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8-Top Down

The Friday night dinner rush

Photo by Francisco Suarez on Unsplash

“Six top down.”

The new host murmurs across the kitchen pass. Frank, the Sous Chef doesn’t hear it.

“Hey Frank, six top down,” Kwon the sauté cook repeats.

Frank freaks out, walks over to the area next to the host stand, tells the host to speak up, and stresses that he doesn’t want to say it again.

Returning to the line he grabs some tickets from the printer, cuts through the noise with a commanding shout.

“Order fire, one Branzino, one PDJ, one Filet Mer, one octo.”

“One Branzino, heard,” Kwon replies.

“One PDJ, heard,” shouts Carlos, manning the pizza oven.

“One Filet Mer, one octo,” shouts Brandon on the grill.

“Order fire, two buff, three zar, one cali.” Frank again — the second their repeats stop.

“Two buff, two zar, one cali,” shouts Josh the fry cook.

Immediately Josh pulls five plates off the ledge and puts them in a row, adding the garnish for each plate.

The next task, the cali. He opens the cooler, grabs a mesh strainer sitting in a milky soup of raw calamari and buttermilk. Out of the soup and directly into the cornmeal and flour mixture. He tosses them with his dry hand, making sure they are fully coated. Into a mesh basket, quick shake until the loose coating returns to the dry mix.

Into the fryer.

He places two metal bowls onto the prep table, adds spring mix to one and romaine to the other. The calamari has about one minute to fry before it becomes rubber bands. He needs to finish these four salads in that one minute.

“Order fire two All Americans, three wings, pepperoni,” Frank shouts in his direction.

“Two All Americans, three wings,” he replies reflexively.

“One roni,” shouts Carlos from the oven.

“Seven top down.”

The host called it softly over the pass. This time Frank hears it and is frustrated.

“I told you to speak up. You aren’t speaking to the sauté cook. You need to say it loud enough for me to hear.”

The ticket printer is buzzing non-stop. The rail holding the tickets is starting to fill. Armed with his towel and a sharpie he assesses the wave of orders crashing into the little kitchen.

“Order fire three mussels, two ribeye, one brat.”

Frank shouts while simultaneously placing a small check next to the orders on the tickets. Kwon and Brandon reply with their respective responsibilities.

“Order fire two phillies, one chicken philly, three devilled eggs, one satay.”

Frank shouts in Amanda, Carlos and Josh’s direction. They each reply to acknowledge.

Back and forth the pressure of the kitchen builds. Frank turns up the heat slow enough to avoid sinking them but still keep the food moving.

Tickets across the board.

People pouring through the front door watch the buzz of the kitchen like a spectator sport.

Flashes in the sauté pan, flames billowing up from the grill, pizza doughs flying into the air, and burgers flipping on the griddle. It’s the heat of the rush.

The unspoken addiction all line cooks say they hate but secretly love.

There is clarity in these moments. The mind races and the body detaches.

“Ten top down.”

This time, the host says it with slightly more gusto. Frank is talking to Carl the dishwasher.

“I fucking told you I need to hear it, not Kwon!” Shouts Frank as the new host slinks back out of sight to the host stand.

The printer never relents, now the rail is full. The spike where the tickets go is half full and the printer has a tail of perforated tickets trailing to the floor.

Frank is starting to feel the heat. He walks off the line for a second. He takes a breath, closes his eyes, shakes his head and turns around and returns to the pass.

“Order fire one Branzino, two mussels, three brats, one ribeye mew.” Frank shouts and doesn’t wait for the call back.

“Order fire two lobs, one buff, one queso, three wings, three steak fries, four All Americans.”

He’s worried now. He doesn’t unload tickets like this unless the kitchen is in the weeds.

Josh scrambles to get the plates out. Lob is short for lobster roll. It needs French fries, toasted French bread and the lobster salad which is already prepared. The hold time is dependent on the fries. They go in the fryer first.

The wings, smoked the day before, need flashing in the fryer, then to be tossed in buffalo sauce. Served in a red basket with a paper liner and a side of Blue Cheese.

The All American is a smash burger, cooked on the flat top. Each one has two patties. There’s four burgers on order and who knows how many on deck waiting.

The entire kitchen scrambles. Every step forward is met by Frank throwing another five or six items at each cook. The pressure is palpable and everyone is in the weeds.

The sauté cook is nothing short of superhuman. Dancing among constant open flame. Six burners on full blast, the pans coming and going. Not a hair left on either arm.

Steaks flying off the grill, and dipped directly into Demi-glacé before finding a resting place on mashed potatoes. Dirty birds, short for smoked chicken halves, warming in the salamander above the grill. Sausages roasting, their casings holding the juices for dear life as they boil from within.

Logs fly into the fire of the oven at the perfect rate to keep the stone hot without creating too much radiant heat and burning the pizzas.

“Twelve top down.”

The host calls with slightly more confidence. He didn’t wait for Frank to stop talking.

“Fuck!!! I told you to make sure I heard you when you announce the tables.”

Frank calmly folds his towel, places it on the steel pass and ferociously punches it.

The orders keep coming, he has no time to focus on the host. The chaos is overwhelming. Everyone is fighting for their lives.

“I need that rib eye mew,” shouts Frank to Brandon.

“Heard,” replies Brandon, who immediately starts scrambling.

“You don’t have it on the grill?” replies Frank with swelling desperation.

Brandon doesn’t say anything as he scrambles to get it on the grill.

Frank doesn’t need him to say anything. He turns and bites down on his Sharpie.

“Order fire…”

The dance continues. Frank calls out order after order and the cooks call back their respective responsibilities. He marks them as he calls them out and moves to the beginning of the ticket wall to see if there are any long cook times hiding in the orders.

“I need that fucking rib eye mew.” Frank yells towards the grill.

“Thirty seconds,” retorts Brandon.

Frank turns and kicks the trash can. He walks off the line, paces off into the back of the kitchen and bites down on his towel and crouches into a squatting position.

There’s twenty-five tickets on the rail, thirty still attached to the printer and each one carries four to ten orders. Frank doesn’t abandon his post for long.

He returns and starts back barking. Everyone is at their breaking point. Each cook flying around stations with plates and food, spatulas and tongs dancing among fryers and flame.

Suddenly with a new-found gusto, the host strides over to the pass. Looks Frank directly in the eyes and shouts.

“Eight Top down.”

Then turns. Chest out, head held high, he walks back to the host stand.

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