A la Mode OR Café Quips

09:20 December 05, 2017
By: Phil LaMancusa

I weave into The Hummingbird Restaurant at dawn’s crack, and the cashier yells to the cook/server, “Burn one with whiskey, cuppa Joe!” And I sit, knowing a well-done burger on rye toast and a cup of coffee is on the way. Mama, I’m home. 

Pair of drawers. Adam and Eve on a raft. Burn one with frog sticks. Gimme a Pittsburgh with wheels. One Blue Plate. 86 Eve with a lid, and fire table 12. Hubba hubba! All restaurant lingo—ask any waitress who’s spent time slingin’ hash front of the house or a shoemaker who’s worked a left-handed spatula on a turn-and-burn hot line. 

“Comin’ through; make a hole; on your ass; I’ll burn you!” is food-service speak for “Get the fork out of the way (!),” and anyone who has done time behind an apron (and who hasn’t?) is familiar with words strung together like shorthand commands barked in kitchens, indicating instructions to avoid mayhem or confusion. Unless I’m totally ignorant of the way kitchens around the globe work efficiently, there are probably the same types of phrases used in Brighton, Brittany, Bangkok, Bombay, Bangladesh, and Beijing. Equivalent to verbal skeet shooting, they are power punches to your cerebral cortex, signaling immediate action on your part in a cacophonic madhouse. There may be such a thing as a quiet kitchen—I think, perhaps, in a monastery.

Pearl divers in the pit (dishwashers) are rattling racks of utensils, computer terminals are spitting out tickets, the wheelman is barking “all day’s” or “dragging kitten fish for my four-top!” Pots and pans beating like timpani on fiery stovetops, oven doors being slammed open and kicked shut, the hiss of steam, the smell of sweat, and the prospect of bloodshed and temper flare-ups are all part of the job, and when someone yells “HOT STUFF!”, they ain’t talking about your mama. The dash and dare of demented dervishes, timing food orders—getting food “right,” in line, on time, and with everyone at the table being served in the same minute—is an art unapparent to customers. In the dining room, it’s all a Vienna waltz; in the kitchen, it’s like a prison riot. I’ve been part of both sides and I kid you not. 

“I need this on the rail; put a wiggle on it; rush me an order of fries; where’s that steak? Fire the salad; goddammit, who’s got table three? Soup’s low! ORDERING!” is part and parcel of communications between gourmet gladiators and hash-slinging heroes alike.  

To work the front of the house in the home of the brave, you have to know the difference between a deuce and a dumpster, a four-top from a forklift, a banquette from a biscuit. You have to know that when a cook slides a plate at you and says—no matter how softly—“hot plate,” that they are very seldom joking. That when a bartender says, loudly, to the world: “PICK UP!”, you turn to make sure that he’s not talking about you; when someone at your back yells, “Behind you!”, he’s not getting fresh. You dread the triple-seating that can occur during the rush, shift double-backs; you grow to hate campers; you’re constantly on the lookout for dine-and-dashers, and roll your eyes at that verbal tip.

Approaching the kitchen is as demeaning as asking for alms: “Chef, do we fry in peanut oil? Is there any dairy in the soup? Can we make that gluten-free? Can we split the main course? Can we heat up this baby bottle?” 

“The customer says that this is not medium rare; they say they found a hair; they said that they didn’t like it (but they ate most of it); here’s that ice water you wanted.” No matter what capacity you work in at a place of eating, it’s an exercise in humility and in training, running the gamut of a sadomasochistic pecking-order survival course. “Tenderfoot is in the weeds; her food’s dying in the window; she’s buried, slammed, in the sh*t.” “PANS DOWN! ORDERING!”

The more experienced staff members can be cruel to newbies; in many cases, it’s a get-tough-or-die sandbox mentality with managers looking on to see where/who the weak links are. Schedules are arbitrary and nebulous in logic; you work when you’re needed and “get cut” when you’re not. It’s easy to cop an attitude and become cynical about the whole restaurant experience. I believe “kiss my grits” is an apt way of putting thoughts into feelings.

The examples that the media and motion pictures have portrayed give us pause to consider the workings of food service as anything but cheap theatrics: Mel’s Diner; Frank’s Place; Frankie and Johnny; Chef; Feeding the Beast; Julie and Julia; Burnt; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; Babette’s Feast; Chocolat; A Chef in Love; Like Water for Chocolate; to name a few—showing romance, adventure, mystery, and buffoonery.

Books like Kitchen Confidential, Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen, Heat, The Soul of a Chef, How I Learned to Cook, Kitchens, White Heat, The Perfectionist, The Apprentice, and Iron Chef all show how being a chef is a man’s job. A job that goes by title and demands no disrespect. As usual, a woman in the same position has to work twice as hard for less money (and be capable of being twice as malevolent) to accomplish the job and will still be excluded from “celebrity” status. Waiters must use guile, charm, dexterity, intuition, resourcefulness, and bladder control to survive. 

From a long and exhaustive tenure in food service, I can look back and say that it is theater, an ad-lib performance that happens every shift of every day. The cast assembles, the curtain rises, and the person in charge looks knowingly and announces, “Showtime!” 

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