So You Want To Be A Waiter

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How does the darn food get to the table? Pt 2

In the last part, we covered the basics of how orders get to the kitchen and the order by course method.

In this part, we cover the “fire” method.

In this method, the server orders the entrees immediately after taking the order, even before the first course hits the table. It’s up to the chef or the chef-designate to orchestrate the cooking of the food so that when the food is “fired” by the server, everything is finished within a short time and is in the window ready to run. How is this possible? Sometimes it might be 30 or 45 minutes before the food is called for if the table is having appetizers and salad courses, or is just taking their time.  Surely the chef can’t wait to have all of the food prepared in the 5 minutes that elapses from the time the food is “fired”.

When the chef gets the order, he or she calls out things that should be started now. In restaurants that cook a lot of steaks, the broil cook will also get a copy of all steaks and anything that comes off the broiler or grill. They will start all steaks (with the possible exception of rare) and cook them to a predetermined temperature and then pull them and set aside to rest. Different broiler people have different ways of doing this – they might have a row of steaks cooked just short of medium rare and another cooked medium, depending on how many steaks they have “all day” (total). Others might only cook everything to just short of medium rare and anticipate when they’re going to need a certain medium or medium well, moving them on and off the grill. A good grill cook can feel the flow of the restaurant and almost predict when certain checks are going to be fired.

Meanwhile, the chef has notified sauté and the middle (the cook who handles stuff that isn’t either sauté or broiler like baked side dishes and fried foods) of items that they should start, but not finish, by saying “2 so-and-sos walking in, 3 thingambobs walking in”. Walking in means start but don’t finish, or add to a count of things to be cooked at a future time. Different line cooks have different ways of keeping track of these things (and different chefs might have different terminologies for how they call food as well). The saute cook might set up a sauté pan for each dish that takes more than 3 or 4 minutes up to the amount of space that they have. They will par cook any fish and set them aside to finish when it’s called for. Anything like a quick pasta will be done when the food is fired and the chef calls for it. They also have to remember those things that might take 5 or 6 minutes but they might not have room to start a pan for them. They are constantly finishing entree pans and replacing them with entree pans for items that they didn’t have space for before. So a sauté cook has to be able to juggle a lot of information in their head, keeping track of what’s already been called and the order in which things need to be finished, all the while executing the dishes perfectly. Occasionally, the chef might call out an “all day” to each member of the line, counting the total number of each item that should be working at that very moment.

The tickets (called dupes) are hanging in front of the chef in a predetermined order (usually from right to left, right being the youngest ticket). This is called “the board”. The chef will occasionally move them to reflect the order that he or she expects that they will needs to be call  or the order of priority. Sometimes the chef will group them together by overlapping them as they hang. Sometimes he or she has an upper and a lower line and tickets are moved from the top line as they are fired. When the order has gone, it gets stabbed. The waiter calls out to the chef, “Table 25 out” when all plates have been removed and run to the table. This lets the chef know that they can stab the ticket. 

For a high volume restaurant, it’s a high-wire act. The chef is constantly having to monitor the line cooks and make decisions when to bump a table in front of another earlier table.  Sometimes the waiter gets screwed when his or her ticket gets stuck behind a large party which is getting fired at the same time. This is why a good waiter is constantly aware of the flow of the restaurant. They know where the big parties are in the meal relative to their own tables.

Because of the high-wire nature of the rush, it’s imperative that the server gets the order correct. An incorrect temperature on a steak can cause another table to be delayed because one of their steaks might have to be used for the recook. the wrong pasta can throw a serious monkeywrench into the sauté cooks plan of attack. And forgetting to ring in a baked dish can cause serious delay to your table if it’s something that takes a little while, because there’s a good chance that yours is the only one being cooked at that specific time. They might have to start from scratch.

In some old-style Italian restaurants, you don’t fire food, you via it.

How does the server fire the food? They either hit a fire button on the ordering screen or they verbally call it to the chef by saying “Fire table thirty nine”. The smart server adds “That’s table three nine” because, in the din and chaos of the kitchen where people verbally fire the food, clarity is essential.

How can a server screw up?

They can forget to fire because they are in the middle of getting double-seated. This isn’t horrible unless they didn’t anticipate that party of 40 that’s going out at the same time and the three other servers who were able to get their fire in at the same time as the party. Then, it might be 15 minutes before the guest gets their entrees, and remember, they forgot to fire, so figure 20-25 minutes from the time they cleared the salad plates.

They can ring in the wrong food or temperature or forget a special order or request.

Believe it or not, they can forget to ring in the food in the first place. It’s easy to put aside a little entree order because you just got double-sat and “I’ll get to it in a minute”. Then a minute becomes 5 minutes, the table is halfway finished with the salads and you realize that you haven’t even rung in those two steaks. And then panic sets in when you realize that one of them was a 28 oz porterhouse well-done! And it’s can be disastrous if the waiter only notices that they haven’t rung in the food when when go to fire it. This can happen when the waiter is so far in the weeds that they can’t see straight.

How can the kitchen screw up?

The chef could have been low on a specific item and miscounted or miscalculated the number he or she had left and put an incorrect count up on the board. then, when it comes time to plate that order, the chef finds that he or she doesn’t have enough to finish that order. The waiter is then left to inform the guest that they “ran out” of an item that they ordered 30 minutes ago.

The kitchen can miss-cook an item and it comes back for recook. This can delay other tables.

The kitchen can get “waved” (as in tsunami). Just as servers get double and triple-seated, the kitchen gets multiple tickets in simultaneously. Sometimes it causes a meltdown if a sous-chef with less experience is handling the order-calling, or if the chef has a meltdown (it happens to just about everyone eventually), the kitchen can have a meltdown. Waiters think that they get in the weeds – think about a chef/expo who’s calling the line and doing sauté at the same time because his sauté cook called out. Or think about having two 30 top parties come in simultaneously with 15 other tables. And heat – oh the heat!

If the kitchen melts down, it can be 30 minutes before they get the ship righted.

And the chef can miscalculate the calling of the board. He or she can forget to call out something that needed to be started in order to complete a table. this can slow up an order.

The guest should never have to deal with these issues, but the guest should also understand the complexities of serving food to 100 – 200 people simultaneously and ponder the fact that they have likely made mistakes in their own jobs that have inconvenienced someone at some time. Tolerance might be called for in situations where the dinner doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as it should, especially if the guest sees that the restaurant is especially busy. this is why it’s important to tell a waiter upfront if the guest has any time constraints. The waiter can bump your fire up a little or pay special attention to the state of the kitchen.

I hope this gives the guest a little perspective on the complexities the waiter faces in getting the food to the table and reminds the waiter of the importance of getting it right the first time.