Common Foodsense: Remember Your Cooks When Buying Equipment
I know you can find them with air curtains now, but when I was a kid, high-traffic walk-ins had plastic “strip curtains” hanging across the door. These were composed of dull, unromantic ribbons of plastic or vinyl about two inches wide, hanging from the top of the doorway and covering the entire opening—a bordello’s bamboo curtain reimagined by a lonely robot. The theory, of course, was that the strips kept the cold air in and the warm air out as people walked through. It sort-of-worked well enough that some places—hotels especially, when they had to set up multiple lines at once—would just leave the door open during the busy parts of a shift. Efficient. Easy access.
For the cooks, going through them was another matter. Air curtains can be set to blow from the side or the top, to avoid any cold-air Marilyn Monroe moments, but strip curtains dangle all over you like a too-friendly jellyfish. And they eat memory. No matter what you came in for, by the time you get to the other side of the curtain you’ve forgotten it, and you have to go back through to retrieve the memory from the tentacles. Eventually enough cooks would get annoyed that they’d grab someone’s belt and tie the curtains open, and the compressor would begin its long, slow march to the grave.
The effect of equipment on the culture of the kitchen is generally unacknowledged or underrated. This is stuff that you deal with every day, all shift long, and it affects you like the weather affects your mail carrier. Think of the importance of the pizza oven to a pizza joint. When big, essential pieces of equipment aren’t trustworthy, there is a low-level depression that settles over the workers as they wait for the next crisis. When it works beautifully, it’s a life of rainbows and legal marijuana.
I can think of several restaurants I’ve worked at where my memory of the job is defined by my relationship to a particular piece of equipment. This is something I’ll leave out of the memoir; it doesn’t quite have the cachet of sex, drugs and Kaiser rolls. But nonetheless.
At the old Black Angus restaurant, life revolved around the huge charcoal broiler in the dining room. That’s where the steaks were cooked, that’s where the lead cook was stationed. There were several idiosyncrasies one needed to learn—fresh coals had to be added where they wouldn’t cool the cooking fire, hot coals had to be piled high in the rare area and spread more thinly in the medium-to-well area, and “Pittsburgh” steaks (burnt outside and raw inside) had to be scorched in a special place that wouldn’t torch your eyebrows.
My pasta station at Vanessi’s in San Francisco had a bit more gender equity: Instead of a stereotypical male-playing-with-fire relationship, I worked with a Mother pot. This was a kitchen implement I never saw anyone lift, and it was only cleaned in place. At about 40 inches in diameter and 18 inches deep, it sat over four burners and beneath a faucet. Servers would cut various thickness of fresh pasta from a roll in the back kitchen. I’d grab a small pot, dip boiling water out of the Mother pot, and drop the pasta in. No waiting for water to come to a boil; it was already there. Cook for a minute—really, one minute—dump it into the colander that lived in the sink, back into the pan to be sauced, and out. Quick and easy. My only worry was keeping Mama close to full—the night before the marathon and the Bay to Breakers race, when I was basically the only cook making food (the broiler and sauté cooks would stand there grinning and talk about how much they loved carbohydrates), the water level could drop pretty fast. If you needed to add four inches at once, it could take 20 minutes to get back to a boil.
There were some less-than-happy relationships, too. The best work burn I ever got (still have the scar 30 years later) came from the finishing oven above one of those old gas ceramic broilers. It wasn’t the oven’s fault; we put stuff in there on steel plates that sat in puddles of olive oil, and when things got quick and the oven got crowded, oil would splash gaily onto the nearest arm. There were fryers that wouldn’t fry. There were burners that wouldn’t burn. There were griddles whose hot and cool spots bordered on schizophrenia. And every one of those made production harder, and made labor costs climb.
So here’s a plea: When you design your menu, think about your equipment. When you buy your equipment, think about your cooks. We’re looking for long and happy lives together, and it all depends on the skill of the matchmaker.