The Serial That Takes You to Dinner
by Chef Bob Munnich
Back of the House is a real chef's fictional story about running a restaurant and the politics behind the scenes that diners rarely see.
Marcel was preparing for the shift. Tonight's reservations were heavy. The kitchen was short staffed. Although the Head Chef was cooking, he had a skeleton staff backing him up. Chef Al was good; but he could only do so much with the second string cooks. His Sous Chef had worked the early shift, and the first cook was on vacation. Marcel always got a little anxious when his confidence was challenged in this way.
"Well, at least the Chef is on the line tonight," he thought to himself. While Marcel worked the door, Jon, the floor manager, expedited in the kitchen. It would be rough; but Marcel didn't feel that bad about it.
The night started early. Tuttopronto opened at four o'clock. The first round started at four on the nose. First came a family with two young children. Then a couple with their grandmother. And another family with a teenager. Sunday was always family night, especially in the summer. Everyone came in after coming home from the beach or the mountains.
The Kitchen was ready. Tonight's specials, Swordfish and Shrimp Skewers with a wild rice & tomato salad, and Tortelini sautéed with broccoli rabe, fire roasted peppers and sundried tomato pesto, looked great. The Swordfish special was garnished with a cilantro-infused oil that was out of this world.
Right off the bat, the Chef was selling specials. The dining room was filling up, and the kitchen was getting busy, but no one was behind. The first real big hit came at five. Five tables were seated, and the dining room was half full already from the four o'clock seating. So far, so good. The waiters were lined up at the Point of Sale computer to enter their orders.
Back in the kitchen, the check printer started spitting out tickets. Then Chef Al called to the cook Jamie, "One Smoked Salmon Cheese Cake, two mushroom gratins, and throw on three Filets... the rest is me." Al threw a couple of sauté pans on the fire and pulled a Monkfish and order of shrimp from his refrigerator. A few minutes passed and Jon the expediter asked for the "Apps on table five." Chef Al said they'd be right up, and did the Mushroom gratins himself. The food looked great, the expediter sent it out, and the printer started spitting out tickets again.
"Two Shrimp Cocktails, and a wild green salad," Al blurted. The table ordered three pastas for their entrees. Al pulled the pasta out of the refrigerator, and set them on his tray, ready to be cooked and moved onto the next order.
The mood in the kitchen was busy, but up. Everyone was working together, the food was flowing, and the conversation was jovial yet professional. "Fire Thirteen," yelled Jon. "Got it" shouted Al. And he turned and dropped the pasta into the boiling water. Tuttopronto used all fresh pasta, made fresh daily. It took some patience to cook it, and Al was very careful that the water was boiling, the pasta wasn't clumped together, and he stirred it very carefully so not to break it up. He laid three pasta bowls out on the pick up table. In the first bowl went the cappelini sauced with marinara, the Tricolor linguine was tossed with fresh vegetables and garlic and placed in the second bowl, and the penne pasta tossed with sundried tomatoes, garlic, chicken and fresh basil was tossed and placed in the third bowl.
"Pick it up!" shouted Al, as he moved onto the next order.
"Looks good," said Jon as he sent it out with Kelly, the new waitress.
A few minutes later, Kelly reappeared with the Cappellini. "He say's this is disgusting!" Kelly grunted.
"Would you like something else?" Al asked, holding back his curiosity about the pasta. "He'd like a penne with chicken," Kelly replied.
"All right, two seconds," Al said as he quickly prepared the penne sundried. "Leave that cap with me please, I'd like to see it."
Al was working on the penne as Jon went out to apologize to the guest, and find out what was wrong with the pasta. Just as Al was putting up the penne, Jon returned with the Tricolor. "She says this is 'clumpy' too," Jon says with a sigh.
"OK, What does she want?" Al asked.
"The same thing" Jon replied.
Al dropped some more linguine, and turned to check the cappellini. "Man, this stuff is fine, what do you think Jon?" Just then Marcel came back to see what was going on.
"Seems OK to me," Jon said. "How 'bout the Linguine? It seems OK to me too!"
"Yeah, seems fine, I guess they just want this stuff overcooked." Al gave the pasta a few extra seconds in the water and sent the pasta out. He sent out the penne, then the linguine. A few minutes later the penne came back to the kitchen.
"Kelly, what's up now?" Al asked in disbelief.
"He wanted the penne with marinara. Sorry, my fault."
"Man, we can't cut a break here," Al said as he quickly put up the penne. "Marcel, can you check with these guys, see what's up, the pasta seems fine, but these guys are bummed!"
"Right away," Marcel replied.
Now Chef Al was falling behind. Putting up the same table three times was always fun. Time to move on, he thought as he started putting up the next table.
A few minutes later Marcel returned to the kitchen with a little note pad and an embarrassed look on his face. "Looks like these guys got the worst of it tonight. It's not the first time either. They said last time they were here the steak was undercooked and the fish overcooked. This time the service was 'awful' and the pasta was nasty. I don't agree with them, but I'll have to buy them dinner anyway." Marcel said.
"These guys just out for a bad time, or what?" Chef Al remarked. "What's the deal?"
"They hated us from the start. I don't know why they even came." Marcel said. "Why do people go out to have a bad time? What, we don't work hard enough? Seems they are just interested in making our life miserable."
That was all the conversation Al had time for. The rest of the tables needed attention. The mood was broken, the kitchen was quiet, and the smiles were off everyones' faces. Life goes on.
Later that night, Chef Al went out to the dining room to check the next days' reservations. On his way past a table, the gentleman at the table stopped him. "Oh no," Chef Al thought, another problem.
"Dinner was spectacular. Your pasta is the best in town! It's our third time here and it's always great."
"Thanks," Al said and he smiled and excused himself.
What do you think? Was the pasta really nasty? Were these guests just out to get some attention? Is the guest always right? What would you do?
Copyright © 1996, 1997 Bob Munnich. All Rights Reserved.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
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