On My Own

I had to channel my inner Eponine yesterday when I arrived at the restaurant and learned that I was going to be pushed out of the nest and flying solo. (In case my reference was too obscure, Eponine sings a song called “On My Own” in the musical Les Miserables.) I meant to double check the schedule to see whether it was intentional or someone who was supposed to be my partner was a no-show. In any case, it was now or never.

Prep went fairly smoothly. The downfall of having such a large kitchen, I’ve found, is that I waste a lot of time walking from one end to the other to retrieve the things I need. Forgot to grab a spatula? That’s two minutes wasted… and I walk fast! No more Robotcoupe tops? Time to walk back to the dish pit to see if one has been washed and ready to be used.

But I pushed through — in just two hours I made bleu cheese dressing and cauliflower puree, roasted the peewee potatoes, warmed the beef cheeks, sous vide’d red bell peppers, and set up the station including mixing flour for pan-frying chicken wings and reheating harissa broth for table-side service for the couscous. By the time I had to go on mandatory break, all I had left to do was dice two apples and pop the seeds out of a pomegranate. Prep list conquered.

Service was less lucky. We had 200 on the books, but there was a party that would be ordering 5-6 of just about everything on the menu. It started out slow but steady. One or two dishes at a time and no new tickets until I had finished plating the previous round. But then the party threw me off my game with six orders of sauteed spinach followed by six orders of beef cheeks… plus regular tickets. I panicked for a moment but then I pulled my pans onto the plancha to heat and just kept cooking. One of the other guys noticed I was going down and came over to help me plate. Saute pan after saute pan went from the holding area to the burner to the hotel pan that collected dirty dishes. My all-day counts crept higher and higher until at one point I was firing four couscous, nine beef cheeks, two wings, five spinach, all at one time. Handling the party took up my time and burner space so the regular tickets suffered (I think it took 15 minutes to get an order of chicken wings out), but after a few hard-fought hours, my board was finally clear. I plated the last nine beef cheeks by myself and cleaned up the tornado that had blown through my station.

At the end of the night, the guys came over, grinning, and asked me “So… how did it go?” They all knew it was my first day on my own and they all saw me go down pretty far into the weeds. But they were impressed by my fight. Grill Girl (yeah, there’s a chick on the grill station here.. so cool!) gave me a high five and said that I “handled”! She said she didn’t hear me cry once (in either sense of the word — shedding tears or complaining) or give up and that I kept pushing. She concluded her sentiment with this: “It’s really cool that you’re on plancha.” I guess what she meant was that even in a kitchen this size, with ten stations, it’s still a big deal to work your way up to the hot stations and for someone new like me to be able to keep up with the guys, well that’s just awesome.

I came home exhausted, dehydrated, and head spinning from the chaos, but nights like that reminded me of why I love what I do. The kitchen constantly throws challenges at you and you’d be surprised how strong, innovative, and adaptable you could be when you need it most.

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