Vail Daily column: Behind the Scenes: For kitchen ‘choreographers,’ timing is key
March 24, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the third column in a three-part series. Visit http://www.vail
daily.com to read the first two parts.
As I quickly learned at Vin48 in Avon, expediting is one of the most challenging kitchen roles. It demands a great deal of knowledge about the menu, multitasking, customer service and even conflict resolution. Let’s face it, mistakes happen and it’s human nature to lay blame on someone else. The expeditor’s job is to repair mistakes, preferably before guests notice it, not lay blame on the offending party. There’s plenty of time for a public flogging at the next staff meeting!
All restaurants serve food – some better than others. But not all use dedicated expeditors to connect the kitchen with guests. In many instances, particularly in fine dining restaurants, executive chefs command their kitchens as expeditors. In my research on the subject, I even discovered one “all-knowing” website that described it as an “entry level” position. Obviously this was one question-answering resource that hadn’t done its homework on restaurants. A restaurant that views an expeditor as the least valuable person in the kitchen is not one to be patronized.
In August, I went behind the scenes at the heralded Bonanno Concepts restaurant Luca d’Italia in Denver. Unlike my experience in Vail Valley restaurants, instead of ticking printers delivering orders to the kitchen, servers slid handwritten orders under a wooden bar at the hot line. People actually have to communicate face-to-face as opposed to standing at a faceless terminal entering orders! It’s a concept that chef-restaurateur Frank Bonanno employs beautifully.
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I recently questioned Bonanno about the absence of a computerized system. He explained the decision to forego an expensive point-of-service system for his two high-end restaurants, Luca d’Italia and Mizuna, was based on customer service considerations. Bonanno believes the “finesse and personal touch that comes with a handwritten ticket” is more suited for small, expensive restaurants such as these two gems of the Denver dining scene.
At Luca, for example, three of the five nights the restaurant is open each week, a dedicated expeditor works in the cramped space in front of the hot line. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, executive chef Eric Cimino expedites from behind the line while cooking. Quite a challenge even on slow nights!
Bonanno, who views the expeditor as neither front nor back of the house, refers to expeditors as kitchen “choreographers.” It’s an appropriate metaphor. Perfect timing and precise execution of steps are crucial to achieving perfection.
Like a complex dance requiring exact, rhythmic steps in sync with music, the expeditor must ensure dishes are prepared at the right time and in the correct manner, including proper appearance and serving temperature. The expeditor must communicate with chefs and servers to keep information – hopefully accurate – flowing in both directions. Since orders are fired at carefully timed intervals, missteps can upend a positive dining experience often with a domino effect.
Performing arts metaphors are popular with chefs, and I’ve used them many times in describing my restaurant experiences. Executive chef Sergio Howland, of Leonora at the Sebastian in Vail, views expeditors as “conductors of an orchestra.” On most nights, Maestro Howland conducts his kitchen orchestra across the line from his chefs where he is in full control of everything that flows between kitchen and dining room. It’s a similar approach employed in many of the fine dining kitchens across the Vail Valley.
In orchestras, musicians are divided into different sections to ensure the best blending of the disparate instruments. In similar fashion, each “brigade station” chef or cook is strategically positioned in the kitchen with his/her own specific duties – a system French culinary innovator Auguste Escoffier developed. The “conductor” (expeditor) faces the stations from across the line. Howland’s role is to direct what each station “plays” (I’m taking the music metaphor further) and the timing of the music to produce a harmonious plating of all a table’s orders.
Expediting in this manner allows Howland to maintain tight control of the timing in both the kitchen and dining room. Sometimes Howland will step behind the line where, like Cimino, he multitasks between preparing his own dishes and expediting everything that goes across the line to the servers.
Once the kitchen printer spits out a ticket, Howland calls “order in, first course.” After a server picks up the appetizer, Howland strikes it and marks the exact time the food went out. After 10 minutes, the next course is automatically fired. However, in some situations the timing to fire will vary. For example, if a couple is sharing a salad, Howland will wait only seven minutes before ordering the next course fired. A hot appetizer requires a full 10-minute wait. This process continues until all courses have been dropped (served). Quite honestly, this is knowledge that hasn’t always helped me enjoy an evening as I sometimes catch myself watching the time between courses instead of immersing myself in interesting conversation.
It’s easy enough to handle a deuce – table for two – but when big rounds seating six to eight people order, the need for coordination increases dramatically. Add into the mix today’s array of allergies, sensitivities and dietary oddities, and one can easily see the need for a maestro to conduct the kitchen symphony.
Now that we know how expeditors work, let’s look briefly at the language of the kitchen. For help with translating kitchen speak, I turned to Giuseppe Bosco, co-owner and general manager of Zino Ristorante in Edwards. Italian is his mother tongue, but he speaks fluent “kitchenese,” honed during years of restaurant experience.
“Fire” – Order given, usually by the expeditor, to begin preparing a dish.
“Re-fire” – Not a pleasant command since it means something was not prepared to the guest’s liking and needs to be redone (or cooked longer). The challenge with re-fires is there’s no accompanying ticket, so the expeditor or server must keep a close eye on it.
“Order-fire” – This term is used when an order has only one course. This can be a timing challenge for the kitchen – and the server. When a first course, such as a salad, is ordered, it is quick to come out. This gives the kitchen extra time to prepare the protein. But when the protein is the first and only course, it has to “wait its turn” behind other tickets already being processed. Next time you skip a starter, be a little patient with your server if it doesn’t appear quickly. The server is at the kitchen’s mercy and your irritation will not speed the process.
“On the fly” – No, this isn’t “waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.” This command is given when a dish must be rushed, giving that ticket priority over the others.
“In the weeds” – This usually comes when “slammed” is taken to the next level. When the kitchen is “in the weeds,” the expeditor will cease calling orders until the orders being prepared are complete.
“Sell” – The expeditor will tell the runner to “sell the table” when all the dishes for it are ready.
I hope this primer in restaurant expediting has given you a little more perspective on the challenges of orchestrating a complex kitchen. I’m in Piemonte now, so I will bid you “ciao” until next week.
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 http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.