Friday, February 1, 2013

First day in the cafe kitchen. What can possibly go wrong? Everything!

Today, I was Mr. Optimistic. I even sort of volunteered for one of the chef positions. Sort of, because I happened to be sitting at the front and was directly in front of James, full eye contact, no way to refuse. Not that I wanted to, since if you're going to be chef and things go south, you want this to happen on practice day.

The menu, simple enough. A fresh green salad tossed with citronette. Baked chicken breasts with a salsa verde/chimichurri drizzle, served over cannelloni beans. Foccacia bread on the side. Apple crostada for dessert. Direct, straightforward, no sauces to mess up, no emulsions to break.

Everything seemed fine, yet catastrophe was lurking in the reeds like a 30 foot python. The ovens were on, the citronette ready, the salad greens washed, prepped and set aside, the chimichurri seasoned perfectly, the chicken cooking...

Maybe that problem where the hot water tap would not shut off should have been a clue that all was not destined to flow smoothly.

The kitchen was humming along, ready for an on-time 11:30 service. Ingredients were prepped, mise en place set, all the elements ready for our first performance. Right?

The first hint came as a calm remark from James, "Guys, this oven is set to zero degrees...". The oven with the chicken that's been "cooking" for fifteen minutes?

Yep. That's the one. See this knob? It needs to be turned...


Quick! Transfer the chicken to the convection oven!

Uh, how much chicken is that?

16 half breasts. We'll cut them just the way Teresa did.

So, I have this image of Teresa cutting the chicken on a 45° slant in Pro Cooking, fanning it over the beans and drizzling the slices with the chimichurri. Two portions per half breast, so 16 half breasts should yield 32 servings, right?

Wrong image.

The correct image was one half breast, cut in two, stood up on top of the beans. The chimichurri drizzle part was right, thankfully.

So, we're 15 minutes in the weeds and only have half the portions prepped and in the oven. Luckily, we had the missing chicken prepped and on hand.

A quick toss in a mix of parsley, cilantro, salt and pepper and into the oven they went.
Another half hour to cook.

Almost service time.

Where is the salad? It's not in the walk-in.


Hey, I'm telling you it's not here. Go check.

Nope, not there.

Please tell me it's not in the freezer.

Urrr... Yep, it's in the freezer.

Please tell me it went in a minute ago.

No... it's completely frozen solid. Crispy, brittle, icy.


Didn't whoever put it there see the word, "FREEZER" written on the machine?


Let's try soaking the lettuce in some cold water.

No good. The ice crystals destroyed the leaves' cell structure, it's limper than a viagraless codger.


Grab the mixed spring greens from the walk-in, prep them and let's move!

Put in some arugula to make up the difference. Damn this arugula looks like shit. Diseased or something, old, yellow, mucky. Quick! Pick out the good stuff and shitcan the rest.

Toss the green stuff, get the dressing on, plate, garnish, get it out. We're only half an hour late... but the chicken hasn't all cooked.

Finally the chicken was at temperature - 160°F, ready to pull out of the oven and hold for service.

The beans - the only dish that went down without a problem - were ladled onto plates and passed down, the chicken breasts cut and carefully placed, the chimichurri ladled on, the plates whisked out by the front of the house students.

The crostadas and bread, miraculously came off without a hitch.

Finally, the empty dessert plates began to stream back into the kitchen. We'd survived, bruised, late, in the weeds, but uninjured. There were no explosions, shattered plates, blackened dishes, burnt out equipment.

Except for routine clean-up, we survived our first day in the Oak Cafe kitchen.

Uh, what was that about someone spilling all the salad dressing?

Things for next time
  • Read the name on the equipment. If it says, FREEZER, make sure whatever you place inside is meant to be frozen. The salad should have gone in the lowboy, the thing next to the freezer.
  • The top red knob on the still (non-convection) oven under the range turns it on. The knob with all the numbers sets the thermostat. Screw either one up and you've got raw chicken! Although it's invisible, the top of the thermostat knob is the temperature setting.
  • Draw a plating diagram before service, in part to keep plating consistent, but also to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
  • If you don't want to get yelled at, don't trash $17 worth of fancy greens!

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