April 25, 2012

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Urgency

There’s a meme that echoes throughout the restaurant industry: a sense of urgency. Great cooks and servers have a “sense of urgency” — even when there’s no emergency. I think the first time I heard the phrase, I was watching a Food Network show where several cooks were trying out in a restaurant kitchen to see which one had the juice to get a job there. One of the judges said a contestant didn’t seem to have a sense of urgency: She didn’t move around the kitchen as if anything was crucial or even very important. It appeared that she thought she had all day to complete her current task, rather than execute it with maximum efficiency and quickly pivot to the next one.

You know what I’m talking about. You’re having dinner, and you see your server schlubbing along the edge of the dining room, checking his cell phone, macking the female servers along the way. Your food order is on his ticket pad. He’s moving in the general direction of the point-of-sale terminal, but not in any purposeful way. When he gets there, he interacts with a cook, who seems to be on break. One tells a joke; they high-five. You’re hungry. Why isn’t he putting your order in? He has no sense of urgency. He looks at his phone again. Finally, he taps your order into the computer. Let’s be honest, he just wasted five minutes of your dining experience … and your life.

Cooks need a sense of urgency, too, even if it isn’t as visible to the dining public. And cooks need it throughout their shift, from the moment they put on their apron until the last trashcan is emptied at the end of the night. It’s not just during the push of the evening’s service; most decent cooks can get themselves motivated during the rush. But the truly great cooks have that “sense of urgency” even when they are peeling potatoes hours before service begins.

Now, having the sense of urgency doesn’t mean running around like a wild man, or crashing into people and fixtures. It means moving purposefully and efficiently. It means being mentally nimble and embracing the curve balls that inevitably are thrown our way in the restaurant industry. A server might bring an entrée back to the kitchen and tell the cooks that the diner didn’t realize the vegetable side included nuts: She’s allergic. One brand of cook will sigh dramatically and bitch for three minutes that she didn’t read the menu carefully enough, then proceed to berate the server for not making it clear to the diner that the side dish included nuts. The other type of cook will drop a fresh, nut-free version of the veg side into a hot sauté pan while the server is still explaining, and re-plate the entrée and new veg before the rant is over.

Where I work, we are fortunate to have catering degree interns assist us in the kitchen on a semi-regular basis. One of them this quarter is the personification of the sense of urgency. She floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. It doesn’t matter whether I give her something mundane to do, like dicing onions, or give her a crucial task, such as monitoring and refilling a buffet. Even though she’s working for internship credit hours, not wages, she performs like a champ. She moves quickly, completes tasks in record time, and buzzes around the kitchen — never idle, never lackadaisical. She smiles just as brightly while she takes the trashcan to the Dumpster as she does while placing duck-skin cracklings just so on a single canapé. She will be a great chef one day.

Let’s all agree to inject the sense of urgency into our everyday lives, no matter what activity we’re involved in. Have a cheerful sense of urgency at the optometrist’s office. Have a resigned since of urgency in the line at a big-box store. It’ll do you good.

Meanwhile, please wish all us food industry workers the best over the next couple weeks. It’s Derby, y’all. And then it’s Mother’s Day. It’s our Armageddon. We’ll see you at the end of May — with a sense of urgency.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of Juleps Catering.