Friday, January 4, 2008

Short Order Cooks

There are multiple ways of approaching the industry of food preparation. On one side, you have the assembly-line fast food machine, which is barely prepared by humans. On the other, you have the top chefs of the world, who create each dish as a work of art. And in between you have everyone else, the normal restaurant chefs who work on meals, not quite art but tasty and each one getting his full attention while he's making it. And then you have the short order cook. The cook who must juggle multiple demands from multiple customers all at once, in a high-paced kind of environment.

I love short order cooks.

Don't get me wrong, their food is typically not anything remotely approaching the pinnacle of gastronomical excellence. Typically they're quick with grease and oil and butter and fat. It's all fried or grilled. The food is typically of a lower, cheaper quality, for lower, cheaper clientele. And that's okay. Because while the food itself is down to earth and utterly without garnish or pretension, the short order cook himself is a practitioner of a very peculiar art.

A short order cook is under constant demand to perform. Whether its in a family restaurant where he's safely behind a wall in the kitchen, or whether it's a diner or a cafeteria where he's right up there taking orders directly, his job is one of balancing the demands of his customers with the demands of his food. Each order is taken and remembered, often times from memory. A good cook can handle over a half dozen orders, each one with specific ingredient and cooking demands. One veggie burger on wheat bun with lettuce and two tomato slices. The philly cheese steak with provolone over swiss and onions and mushrooms, but no peppers. The chicken sandwich, no butter on the toasted bun, chipotle mustard and two pickle slices. A pancake, scrambled egg whites (2) and two pieces of bacon, but fry the bacon with butter and the egg whites with spray.

That is just a sampling of the kind of demands that fly at a cook who works in this realm. And the cook remembers them all. He balances the demands of each order, and then goes to work. The grill surface is partitioned and sprayed and buttered. The meats are set out to cook together, the vegetables laid out and covered and squirted with water. Eggs are broken with expert skill. Foods are flipped with the kind of mad speed that never seems to make a mistake. Everything is able to be cut with a straight metal spatula. Everything is done with an eye to making it all ready at once. Things are flipped and mixed and seasoned. The few things that need to be stirred are done in bowls right next to the grill. The cook balances it so that everything cooks at once but finishes in a predetermined order, so that everything isn't all ready at the same time. And when it's time for the batch to go, the cook is a flurry of buns on plates and assembling dishes and pulling ingredients together. All while taking new orders as each spot is freed on the surface. No rest until the line is satisfied. Always something ready to be thrown on to be cooked. Always more mouths to feed.

The food is plain and straightforward, but the job is not. A short order cook balances the precarious job of cook and server and order-taker and juggler. All while keeping an eye on the whole domain. The grill and the ingredients are his charges, and he commands them with the proper skill and respect they're due. And while he flies through order after order at a pace that can only be described as frenzied, he himself remains in a state of calm. The best short order cooks work in a kind of zen state, unruffled and still while their situation is chaos. It is with that zen state that they turn the demanding job into something more than a job. It is a job, yes, but it's also a complex dance of fire and food and people, taking desires and making them real for person after person, all through no more than a handful of ingredients and knowhow and fast reflexes.

Every time I see a good short order cook, I make an effort to thank him. If tips are appropriate, I tip him. He is not just making your meal, he's doing it while making everyone else's. And in a venue where you interact with him, he's performing for you in a way not entirely unlike the performance preparation at sushi restaurants or mongolion grills or any other place that specializes in food showmanship, though with much less pomp and circumstance and a lot more eye to the practical. It is a decidedly american art, steeped in the demands of our fast-food society. But that does not rob it of any of its beauty. In fact, the no nonsense, unrecognized aspect to it just makes it all the more beautiful, because it is unconscious.

I'm not afraid to say it, I love short order cooks. Their food may not be the best, but it is the process that is fascinating. The results, good or bad (and I've had some amazing meals made my short order cooks, let me tell you), are secondary to the process. Stop, look, experience. They're performing for you, without even knowing it. How magical is that?


Super Freak said...

I must say thank you for this post! I have worked in the restaurant industry for twenty years and in management of those very cooks for fifteen. This has given me a lot of writing material over the years! I thank you from the bottom of my non-skid shoes for bringing to light what we do and what it takes to do it well. I've enjoyed your other posts as well, but this one hit my heart.
Thank you!

Literary Rock Star said...

You're very welcome! I didn't expect anyone would comment about this one, considering most people don't even pay this sort of thing a second thought, but I'm glad to see that it struck someone, at least.

Delve Blue said...

Hey, don't know when you wrote this post, but I also wanted to say thanks for it. I only recently entered the restaurant business, but I already have a suitably awed view of the cooks (I'm Not as stressful for the restaurant world usually).

Thanks again!