Friday, April 10, 2009

Fifth Gear

The restaurant business can be a tough, even brutal one to break into, whether it be in the front or the back of the house, fine dining or fast food. I've been in it for so long and have done so many different jobs that it comes quite naturally now, but like everyone else who has stayed long enough to consider it a profession I've had to pay my dues in an apprentice based system that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries and across continents and between cultures. It isn't a perfect system' of course, or all our meals would be like those who prepared and served them--dare I say like us, the patrons, ourselves: perfect.

So while not good enough to save us from bad meals in 'good' (read: high-priced) places, the apprentice system can, has and does provide the best restaurants with the best talent. Especially, I think, in American restaurants, where the competitive nature of service is often harnessed to drive profitabilty in the form of increased sales. The old-world system often rewards endurance with seniority and thus encourages incompetency and strangles creativity.

In any case, while it is true that it is easier to get into the business in the US because there are more points of entry, once in, the entrant faces a far more difficult challenge: staying.

The system here takes on it's darkest aspect here, for it knows no quarter and none is given. Many well meaning individuals have faced the challenge that the grueling and seemingly capricious nature of apprenticeship embodies but very few have lived through it. And the test by which any apprentice lives or dies is what I call Fifth Gear.

It's just my term, not like '86' which is accepted lingo almost internationally, I think, but a term I came up with to describe to newbies, usually those who are on the bubble, so to speak, of bouncing on to another career. And since I've outgrown the need to learn the names--let alone the stories of--newbies until or unless they introduce themselves, the ones with whom I will even have a discussion is small and the individuals to whom I give advice about Fifth Gear is a number I can still count on a single hand.

It's simple advice, really, born of necessity in the heat of service. With a full section and a lobby of waiting customers, the order of the day is 'turn and burn'. Now as callous as that sounds, it's simply shorthand for not drawing out the meal any longer than necessary. And while yes, the reason for this strategy is to accommodate more customers, it's also so more customers can be accommodated. If we are quick and efficient, it's good for everyone.

Now one thing that many young professionals in the kitchen do not yet realize is that they are a part of something larger--like theater--that requires of the audience a certain participation; a suspension of disbelief. The front of the house is especially cognizant of this illusion and the bulk of their efforts go toward creating and maintaining it. The customer expects--demands--it and especially in a crowded restaurant on a busy night, is a willing participant, even if the pace of the meal is slightly faster than might be expected on a slower night in a less crowded place. It's like being at a good party, where the pace of the night goes quickly, like the music and the beer.

So even though we are 'turning and burning' it feels good and right, not just to us, but to the customers as well. Unless, that is, someone, somewhere in the chain can't--or wont--get into Fifth Gear. By this I mean that they simply cannot get moving fast enough within the boundaries of their work area to get all the work done in a timely manner.

This we call simply 'being in the weeds'. It can--will, does--happen to everyone, at every position in the restaurant from hostess to dishwasher at some time or another. To some, it happens often and if it happens often enough, well, you just are not cut out to be in the business. Time to go. It's simple and quite frankly, unemotional. That's what I meant about brutal.

Why? Well, if you are not able to step up the pace of your work and let your tables (in the front) or tickets (in the back) pile up; if you do not get enough tasks done in the small window of time between the moment that the people are seated or the ticket is placed in the window the time they are served, then they won't get served properly and you won't have a job. Most people think that bad waiters don't get good tips. True, but more often, slow waiters--like slow cooks--just don't get good jobs.

Now of course we have all had the misfortune of being waited on by someone who is fast but still bad, so this isn't meant to imply that speed is the only dimension worth measuring in service. And those of us who have been on both sides know that there are plenty of people behind the line that are quick and good but not someone you'll want to talk to for long, at least not till the shift is over and he's had a few beers. Till then just shut up and keep your hands on this side of the line. Even if they are slow, they have the knives, remember.

So, the next time you are out in a crowded restaurant on a busy night and your food--and, perhaps, your waiter--is nowhere to be seen, know that someone in the great chain of effort that is being put forward to feed you has failed, for whatever reason, to get into Fifth Gear, and is now hopelessly in the weeds. Uh, good luck with that. Punish the server with a poor tip if you must. Certainly say something to the manager. And, know at least that the next time you come--if you come--that person will be gone. Hopefully, the guy who has replaced him knows how to shift gears.

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