lenten journal: listening and learning


    As I was driving to work yesterday, I called Chef because I had a couple of questions. We talked about some of the changes I’ve been making at the restaurant at Duke, and I got to tell her I noticed the check average had gone up a dollar, which means we’re making some progress toward not losing money. As we were ending our conversation, she said, “You’re really doing a good job, Milton.”

    Last night was our busiest night yet at the restaurant and I was also starting a new expanded menu, which meant Ramon and I had our work cut out for us. When I first took over the kitchen a little over a month ago, I knew there were only going to be two of us on the line and Ramon was just learning how to be a line cook. I cut the menu down to about four appetizers (soup, salad, fried calamari, hummus) and five entrées (steak, salmon, chicken stir-fry, veggie stir-fry, chicken sandwich). I changed how I presented the meat and fish every couple of days, but the menu stayed small.

    Ramon and I have both gotten a better handle on the kitchen and he’s come a long way as a cook. The biggest problem to his progress is his lack of English vocabulary, not his culinary prowess. He has three or four dishes that have become his station and his learning more everyday. With that in mind, I was ready to up the ante on what we were doing, so our new menu includes:


    • homemade soup
    • small salad
    • fried calamari
    • cheese and fruit plate
    • hummus platter

    salads (entrée sized)

    • eggplant salad: entrée-sized salad of crispy eggplant rounds topped with mixed greens, granny smith apples, feta cheese, toasted pine nuts, and artichoke vinaigrette
    • steak salad: slices of grilled steak over mixed greens tossed with dried cherries, bleu cheese crumbles, granny smith apples, spiced pecans, and balsamic vinaigrette
    • grilled chicken salad: grilled chicken breast on a bed of mixed greens tossed with honey-roasted peanuts, golden raisins, parmesan cheese & raspberry vinaigrette


    • honey chipotle glazed salmon served on a bed of mixed greens and coconut-raisin rice and topped with pineapple salsa
    • grilled ribeye steak with sweet and white scalloped potatoes, seasonal vegetable, and caramelized onions
    • cocnut curry shrimp sautéed with julienne peppers and snow peas in a coconut curry sauce tossed with linguine
    • eggplant parmigiana: layers of crispy breaded eggplant and cheese topped with homemade marinara sauce over linguine
    • chicken parmigiana: breaded chicken breast topped with homemade marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese served over linguine
    • tuscan chicken sandwich: grilled chicken breast topped with portabella mushroom and melted cheese with basil pesto mayonnaise on sourdough bread with fries or side salad
    • teriyaki stir-fry: chicken or vegetable

    We had a little bit of a rush right at the beginning of service and things never let up. When all was said and done, the two of us served seventy-six dinners in about three and a half hours. Ramon and I were both running around and we were keeping up, even with the new dishes. A little after seven, one of the servers put up a ticket – fried calamari and coconut curry shrimp – and said, “I know this guy; we’re getting reviewed.”

    Duke Dining Services sends people around to all of the restaurants on campus to grade and report on everything from the service to the meal to the look and feel of the place. The calamari is Ramon’s dish. He was getting hit pretty hard, but I saw no reason to step in. He does good work. I had my own set of tickets to deal with before I got to the shrimp. The dish took longer getting out than usual because we were busier than usual, but it went out just like all the other dinners. About eight, the server came back and said, “Here’s the review. You ain’t gonna like the comments.”

    Here’s a tip: never bring bad news about the food to the chef when there’s still an hour of dinner service left. We were busy already and I tried hard not to pick up the paper and read it; I knew better. I couldn’t help myself and then I had to work hard to stay in the game until we finally stopped cooking a little after nine.

    Under “Food Quality” he wrote: “I thought the food was disappointing and needed better execution. Use hotter oil to fry the calamari so it’s crisp. Season the food. Everything needed salt. Main dish was very bland.”

    The grade he gave the food was G: Good.

    One of other servers came back and could see my disappointment. I was wearing it like a chef’s coat. “Don’t let it get to you,” he said. “I know the reviewer. He’s an ass. You’re doing well. Forget about him.”

    When I got home and sent my nightly email to Chef, I quoted the reviewer much the same as I have here. When she wrote back this morning, she said, “The guy is a snob; don’t let him get to you. Do go through the review and find the kernels of truth you can learn from.”

    My two choices as I stood at the fork in the kitchen could not have been better delineated.

    There are other comments on the page that make it clear the guy is not going to win Miss Congeniality. The tone of his writing carries more than an overtone of superiority and, in the heat of battle, Ramon’s calamari last night was not his best work. As for me, I’m still trying to figure out the coconut curry sauce for the shrimp. It hasn’t had the punch I’ve wanted. I tasted it when I got to work this afternoon. It was bland. The other entrées are in pretty good shape. He picked the one that is still in development, if you will, and it showed. He may be an ass, but he was right on this one.

    I heard two things from Chef today that mattered to me. One was that I was doing a good job. I’m a person who responds to affirmation. Her words mean a great deal to me. The second was when she told me to look for what I could learn from the review and then – then let it roll off. Don’t take the feedback personally, just take it and go on.

    We made some changes in the way we do the calamari this afternoon and they were nice and crispy tonight. I worked on the sauce, too. It isn’t there yet, but it wasn’t bland, I can tell you that. As we got to the parking lot tonight, I said, “Ramon, you did a really good job tonight.”

    I’m not the only one who needs to hear it.



    1. Why am I always hungry after I read your blog? Seriously, I love the way you chose to deal with negative feedback, and made sure only the good stuff ran downhill, as it were. We’ve all been in those situations where that wasn’t the case.

    2. In Judaism we don’t have specific missions, but a general one: to make the world a better place. My favorite way to do that is to give compliments, say the encouraging word, express my appreciation everywhere to everyone.

    3. Life imitates Ratatouille. Ouch man, you’re living in the real world. It hurts me just reading it.

      It strikes me that most of us don’t know how hard your work is. Most of us, if we do cook, get to throw all of our time and energy into the one thing we are making to be served to people who love us. You’ve got to server 75 meals in a few hours and get evaluated by a guy who needs to be clever. Tough world.

    Leave a Reply