Bonappetit.com - My Night Working Front of House at America's Best New Restaurant
[Originally published on Bon Appétit on here]
I love restaurants. I spend more time than I care to admit sitting at chef’s counters or holding court at the corner six-top with friends. And yet, for all the hours—months, really—of my life that I’ve passed in restaurants, I have very little understanding of what actually makes things tick. Sure, I know servers take orders and put them into Micros, and that gets sent to the kitchen expediter. Simple, right? But how do you make sure that process goes smoothly? How does everyone keep up? How does the kitchen not crumble under the orders of a full house?
Other journalists (those with better knife skills, perhaps) might remedy that situation by doing a weeklong stage in a kitchen, but me, I’m a front-of-house guy. I dream of announcing dishes, busing tables, and polishing silverware. And one December night, I got to do just that. Thanks to chef Ari Taymor and Ashleigh Parsons, co-owners of Alma, the Los Angeles place that Bon Appétit selected as America’s Best New Restaurant in 2013, I worked a shift as a runner, the guy who makes sure the food gets from the kitchen to the table—plus a million other things I’d never thought of. Here’s how it all went down:
Call time. Alma has been closed nearly a week for Christmas, which means deep cleaning needs to be done. All wine glasses need to be polished, wood shelves treated, pristine white tabletops made pristine again. My best friends are to be a red bucket and a bottle of Clorox, which is apparently not that jug of blue liquid I’m reaching for. “You don’t clean much, do you?” asks Lindsay, who’s working pre-service with me. But once I get settled, there’s something therapeutic about making Alma whole again—transforming it from a cluttered Ikea bomb site to a restaurant ready for primetime.
Flynn McGarry, the 15-year-old wunderkind chef who splits his time between the meat station at Alma and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, is tasked with family meal. Two salads: a pasta with broccoli rabe and Parmesan, and a bowl of lightly dressed organic kale. No hot dogs here. I eat two servings of each salad from the restaurant’s fancyHeath ceramic bowls; I’ll have a third serving of pasta salad after service—six hours from now. Chef Taymor reaches over the counter from the kitchen and hastily dishes himself up a few spoonfuls of each, shoveling it away in his spare time during mise en place prep. In fact, outside of the first minute or two of staff meal, everyone is either rushing to eat and get back to work, or eating while working. There’s too much to get done. Back to the bleach bucket for me—there’s a counter that needs cleaning.
With the doors open, Parsons takes up her post at the restaurant’s pass (really just the end of the counter that abuts the open kitchen), holding the Grid. The Grid is literally that—a piece of paper displaying a grid. Across the top are the courses for the night (Alma serves only tasting menus, one five-course, the other nine), and running down the left are the 23 tables, with the sizes of their parties. Each box in the Grid begins empty, gets a dot when a dish has been “fired”—i.e., Parsons has ordered the kitchen to make it—and gets an X when the dish has finally been run to the table.
The Grid is what will hold everything together for the next five hours—and it is what will drive chef Taymor insane. With a kitchen staff of five (including himself), there’s not much room for error and throughout the course of the night there will be moments when the kitchen falls behind. Parsons plays a big role in helping them pick up the slack.
“Sometimes I’ll mark a dish on the grid as fired,” says Parsons, “but I don’t tell the kitchen until they’re out of the weeds.”
The Grid is also my first responsibility. When Parsons and a server run two beet courses to table 10 (the two-top close to the kitchen along the left wall), I go to mark an X in the appropriate spot—but chef de cuisine Brian Maynard grabs my hand.
“Never mark in pen,” he says. “Always pencil.” I won’t make that mistake again.
It doesn’t sound very confusing, but even in a restaurant as small as Alma, more than 450 plates of food will come out of the five-person kitchen over the next five hours. Some are one-bite snacks; others are larger dishes that take two people to plate—that’s a third of the entire kitchen staff. It’s all a lot to process.
After watching Alma’s three waiters interact with Parsons in an endless loop of firing dishes, delivering food, and bussing tables, it’s suddenly my turn: “Take this to 21,” says Parsons—there’s no one else to do it, and it needs to go now.
Here’s what happens in my head for the next 3 minutes:
Snack S (that’s sable) to table 21. Or was it 22? Definitely 21. Easy enough.
Smoked sablefish, parsnip, and caviar to 7—that’s the last seat at the chef’s counter. Sure, I can also take Snack B (burrata) to 18, I’ve got two hands after all. No uni—burrata, English muffin, uni, and caviar—for position 2 because of a dietary restriction.
Fire table 16/17—that’s a four-top, made by combining 16 and 17; what’s their next course? “Bread,” says Parsons. As I run away to fetch forks and knives for the next course, Parsons grabs me, “Make sure to tell the vegetarian at position 4 that she’ll get bread with her next course.”
Keep in mind that I’m also supposed to both interact with customers and, ideally, be pleasant and give them an amazing experience. I think I succeed at both, but then again I don’t have time to worry about it too much.
“Duckor, dish pit,” orders Parsons. “We need silverware.”
I look up at the clock and an hour’s gone by. We’ve made it through the first turn (all 23 tables have finished and are in the process of being reseated). And now we need silverware.
Homero, the restaurant’s superstar dish washer, is the master of this domain. We’ve never met, and now I’m in his space, without a clue of what to do.
“Forks?” I ask.
He points into the opaque, sanitizing partition of the triple sink, filled to the brim with clean dishes. I stare at it for a second. For all I know he’s staring at me, too.
“Forks,” says Homero.
I roll up my sleeves and reach for silverware. I polish each fork, one at a time, like I would if I was at home and had all the time in the world. But I don’t have all the time in the world. Now I know Homero is staring at me, because I look over and he is staring at me. He points at a tray of wine glasses he’s just taken out of the dishwasher.
“Polish,” he says.
“Oui, Homero!” At least that’s what I wish I said. In reality I bumble something out about being sorry and furiously start polishing glasses.
An hour later, I’m back in the dish pit. This time I don’t give Homero a reason to stare.
As the night comes to a close, the grid has become a sea of X’s—like some expert-level, real-life game of Mine Sweeper.
The last tables get petits fours (apple and pear jellies, rolled in hazelnut sugar), and the reaction is almost always the same: joy—with a bit of fear that another bite of food might be coming their way.
For me, the end of the night is equal parts sadness and relief. There’s a high that goes along with being overwhelmed but still operating within the limits of your ability. I’ve been in enough restaurants—either as a diner, photographer, or reporter—that I understand, if only on a basic level, how they operate. Actually getting out on the floor was something else.
But now here we are raising glasses of wine (well, Maynard is drinking whiskey). Everyone’s relieved, and I realize the high is over. Everyone else will be back here tomorrow. Tables will be cleaned, the floor swept, hundreds of dishes served, the Grid covered in pencil shavings, and Homero will keep it all running in the dish pit. The high will hit them all again tomorrow night. Hit everyone but me.
Servers at high-level restaurants—hell, even at lowbrow chains—have difficult jobs. Diners, including me, expect a near-seamless experience whenever they set foot in a restaurant. It’s an expectation that, for a million reasons, can be unreasonable—a line cook walks out in the middle of service, or he never showed up, or the restaurant is down a server and someone has to cover double her normal tables. Or maybe Homero has some idiot food writer helping him in the dish pit. Even I’ve had trouble focusing on my friends at dinner because there are just too many moving pieces surrounding me. I’m not saying that working one night of service changed the way I see everything or makes me qualified to be a GM tomorrow. But I did get a taste for the level of teamwork and professionalism necessary to make the damn thing work at all.
And at the end of the day, I’m just glad that my apartment has a dishwasher. And that his name is Bosch, not Homero.