Waffle House, where I work, does not use tickets. We use a plate marking system and memory. You know who does use tickets? Every restaurant in the world. Tickets completely changed the game for me. The exact order is on the ticket. Every special request, add on, or sub is right there on the ticket. More importantly, I can look at the ticket as many times as I want. No guess work and no orders getting messed up because someone marked something wrong or forgot something. The more sophisticated cooking at The Gathering requires a more streamlined system for calling in orders. An exciting step up from Waffle House to say the least.
One of my responsibilities I often forget about is dessert. Desserts don’t involve hot pans or sizzling but they’re exciting nonetheless. The dessert offering at The Gathering require a bit more finesse than the salads. The creme brûlée requires hot cream to be added to egg yolks without scrambling them, then baked in a water bath. Then, obviously, two layers of sugar are caramelized on top for a satisfying crack. The trickiest dessert we make is called “sac du bon bon.” The arduous process of making this confection making chocolate mousse, melting chocolate, applying three layers of chocolate to a mold, freezing between each layer, then filling those chocolate shells with chocolate mousse. I do not envy patissiers. All of these desserts have taught me that, although desserts are the closest cooking gets to art, I prefer the sizzling of hot pans, or even plating salads.
Being a fine dining kitchen, most everything we serve is made from scratch. Soups, sauces, desserts. Everything this is made upstairs. This attention to detail has a price, though. Prep is easy when just slicing cucumbers or tomatoes, but when you have to make tapenade, honey poppy seed vinaigrette, blue cheese dressing, and caesar dressing, that prep isn’t so easy. At The Gathering, I learned that quality of ingredients and scratch cooking are difficult, but important parts of good food.
An aspect of cooking I was curious about was knives. Would it be the flashy cutlery of expensive brands like Shun and Wusthof, or is that all a fabrication made by those same companies? I was excited, upon arriving my first time, to see Shuns, Globals, Wusthofs, and MAC’s. The same brands I’ve seen hundreds of videos about. The chef and sous chef both brought in their own knives. I wanted to get in on the action so I brought in my cheap, but well made, Vitorinox chef’s knife. This sparked the conversation I was looking for. About brands and functions, a little bit of oohing and ahhing at the sous chef’s knife collection. While honing my knife, the sous chef asked me if I knew how to sharpen. I brought in my wet stone and the sous chef and I spent thirty minutes sharpening. I’ve learned that knives are personal tools and must be cared for, maintained. If you’ve done that, you have something to be proud of.
Upon arriving at The Gathering, one of the first things I did was eat a creme brûlée. Moments later I was sampling slices of cucumbers, halved cherry tomatoes, and smoked salmon to ensure quality. When slicing the day’s fresh bread, the first end piece ended up in my stomach. Later I sampled the caesar dressing, learning that it contained 48 anchovies. Still delicious, of course. Next thing, three of us are passing around a tiny squeeze bottle, trying to decide if it was in fact verjus(underripe grape juice) like the chef de partie said it was. It was, and upon learning this, I promptly tried the fancy ingredient I heard about from Bon Appetit. It’s delicious, by the way. Every time a dish I haven’t seen yet is made or some demi-glace or cream sauce is left in the bottom of the pan, the chef de partie would had me a tasting spoon of the stuff. This is greatly appreciated, obviously. Around closing time, when the last customers were ordering ice cream, the nearly empty quart containers of ice cream were passed to me. Coconut, creme brûlée, blood orange sorbet, all delicious as well.
The first thing every cook or chef at The Gathering has told me is tasting our food is important or “half our job is knowing what the food tastes like.” A major learning point has been the necessity to know how things taste. How do you know if what you’re giving to the customer is good if you haven’t tasted it. Oh, you made the house vinaigrette? Well try some so we know the house salads don’t taste like garbage. If you don’t know what something tastes like, try it. When slicing up new meat for the tasting board, I try a slice because I know that a waiter is going to ask me what something taste like and you can’t just make stuff up. Another thing I learned at The Gathering is that the food we serve tastes great. Knowing that the salads and charcuterie I’m sending out taste delicious is reassuring. I’ve never been incredibly proud of the food I serve until now. It’s kinda hard to be proud of soft tomatoes and instant hash browns. Now, sending out good food is invigorating and has me excited for every day to come.
On my fifth day at The Gathering, things ran a lot smoother than before. Upon walking, in I knew what I had to do, instead of the endless barrage of questions I threw at the sous chef and chef de partie. I went straight to my station, got a piece of paper, and stated my prep list. A small list of easy prep allowed me to practice peeling and chopping vegetables for his borscht. When we were finished, the dinner service had begun. Downstairs, I got a steady stream of tickets for three hours. First the wine store raided my meat and cheese board display, then the salad orders started coming. No ten caesar salads at once this time, so the night never got too hectic. Finally my stock of creme brûlée was depleted and the ice cream cups were going through the dishwasher. The line was broken down, everything wrapped in plastic, floor swept, scrubbed, squeegeed, and mopped. With everything done and the restaurant closed, I was free to go.
I’ve had my share of rushes. About six to twelve on any given weekend, but the party seating upstairs changes everything. A party of twenty all ordering appetizers, entrees, and desserts. This was more than I’d ever handled.
At my job at Waffle House, everybody would be panicking, or mad because they had to do something. What I learned at The Gathering was that this was nothing. The chef, though his broiler was full of chops and fish(and bacon for my salads,) he was calm. Sauté station had six pans on the fire, a few in the oven, a couple on the shelf overhead, one on the case, and one tucked all the way on top of the broiler. He’s cool too and all the food is coming up on time. Over on my station, we had just finished a twenty item ticket which involved me making ten caesar salads at once. What I learned at The Gathering is that if you have a big enough bowl, it’s really not that hard.
My introductory station and the lowest rung in the line cook hierarchy is the cold station. The name is appropriate. No heat on my station other than the creme brûlée blowtorch. My station’s responsibilities include salads, desserts, and a couple of appetizers. Five distinct salads as well as the tasting board make up most of my tickets. The salads require a simple toss in a bowl with dressing before being plated with four or five of the items from my cooler. The tasting boards, however, consist of me plating three meats, three cheeses, and four accouterments as decoratively as I can.
Now my experience plating food up to this point has been slapping eggs, toast, and hashbrowns where they go and making sure everything doesn’t slide off the plate when my server takes it. Now plop me down in the nicest restaurant in town and tell me to plate a wedge salad? A tasting board? You bet my first salad looked horrible. Not high enough, the ingredients facing all different directions, too much dressing, not enough of this topping. I wasn’t even thinking about this kind of stuff. This is a whole new world. One where food needs to be more than flavorful. This is the world I’ve been waiting for.
An important responsibility of mine these past two days has been the dishes. While our dishwasher is on vacation, the dishes pile up for me to clean. The least glamorous position by far, the dish tank is also one of the most vital. While not glamorous, the dishwashing equipment is surprisingly efficient. The powerful jet of water sprayed by the hose can take the burnt demi-glace off of any sizzling hot carbon steel skillet. The kitchen does not have enough of any type of dish to last all night, so the stock must be replenished throughout the service. The volume of dishes sent through the dish tank is impressive to say the least. During any lull in service, there’s guaranteed to be at least three stacks of dishes to be cleaned. Not wanting to remain idle for long, it was convenient to always have something to do. Seeing the quantity of dishes on a moderately busy Tuesday, I fully expect weekend dishes to be almost as stressful as the actual cooking.
I began my experience at The Gathering the way I will begin every day, prepping. After initial introductions and a taste of the creme brûlée, I went straight to work shadowing my cook. An incredibly quick tour of the walking in cooler and freezer set the pace for the day. The organization was key. If it didn’t have a huge logo on it, you bet it had a label with the name and date on it. We zoomed through our list. Carrots, cucumbers, bacon, blue cheese, crackers, charcuterie, smoked salmon, whipped cream, and the best creme brûlée I’ve ever tasted. When everything was done, a quick cleaning session was required. Within ten minutes the prep kitchen looked like no one had ever been there. The cleanliness and efficiency of work done in the prep kitchen reflects what is happening downstairs. Of course this means there are great things in store.