Hi! I often get asked about how things work in the kitchen, when we get food, how we prepare it, how we serve it. Today's entry will be a not so brief discussion of how the food gets to your table.
Step one: Menus.
So most of the menus are created either by me- the Executive Chef or Jesus Martinez- our Executive Sous Chef. Most often it is both of us working together to create our menus based on lots of factors:
Resident request: We really do take suggestions seriously, and if a resident suggests something we consider whether we can do it right (some items are really difficult to do for 300+ residents but we do try). If there is an item that you would like to see, mention it to one of us, add it to a comment card or just send an e-mail (email@example.com).
Seasonality: Sometimes things are more available at some times than others; sometimes things are just really good at certain times of the year. We try to consider the weather outside as well, chilled soups sound better when it's hot outside...
Popularity: We are chefs, and sometimes we just like to create. I have been pleasantly surprised that certain items are so popular like Chuy's Sea Scallop-Stuffed Swordfish, and somewhat shocked that my Green Chili Menudo wasn't a bigger hit.
Variety: Let's face it- eating in the same dining room night after night can be tedious. we try to mix it up and have different items as often as we can. Tonight's special might not be your favorite, that is why we keep the menu large- there should always be something that appeals to you. I encourage you to try things that might sound weird or different-what do you have to lose? If you don't like it, send it back and have something else. Tell Bob you want a free glass of wine for your trouble.
After we create and print the menus, we do the ordering. We get food deliveries six days a week, and we like to have the product at least a day or two in advance so we can prepare it.
The food is delivered to the loading area, just in the back of the kitchen. and carried to the various coolers and storage places by the cooks or dishwashers.
In the kitchen we have a Dry Storeroom for canned, and dry goods. we also keep cooking wine and liquor in there.
There is a large walk in cooler #1 where we keep bread, cheese, condiments and Mis en Place. Mis en Place literally means "everything in its place", and refers to all the items needed to create a menu or dish.
In the back of Cooler 1, is another cooler within -Cooler 1a. This is the Protein Cooler, where raw beef, pork, chicken and fish are kept. This keeps them separate from ready to eat items like salad and desserts, and also gives us an extra layer of protection, as it is already inside another cooler. If this cooler goes down, we simply open the door and it stays cool from Cooler 1.
Fruits, vegetables, eggs and dairy go in another large walk-in cooler called Cooler 2 or the Produce Cooler.
These products get unpacked, put in bins and dated for rapid turnover keeping the freshest in the front. We keep the more sensitive items like milk towards the back as it is the coldest spot in the cooler.
In the very back of Cooler 2, there is another door leading to Freezer 2a. this is a small freezer where we keep frozen items like ice cream, bread dough, frozen meats, etc. This is the smallest walk in freezer I have ever had to work with, but we keep it pretty full. Sometimes there will be items left from a previous menu like lamb chops, and we will keep them until we can work them into another menu or dish.
Just past that cooler, is the Prep Kitchen. One side of this kitchen is mostly used as a bakery and Anna works in concert with the savory cooks to prepare and plate her items. In that space we have ranges, ovens, a Combi oven, steam-jacketed kettles, a tilt skillet and various gadgets like mixers, food processors, blenders, and juicers. Some cooks prepare the bulk items like soups, and sauces, while others butcher meats, par-cook vegetables, and generally prepare the Mis en Place that will allow them to further finish the food quickly later on. Food for The Care Center is mostly prepared here, where a dedicated team loads it into the refrigerated/heated truck three times a day and drives it over for service there.
The prepared food is organized by station and then delivered to either the large walk in coolers or any of six or seven smaller coolers on the hot or cold line in the next part of the kitchen. Generally, cooks are responsible for preparing the foods for their own stations, but everyone pitches in to help and the sous chefs coordinate the labor so that everything is ready.
The next area is the Service Kitchen. During Lunch, there is one cook on the hot side and one on the cold side (salads, cold appetizers). At Dinner, we add one more cook to the hot side, and a Chef or Lead Cook usually expedites from the server side.
Let's focus on dinner, since that is the most busy time. So, the cooks come in around noon, and start preparing their sauces, cutting vegetables, gathering items etc. At around 2, the line cooks take over the hot line from the lunch cook. There are refrigerated drawers that are filled with all the Mis en place, hot wells hold items like stews, mashed potatoes etc. Soups, bread, condiments and plated desserts are delivered to the servers' area where they will be responsible for them during service.
The Hot line is usually run by two cooks. One cook sets up and mans the the Grill area- which includes the grill, the broiler, and main oven. In addition to his prep work he needs to check that the temperatures are correct, that he has towels, tongs, plates, takeout containers, and a thermometer. Meanwhile another cook sets up the Sauté area with the eight burner stove, the flat top griddle, the fryer, the carving station and the steamer. In addition to his food, he needs plenty of pans, hot water for pasta, chicken stock, oil, butter, herbs.
At around 2:45 the takeout orders start ringing in the ticket machine. On any given day there can be anywhere between thirty and eighty tickets. When they all ring in, the cooks organize them by common ingredient and work together to fill every box correctly, place it in the cold window and move on to the next. The servers carry each box to the takeout area (formerly the Hunt Club) and make sure every bag gets the correct entrée, salad, soup, bread, butter, dessert, drink, and special request. This is all done as quickly as possible as the dining room and the servers' own prep work needs to be ready by four pm.
By 3:45PM (hopefully), all the takeout orders are complete and the cooks start plating food for menu meeting. The chef or sous chef checks every plate for presentation, tastes sauces, makes suggestions or corrections as needed. Mondays are the busiest, as the week's menu is described in addition to the day's specials. At 4:15pm all the servers gather in front of the hot line, where the chef shows and describes every new dish that is being served that week or day. Questions are asked, and servers take notes on each item. Together the cooks and servers taste the items, so that they can have an idea of how to describe the food to the residents and to learn more about ingredients. By 4:25 plates are cleared, counters are re-sanitized and we are ready for Dinner Service.
As you are seated in the dining room, your server is there to greet you and begin the service. As they ring items into their tablets, the kitchen starts to get tickets. Soups, non-alcoholic drinks, bread all come from the server's station, so they can come out quickly. The tickets will tell the kitchen exactly what is needed and at what course. One ticket goes to the cold station with any salad or cold appetizer needs, one to the hot line with those items and the expeditor gets a ticket with everything.
The food runners check the tickets, pick up cold items, hot soup from their station, and deliver it to the table. Meanwhile, the expeditor and cooks read the tickets and prepare as needed. Steaks are placed on the grill, fish into hot pans, par-cooked vegetables are tossed into hot pans with herbs and seasoning. Everything is cooked mostly all the way and then set aside. as you are finishing your salads, the server sends a ticket to the kitchen which says "fire" that particular table. The Expeditor calls out the fire ticket to the cooks who finish whatever preparation is necessary. Pans of sautéed vegetables go back on the fire, steaks go into the broiler, plates are ready and the plating begins. The cooks place the finished plates in the hot window, where the expeditor checks them against the ticket, looks at the presentation, places a garnish on each plate and covers it. If we have done everything right, the server will just be delivering the salad plates to the dishwasher, will turn around with their tray and the hot food goes right out immediately. Desserts are either pre-plated or plated to order depending on the item and the staffing levels, and servers take care of ice creams, cookies, coffee.
Seems pretty simple, right? Well it is, and it also isn't. As the night progresses, the ticket rail fills up, and could have as many as twenty tables operating at various speeds simultaneously. The servers need to gauge how fast food is coming out of the kitchen in order to get their food on time, the cooks need to keep up the pace without making mistakes, the expeditor needs to control the pace, communicating with both the cooks and the Director of Dining to keep everything flowing smoothly. In pre-COVID days, we would do between 110 and 130 dinners on a typical night. I think the record might be 175. These days we do between 80-100 dinners, but of course a lot more takeouts.
Some further notes
Servers are trained in the menu and its components, and if they are unsure there are plenty of people to ask. If you feel like you can't get an answer, ask for a supervisor. It is very rare that one is unavailable.
Take out orders will never be as attractive or as hot as items served in the dining room. Unless there is a compelling reason to stay home, please come in and let us serve you.
If an item is on the menu, it is pretty much available. For example, you want a Winter Salad but don't want spinach, the Tossed Salad has mixed greens, ask for that.
If you want something without salt, butter, gluten etc ask your server to be sure. Some things are easy; we can simply not season a steak before grilling it, but other things are not-we can't remove the cream from a sauce.
If an item is not on the menu, please don't request it at the table. It puts your server in a difficult position. Yes, there might be blueberries somewhere in the back but the time it takes to stop what someone is doing to go find them slows everything down.
There are some things that are faster than others, so if you are in a hurry, please let your server know, and they can help steer you to items that will be most efficient.
If you would like to take your time, please let your server know this as well so they aren't trying to push the order faster out of the kitchen.
If something is not what you expected, please see a manager and let us try to fix it.
A well done steak takes longer than a rare one, a stew or pot roast is very quick and easy to get out of the kitchen. Keep this in mind if you are trying to be quick-- better yet, inform us of any time constraints and we'll make recommendations accordingly.
When a table has multiple special requests or takes a long time to decide what to order, it slows down the whole process.
We have a wonderful wine and spirits menu, please ask for it, and don't be afraid to ask for a recommendation. If your server is unsure, Laura at the bar has great wine knowledge, as does Bob and Chef Greg. Sometimes we have extra wines or spirits that don't make it on the menu, so feel free to ask.
We love feedback. Please try to be as descriptive as possible. If your server doesn't bring you a comment card, please ask for one. If you liked-or didn't like- something please tell us what it was so we can address it.
Thank you so much for your support and encouragement. There are some days that it seems like too much, but the people who work in our Food and Beverage departments truly love what they do and really love service. I hope you all have a wonderful day!