John’s telling me about his new gig.
He’s on his fourth ESB and it’s been a while since he’s stopped by. I had become accustomed to seeing him on random late nights; sometimes he’d close out the bar with me after a long shift. But I haven’t seen him since last summer, at least. Hey: Schedules change, lifestyles alter. People come, people go.
I generally don’t take it personally when a regular disappears; usually it’s for the best.
But now he’s back, and not the worse for wear either.
John’s been a line cook for as long as I’ve known him. He’s currently getting broken in at a new restaurant, a new system, a new headache. A good litmus test for a new restaurant gig is to see how they deal with stressful shifts. So he’s giving me the lowdown on last Sunday’s brunch while I’m closing up bar.
Last weekend was Wake Forest University’s graduation. For the restaurant industry, graduation weekends in a college town have all the makings of a complete shitshow. Especially for someone two weeks into a new position.
“So, it’s like 1 p.m. and we’ve got hour-long ticket times, the GM is having a meltdown and I’m on egg detail,” he says, as I pour him another. “Meanwhile I’ve got a server just staring at me like that shit’ll go faster if they give me the headlights up and down my back.”
I’ve been on both sides of that. When it’s anarchy and there’s absolutely NOTHING you can do but wait for food to cook. It’s those pesky laws of physics. So you wait. It’s a terse ballet, the line cook apologizing to the server, so they can apologize to the customer, not knowing whether it’ll be sent back by someone particular to a runny poached egg.
Graduation brunch for any college town is a profitable, yet messy, affair. I once worked at a popular college bar and sidelined as a server at a popular brunch place. At the bar we dealt with many students who we would kick out on a weekly basis. The bar hosted parties of frats and sororities who would sustain every expectation of the worst stereotypes. The most concentrated brand of entitled frat boy was our demographic for a time. So some weekends I would publicly berate and physically remove the same people I served sangrias to the next morning as they contemplated their chicken and waffles.
The routine changes on graduation weekend. Because this time they bring their parents.
The life-givers accompany them to brunch before (or after) their ”Pomp and Circumstance.” The same girl who mistook your back office for a bathroom a month ago is now in her best sundress with Dad sitting across from her, and she’s not meeting your eyes as you take her order because we both know exactly who she is, even if Dad doesn’t. Everyone knows, because you told every one of your coworkers who she was the minute she walked in.
But this is one of those times in the city where there is money to be made. So we mark it on our calendars with a red sharpie as “Hell Week.” And we deal with it.
John downs his fifth beer, pays out and starts poking around on his phone for an Uber. He’s going to “wait and see” how this new place works out.
Just like the customer shouldn’t judge a place the first couple weeks of it being open, a cook shouldn’t decide what to expect at a gig they’ve started the week before the busiest weekend of a downtown restaurant.
There have been times when I’ve seen what a crew is made of during high-stress situations. It’s eye-opening, but not entirely an indicator of what to expect. If anything, it gives you a taste of who to look to when things go downhill. Sometimes the only reliable soul is the dishwasher who never talks, yet you wonder what they listen to all day on those wireless earbuds. Sometimes it’s the owner, rolling up their sleeves and diving in like a war vet, sick of telling old stories about how “you damned millennials don’t know what the weeds are!”
And sometimes it’s you.
There will be a time when that poached egg needs to be done so precisely that when the side of the fork bears down on that egg, the yolk floods out and mixes with that tangy hollandaise like golden lava, saturating that Benedict so richly and thickly that the customer decides that they couldn’t possibly complain.
And that, when you’re in the weeds, is a win.
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