Sharpening the axe: Your prep must be sharp

A popular aphorism some ascribe to Abraham Lincoln is: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” In a restaurant, “sharpening the axe” is all the prep that goes into a successful service.

Consider how long it takes you to get ready for a dinner party at home. You decide on a menu, make a list, shop for ingredients, bring your supplies home and set to work — hopefully early enough that you’ll be close to ready once your guests arrive. If everything goes well, you’ll have time to greet your company and put the finishing touches on your meal while your friends have a glass of wine. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it for the warm fuzzy feeling of accomplishment you get when everyone raves at the end of the night.

Now, imagine that, like a restaurant, instead of knowing in advance what you’re serving to everyone, you’ve got to present a choice of possible mains and sides and desserts to them whenever they show up throughout the evening. And imagine you don’t know how quickly or leisurely they’d like to enjoy their meal, or what dietary restrictions they’ll be bound by. The only way you could expect to have success in this situation is to be prepared for almost any eventuality. You’d have to buy far more ingredients than you’ll actually need, because ultimately everyone may order the bass and no one may order the lasagna you slaved over.

For the most part, restaurant chefs don’t go out shopping and choose everything by hand; instead, they order it from a short list of suppliers. Sure, some things are the same each time they get delivered: same olive oil, same bags of rice. But maybe the shrimp came in whole instead of peeled. Maybe the sun-dried tomatoes came packed in oil because the purveyor was out of the dry-packed ones. Flexibility is an asset here; you often don’t get exactly what you ordered. Restaurant workers spend many minutes, sometimes hours, checking purchase orders against what was delivered. It wouldn’t do to get into the middle of service and realize you never got those grape tomatoes that go in the pasta dish. Furthermore, all that product has to be unpacked and stored, and the empty boxes have to be broken down and recycled. Proteins might need to be marinated or dry rubbed, herbs have to be chopped and sauces must be made and held at a certain temperature.

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It takes a small army to perform all the prep that’s required for a successful service involving a mystery number of diners arriving in waves at no specific time, ordering their choice of an infinite possible combination of dishes from the menu. Throw in a few food allergies or a couple of people who refuse to eat garlic, and it’s like playing “Space Invaders” all night in a hot, noisy bunker, just blasting away at orders like they are endless ranks of spaceships dropping inexorably to the surface of your planet.

And never forget that kitchen workers usually don’t get to experience that warm fuzzy feeling you get at the end of your home dinner party, when the guests say what a rock star cook you are. Even if diners are out in the dining room telling each other what a great meal they just enjoyed, unless a busy server overhears and manages to remember to tell the cooks, the kitchen staff rarely finds out about it. They can only take pride in a job well done and high-five each other that nobody out front went into anaphylactic shock, nothing was sent out with an over-reduced sauce, and no risotto was ruined with the oil from the oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, because someone took the time to rinse them repeatedly when they were delivered.

So, even if you don’t actually direct a tip specifically to the kitchen, as well as tipping your server (please tip your servers!), you could make the cooks’ night by asking the server to pass along a specific compliment or writing a little love note on your check. Servers like bringing those props to the kitchen’s attention, and the chef or kitchen manager will definitely hear about it. Sometimes that’s all the axe sharpeners need to give them a boost and make it all feel worthwhile. •

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.

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