it more complex than anything I was making.
But I also have to be realistic with myself. This is all new for me, and I’m going to make mistakes. With more practice I’ll understand the interlocking timing of these dishes better and be able to keep the mental to-do list ticking away smoothly. One thing that works in my favor is I have a good internal timer. I know without having to watch a clock when the pizza will be just about ready, and when it will be time to flip a burger or quesadilla. So I just need practice and concentration, and it should get easier. Wish me luck…