From a food standpoint, the wedding this coming Saturday is unusual by Inn standards: it’s all appetizers. Since there is a food minimum the bride and groom must spend to have a Saturday night wedding, there are a lot of appetizers: 330 of each item. And there are ten items. I’ve spent the last couple of days in fairly repetitive motion getting ready for the weekend. Today I finished wrapping the last 150 of the scallops in bacon, cutting and coating all 330 of the sesame chicken, and cutting, seasoning, and cooking nearly 700 crostini for two cold apps. Tomorrow I’ll work on a couple of terrines for the cheese trays, cut the veggies for the vegetable platters, and finish the chicken satay – another 330 pieces.
My days are rarely as solitary or repetitive as today. Since I had some things I wanted to do this afternoon, I went in early – about nine – and was the only one in either kitchen until about one-thirty. When I have to do things over and over, I tend to turn it into a puzzle of sorts, trying to figure out how to do it most efficiently. I laid down a long piece of plastic wrap on the stainless steel table and then put the bacon slices out in a row – about five feet of them, cut in half – with the bowl of scallops at one end and the baking sheet at the other. I moved down the row, placing one piece of scallop on the end of each piece of bacon, and then rolled each one up and put it on the sheet. My system let me make 150 of the scrumptious little things in about fifteen minutes.
When my brother was in college, he worked one summer in a Solo Cup factory. His job, eight hours a day, was to stand in an assembly line and when the person next to him had stacked the cups he pulled a plastic bag over them and moved them on to the person with the twist ties. He was the only one on the line who had not worked there for at least ten years. I worked six hours yesterday and five today because I didn’t want to do one long day of repetition, much less a decade.
When we were more short-staffed during the winter months, Chef ordered some pre-made hors d’oeuvres from one of our food suppliers because we couldn’t spare anyone to wrap the scallops by hand. The appetizers were of good quality and helped us meet our obligations, but it troubled me that they all looked exactly the same, even if they looked better than what I can do myself. As I worked today, I noticed the scallops didn’t look exactly alike even before I tucked them into their pork-flavored shrink wrap. When things start looking too perfect or too consistent, chances are we’ve lost the human touch.
One of the things I’ve learned to appreciate about Chef is he doesn’t demand the plates in the restaurant go out looking exactly the same. If you come in and order the Statler Chicken Breast, you’ll get garlic mashed potatoes, the vegetable du jour, and the wild mushroom sauce, but how the plate is presented is up to whoever is cooking that night. It frustrated me at first, but then I realized I was frustrated because I thought my way was the right way and the others were not so enlightened. I had to let it go. We aren’t stacking cups; we’re making meals.
Chances are most of the people ordering the food won’t notice what we notice back in the kitchen. Chef loves garnishes (or, as Ginger calls them: “the extra green stuff that messes up the plate”). He likes to think of new and different things to finish the plate before it goes out. I imagine few, if any, of the diners get the same kick out of the finishing touches as he does, but they are his way of putting his signature on the dishes he makes over and over. What we send out as one in a series, the customer receives as one of a kind. When one of the folks at the wedding picks up a scallop Saturday night, they won’t be wondering why it doesn’t look like the other 329. They will encounter one scallop wrapped in one half piece of bacon. They will probably not stop to wonder who wrapped up the little jewel anymore than I think about the Solo cup people with any sort of regularity. They don’t think about my working to create a couple of hundred individual encounters.
Much of life is spent repeating. We get up, go to work or school or wherever we go. We have some sort of routine that calls us to do the same things over and over more than we do new things. In the midst of the day to day, the things we do over and over are not necessarily the same each time, any more than all those scallops look exactly alike. The details are never exact from time to time. We move, like a server passing hors d’oeuvres, offering what we have to those with whom we come in contact. We may feel like we offer the same thing over and over, but those who receive it see something new, even as they miss the details we worked to display. Or they may see it as a part of something bigger.
Why should they notice the appetizers Saturday night? After all, they’re coming to a wedding. My job is to help create an evening that will help build an indelible memory in their lives for years to come. The food matters, but it’s not the point.
Except for me.
Just a note to tell you that I love your blog, read every word. I enjoy how you take something that happens to you that day and make it into a point that applies to life, or that just makes you think. Wish I could write so well 🙂
12 spoon jars, 24 tea bowls, 18 ice cream bowls, 8 square dinner plates, etc. – that’s how I spend my days, making handmade pots, over and over. In spite of the repetition, and after 31 years and sometimes the mindlessness, somehow they all turn out a little different from each other. And every now and then, one stands out from all the rest, and just sings, in spite of me.
I enjoy reading about and learning what goes on in the kitchen of a restaurant. And I’m one, of perhaps a minotiry, who appreciates that chefs think this way about the food that is prepared. Somehow it gives the food soul.
(And I finally figured out how to leave a comment – I’ve been reading for several weeks but not intentionally lurking!)
Keep writing and cooking!
I love your writing, Milton. One day a book?
Recently I have eaten in some very fine restaurants in London, and some of the things I learned about food there have changed the way I cook at home. Usually you don’t get the chance to tell the chef, still less the sous chef, what impact the food has. But there are people for whom really good food makes their day, and creates memories that they carry all their life. It’s only hand made food that can do that.
Milton, what you do is a ministry, that’s all.
I am tagging you with the Six wierd things meme…details (such as they are) at my place.