Everyone who dines out knows the routine: chefs prepare food and servers deliver it to the table. But what of the link between kitchen and table? It's here where defeat can be snatched out of the jaws of success if the order is not properly conveyed to the kitchen, or the handoff of a chef's perfectly prepared dish is fumbled. Orchestrating the flow of orders in one direction and food in the other is the expeditor, one of the most important positions in the restaurant.
South Carolina native, Greg Clark - or "Pocket" to his colleagues - is one of Vin48's tireless expeditors. After my afternoon of prepping, co-owner and Executive Chef Charles Hays assigned me to Clark to help him at his station and run food to tables. The reservation book foretold of a busy night ahead and I was excited about the new experiences I faced.
While the first of the near 200 Valentine's Day diners were arriving, Clark patiently explained his job. The tools of his trade were neatly laid out at his station where he faced the chefs: a variety of shapes and sizes of dishes on shelves along the entire line, squirt bottles of cold sauces, special cutlery such as oyster forks, garnishes, and a bowl of vinegar with rolled up wipes to clean any errant sauce that could spoil the presentation.
Taking a copy of the one-page, often changing menu, next to each item Clark quickly noted the station from which each dish would emerge: "P" (pantry - salads and cold items, the garde-manger), "HA" (hot appetizers such as roasted bone marrow), "S" (saute - complex hot dishes such as seared scallops or duck breast) and "G" (grill).
Clark knows the time required to prepare each dish, which of the myriad of shapes and sizes of plates and bowls is needed and the requisite appearance of completed orders. It's for that reason executive chefs often serve as expeditors. In addition to knowing the menu, expeditors need nerves of steel, ability to multitask and an authoritative demeanor, all traits executive chefs should possess.
Food running is not so simple as it might seem, and it is an important component in a positive dining experience. Earlier, Clark quickly instructed me on the table layout in the bar and dining room. That was daunting enough, but the runner - soon to be me - is also expected to know the position point of each seat. When a runner is told the table number and position point, there isn't much time to reference a floor diagram. Standing next to the table "auctioning" the food is certainly unacceptable. Orders must go straight to the table and be served without question. One quick pass through the dining room and bar, and the 110 seat locations were anything but seared in my brain.
The call to action came as the point-of-service system (POS) receipt printer spit out the evening's first orders. As Clark called out the order, he pointed to what serving item I needed to place on the shelf above the appropriate station. In this case, it was a thick rectangular piece of wood for the artisan cheese plate coming from the pantry station. Given the popularity of Hays' bruschetta, charcuterie and cheese plates, the wooden boards were in constant use the rest of the evening.
The printer spit out another order as the pace quickened. Now came my first opportunity to show how much of the table layout I had retained. Unfortunately, not much. With thick wooden board topped with charcuterie, cheese and other goodies in hand, I headed for the dining room. Clark quickly redirected me to the bar. Fortunately, the order was for the table. It's great when people share since the middle of the table is an easier mark than a seat position.
Back to the line. More orders came in as the outward flow of prepared dishes increased amid the shouts of the kitchen's special language. "Fire" is not a reaction to someone leaving a pan of oil unattended, causing flames to shoot up. It's the order the expeditor gives to prepare an item. "Sell it," means the order is ready for the table. And so on. It's a language I'm still learning and will share with you next week.
As the printer continued to spit out order and numbers of courses increased, Clark needed to slow the flow lest the chefs ended up "in the weeds" (buried in orders). As expeditor, it was important for Clark to insure the orders weren't given to stations too quickly and that all orders for each table went out together.
By now, every seat in the popular bar was taken, including the seven-seat chef's "counter" facing the kitchen. Here diners have a front and center view of everything happening in the kitchen. It's the height of transparency! I noticed that while the other tables were turning quickly, those at the chef's table were staying put to enjoy the show.
Perhaps they were not only intrigued with the production of food, but also with Clark's stamina. Never once during the first five hours of service did he move from his post, except to run food to tables. I'm told this is not unusual for Clark who is in overdrive from the minute orders appear until the last order is taken.
Food running failure
My stint as a food runner was soon in peril. Thirty minutes after my first treasure hunt to find the correct table, I was fired. Or let's just say, I wasn't asked to run any longer. The Brits call such a job action "being made redundant." And I was. I was crushed. Since a sous chef ordered me off the line at the Four Seasons last year, I had not been pushed aside. Apparently five minutes of training isn't the best preparation for a successful food running stint on such a busy night.
The evening was young and I wasn't ready to leave. Standing around watching wasn't an option either given there was no place to stand out of the way. In any case, being idle is not something I do well.
Seeing the dishwasher scrambling between the dish pit and the line, carrying stacks of plates, I saw my opportunity. As I had done at Luca d'Italia last August, I jumped in and helped the dishwasher, someone crucial to success. The lack of clean pans, plates and cutlery can put a serious dent in the smooth flow of orders. For the rest of the evening, I shuttled plates to the line, dried and polished cutlery, and did my best to avoid collisions. If a "thank you" was a dollar, I would have emerged wealthier given the number of times the dishwasher thanked me.
As the pace slowed, I decided it was time to bid farewell. Chef Charles and his team had been gracious hosts. Although I hadn't contributed much, I came away with a newfound appreciation for expeditors. This week I peppered chefs and restaurant managers throughout the valley with questions about their perspectives on the role of expeditors. Join me next week when I will share that insight with you.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney and Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.