Thursday, April 16, 2009

Timing Courses and Miracles

Last night after dinner, we were standing around talking about timing courses, pondering the eternal question, "When should the next course be served?" This question, like so many others, has no one correct answer. Each table has its own answer (and often each person at that table has a different answer) and expectation. Deviate from that expectation and the customer will not have as positive an experience as we would like. Deviate significantly and your service will be labelled as poor, even though the timing of getting food to the table rarely has much to do with the service staff.

Some people want their food out of the kitchen as soon as possible (especially at lunch when time is limited); others want to linger. I'm a lingerer. I like to have food come out of the kitchen slowly so that I have time to relax and get ready for the next course. I really don't like my next course on the table as soon as the previous one is cleared. But in Winchester, I'm definitely in the minority; this town wants its food on the table now.

At One Block West, it's on the shoulders of the front of the house staff to pace the meal for the customers. And it's a tricky job to interpret just what pace the customers want and relay that to the kitchen. My hat is off to those servers who do it well.

In some restaurants, the kitchen dictates the pace of the meal: I know very highly regarded restaurants that put up a course every 20 minutes unless the servers tell them to slow down. While that may work for them, it doesn't work for me. I was a customer a lot longer than I have been a chef and I've always looked at it from the customer's point of view. The customer sets the pace; so at my restaurant, the servers pace the meal. And our average customer wants his next course on the table not more than about five minutes after the preceeding course is cleared.

What can cause the timing to be longer than the table would like?

As I mentioned earlier, it is rarely the server's fault that food does not arrive quickly at a table. But, it does happen on a busy night that after clearing the appetizer course that the server or the assistant fails to fire the entrée course. I generally see the appetizer dishes coming back into the kitchen and will ask what table they're from if I'm not told. There's really very little excuse for the server not firing a table, but if you have ever waited tables, you know that on a busy night, your head is spinning with the next 10 things that you have to do right now. My hat is really off to good servers; they make a nearly impossible task look easy.

But when I'm busy plating, picking up food for one or more tables, or have my back to the door, a table getting cleared and not fired can get by me. As a failsafe, I can also see that a ticket is not progressing normally across my rail. That's when you'll hear me screaming for a runner to give me a status update on the table and woe unto him or her who does not hightail it into the dining room and get me an answer in the next 45 seconds.

I kind of pity this poor bastard, because if it is really busy, servers are going to be asking him for stuff in passing, he'll get flagged down by two tables needing something, the telephone will need to be answered, somebody will spill a drink that needs to be mopped, and he'll have the chef screaming at him if he isn't back in the kitchen in fifteen seconds. And you thought working in a restaurant was an easy job!

I've also seen tables get slowed down because the server forgot to turn in a ticket or a server in her haste will set a ticket down on the counter and it will blow off and under the counter before anyone notices. We are a small restaurant that uses handwritten tickets: a point-of-sale system makes no sense when our menu changes every day. And I surely don't miss going to bed at night with the racket of the ticket printer going off in my head.

From my station in the kitchen, I can see part of the dining room and as often as I can during service, I step out into the front server station to survey the tables. I'm running the seated tables against what my ticket rail tells me. If I spot a table without menus and without food and for which I don't have a ticket, I know there's a potential problem. Often, they've ordered cocktails and dinner and have asked the server not to fire the ticket until they've finished their cocktails. But I have caught a couple missing checks this way. The servers involved no longer work for me.

As for tickets blowing off the counter, we require the servers to hand them to the expediter (usually me) before leaving the kitchen. And that's about it for the servers causing delays.

Sometimes the food doesn't arrive at tables as expected because the tables have unreasonable expectations of when it should arrive. This usually happens when the table does not order a first course. When a table orders a first course, this gives us the time to start cooking things that take a long time so that they can be cooking while the table enjoys its first course. For example, roasting one of our really large 8-ounce quail stuffed with foie gras and prunes takes about 20 minutes, about 25 with resting time. If a table orders this dish without a first course, it's going to be about a half an hour before it arrives at the table.

In our point-and-click world of instant gratification, a half an hour is an eternity and surely the restaurant's service is pathetically slow if it can't get a quail on the table in less time. So, we discuss cooking times in our pre-shift meetings and I warn the servers of the potential issue when they bring in tickets like this. We try to anticipate this at the table and to set expectations about when the food will be out: "The quail takes about a half an hour, perhaps you'd like to order an appetizer to tide you over while you wait?"

Sometimes we fail to meet expectations because the tables don't tell us that they're in a hurry. We can expedite food through the kitchen, but only if we know that you want it to happen. So, if you're in a hurry, let us know. But be serious about it. I have seen way too many times a table inform us that they're in a big hurry which generally causes us to fire the second course at the same time as the first course, only to have the table dawdle over the first course for 20 minutes. In this case, we bring the second course to the table when it's done even if the first course is not finished. If we trashed the second course and recooked it, chances are very high that the table would finish the first course immediately and then be fuming at us for taking forever with the second course. Don't cry wolf. Be very explicit about your needs, as in, "We need to leave at 7:45 to catch the 8:15 show."

Sometimes tables confuse us. This past weekend, a table pre-ordered chocolate soufflés for their third course. They dawdled forever over their first course, so we slowed the soufflés down, even though they take about 25 minutes to cook. Normally, we'd start the soufflés just about the time that the second course goes to the dining room, so that they would be on the table about five to ten minutes after the second course was cleared. Rather than lingering over the second course as they had the first, the table bolted their second courses and the plates came back to the kitchen just as we were firing the soufflés. About fifteen minutes later and ten minutes before the soufflés were done, the host of the party informed the server that they were getting "impatient." All I can say is that we did our best to match the pace of the table.

Sometimes, one customer will spoil everything for the entire table. At times, we offer vast bone-in beef rib steaks known as Cowboy Steaks. Cowboys are so big that they take about a half an hour to get to medium rare. And well done cowboys are on the grill over the hour mark. We now refuse to cook cowboys over medium out of self defense as the following story illustrates.

We seated a table of eight people, all separate checks, and one of the guys ordered the behemoth cowboy well done. The server informed him that it would take over an hour on the grill and he replied that he didn't mind, but from the expressions on the faces of the other diners, it was clear that they did mind, but steak guy was oblivious. The server reported that they were OK for the first half an hour, but even though we kept them supplied with loaf after loaf of bread, the grousing started. By the time the food finally arrived, the whole table was in a really foul mood, starving no doubt, and grumbling vociferously about how slow the service was. It didn't improve the mood at all that all the tables around them got food in a timely manner. And in the end, the table punished the server both verbally and by tipping poorly.

That's it for the servers and the customers mucking about with timing the courses. Most of the time, the problem lies with the kitchen. Remember that if you feel like stiffing your server because the "service" was slow. The server is pretty much at the mercy of the kitchen in the vast majority of cases.

One weekend recently, we were down several employees because of illness. On a Saturday night, I was running the kitchen by myself and I had a line cook on dishes. The front of the house was really thin too, or I would have pulled an assistant back to the kitchen. I had no time to plan for this; it just happened. Fortunately, or so I thought at the beginning of service, the weather was foul and the reservation book was very light. Easy enough for a skeleton crew to handle.

Wrong! The front door opened and tables started walking in seemingly out of nowhere. Servers were bringing multiple tickets to the kitchen at the same time. I can move food out of a kitchen and for the first 90 minutes of service, I held my own, but at the point where I had tickets hanging on my rail for all but two of the tables in the restaurant, even my maniacal pace wasn't enough. Tables were having to wait about seven minutes longer on average for first courses and about fifteen minutes longer for second courses. Fortunately I was only in the deep weeds for about 45 minutes. Often, when a kitchen is slow, it's because it's short staffed.

At other times, food has to be recooked. A table will linger a lot longer than expected and we will have to pitch their food and start over. This causes a delay in the second course. Sometimes the table doesn't mind and sometimes they do. It's really a crapshoot.

And we do goof in the kitchen. One of the downsides of handwritten tickets is that sometimes we cook the wrong food, as in we cook a rockfish rather than a rack of lamb because we read "rock" on the ticket instead of "rack." That doesn't happen very much any more because we go over this situation in the pre-shift meeting and try to clarify the ticket with the server before the server gets out of the kitchen.

And handwritten checks let the servers write where they will. Sometimes for large parties, if the party orders out of order, the items ordered can end up at random locations on the check. One server in particular is prone to putting the last seat of the party all the way down at the bottom of the check where the dessert course generally goes. And in our haste, we miss that item and have to hold up the entire check while we recook it. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it's generally my fault. Now that I have worked long enough with this server, I'm much more prone to go through his check with a fine-toothed comb for big parties.

And, stuff just happens in the kitchen. The grill flames out and leaves nasty soot all over something and we have to pitch it and start over. Or as a cook turns to plate a piece of fish, another cook bumps his arm and the fish ends up wrecked against the floor tiles.

In all these cases when we screw up in the back, I believe in honesty with the customers. I tell the servers to let the customers know that we dropped the fish, that we're sorry, and we're recooking the check as fast as possible. Sometimes the servers tell us that the customers are so engrossed in conversation that they will never even notice an extra seven minutes for us to put up the food. But most of the time, customers appreciate the honesty.

So far, I have only touched on events that cause the food to be delayed to the dining room. But as I mentioned when I talked about my own dining preferences, it can be an equally grievous sin to get the food to the dining room too fast.

I must confess that on a really busy night, our natural instinct in the kitchen is that we just want to get that ticket off the rail, especially towards the end of the night when we are beat and just want a cold drink and to get off our feet. That's when we have to reign ourselves in and slow down.

Besides making customers feel rushed when the next course is served just as the previous one is being cleared, it creates havoc for the service team. The servers need time to change out silverware for the next course, to do wine service for the next course, and so forth. Jamming the food out of the kitchen ruins their service dance.

Knowing all the things that go into creating a great experience and all the things that can and do go wrong with timing food to the dining room, sometimes when I step out of the blindingly bright, overly noisy, and insanely hyperactive kitchen into the dimly lit, peacefully quiet, and calmly romantic dining room, I'm often amazed that customers are oblivious to the chaos that we have been through and I'm shocked as hell that we have pulled off yet another miracle. Here's to all of you out there in the miracle business!


  1. I hope that you wrote those two dozen paragraphs in between courses for "delicious irony"!

  2. Chef Ed, isn't it a common practice in the "miracle business" to split steaks that need to be well-done? I would think that an experienced chef such as yourself would do that, rather than lose an entire 8 top for one guy!

    -Chef K

  3. Butterflying a well done steak is common in some places, but generally only with boneless filets.

    I'm not sure how you butterfly any bone-in steak such as the cowboy (bone-in rib-eye) that I refer to above without ruining it. I've also seen these same places state on the menu, "so thick that we will only grill to rare or medium rare" for their bone-in steaks.

    Even so, the only time that we would butterfly a filet is if the customer were in a serious hurry or asked that it be butterflied (happens exactly once a year). By putting well done filets on the grill before we start the appetizer order, the customer doesn't perceive a huge wait for his or her well done steak.

    Also, filets are naturally thinner at the thicker end (head end) of the tenderloin and the steaks are naturally thicker at the thinner end (tail end) of the tenderloin. We try to choose the thinner steaks for medium well and well orders and the thicker steaks for rare and medium rare orders.

    I think of butterflying a steak as taking a shortcut (mainly to turn tables faster) and I don't think customers come to my restaurant to have us take shortcuts, so I don't do it as a rule. I don't have anything against restaurants that do this, but it's just not for me.

  4. We generally get fast pacing... which most nights is great for us. Sometimes though we wouldn't mind a slower paced evening. We have never actually thought to just state the pacing we'd like to see if we wanted a slow evening. We'll start doing that... otherwise the pacing we've always received is just right!

    Is faster/slower than normal enough information to make a judgment call? Or should we say we be more exact, saying something like "we'd like to plan for four courses (cheese plate before dessert) over the next 2 hours" or "we'll have three courses, and if we can be done by 8pm, that'd be great."

    As always, thanks for the insight Ed!

  5. Just telling the server that you'd like to go a bit slower than usual is fine, because we know you and your usual pace. Non-regular customers might want to be more specific with us.

    Often you needn't say anything because we make pace adjustments ourselves. On weeknights when most people have to work the following day, we move the food out more quickly than on weekend nights. And we try to adjust the kitchen pace to the pace of the table. The more slowly you order and eat and the more you are conversing with your guests, the more slowly we try to pace your table.

    On the other hand, if you act like you're in a rush, we'll move the food as fast as we can.