By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist
Many chefs compare a shift in the kitchen to a sport. To them, it’s about winning or losing. A night without issues along with satisfied, fulfilled guests is considered a win. And subsequently, when those challenges are not met, that would be considered a loss.
You hear cooks and chefs say things like, “It’s game time,” or “Game on,” or, “Let’s go team.” We have pep talks and game plans as we head into a big night, but I liken it more to an evening at the theater.
I remember the night we opened Aquavit Minneapolis. It was a Friday and we were nervous. I’ve been a part of restaurant openings before, but that night a few of us cooks were talking about how we had nerves in our stomachs. After all, we were about to open what was being heralded as the new best restaurant in the upper Midwest by a nationally known chef.
Marcus Samuelsson gave us a speech that evening in our pre-service meeting. He didn’t have a certain tone or sound like a coach before the team leaves the locker room. It wasn’t a “Now let’s go out there and … ” speech. It was poignant. It was enthusiastic, yet stoic.
Cooking and service is an art, he said. More specifically, it is theater and we were putting on a show of sorts.
He said that whether you go to a greasy spoon or Aquavit, it’s the same process. You have a menu, you order, you are served, you eat, you pay and you leave—but that the difference between a diner and dining is the details in between. I have never forgotten that.
So, you write your screenplay, or menu as it were. You edit and re-write it, until the final draft is ready to go. The play may be a drama. It may also be a love story or a comedy. What is your menu’s theme? Is it contemporary American? Is it Italian, Thai or Tex-Mex?
Next the owner, or director, needs to find his actors. Who will play the lead? The executive chef or general manager? Will actors’ agents reach out or will the director begin recruiting? Then the rest of the cast needs to be assembled. The restaurant owner needs to find a general manager and executive chef. Then bartenders, cooks and servers are brought to the cast.
Each day, I watch our team come in to work. Cooks get changed and begin to set up their stations. Servers put their aprons on, get their pagers and apron book with their daily notes. They begin their set up and I give them the daily special sheet with the day’s new items to memorize. You could think of it as learning their lines.
So rather than likening cooks and wait staff as suiting up for the field, I believe a more accurate comparison is that they’re donning their wardrobes or costumes for the stage. It’s a live performance every night, and the curtain always goes up, on time, whether you’re ready or not.
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky