As of January 1, 2016, Gapers Block has ceased publication. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions over the past 12-plus years. 

TODAY

Thursday, March 23

Gapers Block
Search

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr


Detour

I used to sell around 25 orders of these a night at the East Bank Club in downtown Chicago circa 1985. My best friend's mom Lolita doesn't do the peas, although we did. Hers is probably more authentic, but this is how I learned it.

They taste good, so I leave them in.

I had 57 people in my kitchen with three restaurants operating simultaneously. Grossing around $8 million a year. I'd buy $100,000 a month in groceries alone. Two hundred to 300lbs. of fresh fish a day. Weekends even more. One day I got slammed so badly I needed three produce deliveries.

The club is one city block long and one city block wide, times two floors. At that time, it was the largest in the Midwest. Swimming pool, steam, sauna, Jacuzzi, masseuse and two quarter-mile running tracks, one indoors, one out, with rubber padding underneath them to minimize shin splints. Twenty or so exercise rooms, huge weight and locker rooms, a driving range, tennis and racquetball courts, pro shops, banquet rooms and the restaurants.

You get the picture.

A fine dining restaurant off the main atrium lobby sat 180. A grill on the second floor overlooked the lobby and twice each day, from around 11:30am to 1pm, and then again from about 5pm to 7pm we'd do 500 covers (meals) out of about 100 square feet of kitchen. Three guys on one small line, pumping out over 1000 spa meals virtually flawlessly. If you slip, you're grilled.

Literally.

There was an enormous salt-water fish tank that separated the seating for the grill and the bar. At happy hour, there would always be some women circling the tank like barracudas in a feeding frenzy. They'd wear only the most fashionable workout attire, usually purchased at one of the club's stores in the lobby.

They'd promenade as if taking their evening constitutional around the square in search for Mr. Right. Or in this case, Mr. "Always Right." We'd often spy one breaking rotation formation, going over to the water fountain and lightly moistening her leotard décolletage.

Faux sweat, to go with the nails.

Weather permitting, we also had a rooftop garden. From spring thru fall. That could mean an additional 1500 meals daily depending, in addition to banquet catering.

One quickly learns to multi-task in a situation like that.

Having bluffed my way into the industry and having done respectfully on my own, I couldn't perpetuate the myth any longer. I knew my education was sorely lacking. I was aware that I did not have all the answers and was holding myself back by pretending I did.

My eternal quest for knowledge was rearing its head.

In 1985, I left the only job I'd ever had in the food industry and went to work at the East Bank Club, on the river, across the street from the Merchandise Mart in the quickly gentrifying neighborhood called River North. We more or less pioneered the River North area, now home to some of the best art galleries and restaurants in the city.

02122007_rooftop.jpg

I learned how to do quality volume food there by working with some world-class talent. I started as day sauté and was promoted to saucier, or as I was called, "sauce boy" (a coveted position), within a month.

As is common in my industry, the Chef that hired me was gone himself a couple months after my arrival. A new chef was hired and we hit it off immediately. He had studied extensively in France and Europe and had excellent classical technique. I made myself invaluable to him during the transition and soaked it up like a sponge.

I became sous chef two weeks later. Number two in the kitchen. I rose about 30 positions in the kitchen hierarchy in about three months.

Here's some lessons well learned:

To effectively handle an operation of that size, you need to delegate to key people that you trust to carry out your vision. You cannot do everything and be everywhere. You spend your time anticipating problems, experiencing problems and correcting problems.

I try to bring in one or two ringers wherever I work. Guys I've worked with before and that are proven commodities. Makes my life easier, and if daddy is happy, everybody is happy.

This move sometimes breeds resentment from the natives. I've found that it keeps them on their toes though. I'm there to do my job as well as I know I can, not to make friends. If there is a preexisting employee there, someone I feel a quick affinity towards, I give them the first chance. If not, I don't hesitate to bring in a heavy hitter or four.

Everything is a decision. When was the last time you spent the better part of a day debating the merit of the placement of flowers on a table? Alongside the candles, or behind? Placed at 11 o clock or 1? Try tasting 100 items of "mis en place" on the line every day before service, to make sure your dawgs got it down. Then sample the final products afterwards.

Real glamorous huh?

This is a service industry. Your function is to serve. To make it happen. However you do that and whatever it takes, just get it done. Unobtrusively and efficiently. Do not obviously cop an attitude towards the patron for pushing you in whatever direction momentarily amuses them. Do not let them know how bad your day/month/life has been. People go out to restaurants to get away from their daily hassles. To relax and recharge. They don't want problems or excuses.

There will be days you must just keep it to yourself and smile while shredding your lips.

Meet and exceed all expectations. You are a food salesman. Would you choose to not sell a car to someone if they didn't want air conditioning or picked a color you didn't like? Let them buy it however they want it. What's it to you anyway?

They're eating it. And most importantly, they're paying for it.

You're not.

In my kitchens, if it can be done, it will be done. This should not be interpreted as doing everything that is asked of you. It simply means that if you can honor the request without upsetting the apple cart, do it, and if not, don't.

Then, either bask in your glory or be sincere in your apology.

You are a professional snob. After all, people turn to you for your "taste" and will quickly turn away if it isn't of the utmost discerning and discriminating quality. Do not compromise your integrity or your name.

Good ingredients prepared properly make great food.

You're an artist. You're a businessman. You're a shopper. You are also a detective solving riddles and a fireman putting out fires (real and imagined). You're a scapegoat. An innovator. A chemist. A general. A referee. You're the heavy. You are a motivational speaker. Or a teacher. You identify the task. Demonstrate the task. Oversee the task. You alone have the whole picture.

You are the chef" and "chef" means "boss."

02122007_cuttingboard.jpg

A kitchen is not a place for democracy. A benevolent dictatorship, which is my style, is the most effective way to govern. Music is the same... bands run on the same principle.

Verdad.

One more point, which works in the arts as well as in a restaurant. Along with many other variables, it takes one person (maybe two but generally not) with an undiluted vision and with everyone else on the same page. Otherwise, it just doesn't work as well as it could or should.

Ever hear of "artistic differences?"

It's been my experience that the most successful restaurants are personality driven with a solidified viewpoint radiating like the sun from the heavens. Here is yet another musical analogy. That's why most bands' second records or most chefs' second restaurants are not generally as good (I didn't say popular) as their first efforts.

Sophomore slump.

Another musical parallel. You spend your entire life up to that point making your first album, and two years making your second. Which do you think is usually better? Same with restaurants.

In my kitchens, I've always encouraged talent and am very approachable. A better idea can come from anywhere. If a dishwasher tells me that we should move the glass racks because we'll have less breakage over there, since he's "there" all the time, he ought to know.

Thank them. Always give credit when it's due.

"Why don't you bring your husband/wife in for dinner one night, on me?" When people feel appreciated, they tend to look out for your best interests more readily.

Let them experience the place from another perspective and possibly gain some additional pride. To be a sport, the food cost is negligible and the benefits are wonderful. Or a $50 works too. It will come back to you tenfold.

Being karmicly correct is the key.

Marvin Gaye or John Coltrane alternate with Luis Crespo and hip-hop on the box in the kitchen. We have a good time. I figure if you have to be somewhere 60-80 hours a week, a reality most civilians might not be aware of, you may as well enjoy being there. Not loud, but audible.

Unless it's Marvin, then you can turn it up.

I let them eat too. Most things. I figure you have to be pretty stupid to go hungry in a kitchen. There's ample opportunity to take it anyway, plus you need to know the product and will generally tire of it soon enough. Just don't get obviously greedy. I'll eventually figure it out if you try to take advantage of my good nature.

That would be a mistake.

In the old days, whenever you worked with expensive product, they'd make you whistle. Stop whistling and they'd be all over you. The reason? Ever try eating while you're whistling?

02122007_plating.jpg

This business is very passionate and very personal. If you've chosen and trained your staff well and treat them with dignity and respect, they generally rise to the occasion and will crawl through a volcano for you... and you will need them to do just that.

Repeatedly. Guaranteed.

The ones that aren't down with it usually fade soon enough anyway. There is an "us" against "them" mentality in the kitchen, like veterans of a war. It's a double-edged sword though, so be careful. Different factions and cliques occur whenever two or more people are put in a room together. Back of the house versus front of the house. Night shift against Days.

The politics of the kitchen.

Small things, like rubber floor mats, large plastic cups or enough bar rags to get you comfortably through a shift, can set the tone for the day. Anyone that's ever worked the line in a busy restaurant for any period of time will admit to having had a secret stash of towels usually hidden in the back of their box (refrigerator) or under some obscure shelf.

The kitchen is a dangerous place. Knives and fire everywhere. Care to feed that by throwing a hostile attitude on top of it?

You'd be surprised how miserable or short tempered you can become when your feet ache from standing in one burning hot place for 10-12 hours leaning over a counter with a dirty wet towel and a wicked thirst.

Life is just so much easier when you are properly equipped.

Clean as you go and then clean it again. Sanitation and hygiene are of the utmost importance. Everybody cleans up after themselves. No excuses. Keeps you humble.

Some of the guys sprinkle cornstarch on their nether regions to avoid heat rash, aka "gig butt." We called it "cooking a roux."

It's a special breed that intentionally chooses this lifestyle. Physically demanding work plus long hours including nights, weekends and holidays. You work hard while others relax. The pressure never ends; it just comes back at you again tomorrow. Another battle in a perpetual war.

It's also intoxicating and you'll miss it if you stop.

Besides a great staff, you'll need proper and adequate equipment to help them do the job as effectively as possible. "The right knife for the right job" is an old kitchen saying. Very true. No one likes to waste their time, and most people appreciate a nurturing work environment.

Growing up, my family owned clothing stores, and I watched my father treat his staff similarly. It works for his son as well. Nobody does it alone. It's not rocket science.

But when it comes down to it, when the aioli hits the fan, you somehow pull it off. And when you say, "This is it" or "I need that!" that's exactly what happens because that's just how it is.

Can you say, "Yes, Chef?"

 

About the Author(s)

Alan Lake has been a professional chef for 25 years and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He has also been a professional musician most of his life, coining the term "jazzfood" to describe "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational skills." Just like the music. Read more of his adventures at Gapers Block: Drive-Thru

GB store

Recently on Detour

A Tragic Day in Chicago
While most people see the weekend after Thanksgiving as a time to begin preparations for the December holiday season, this time of year is a painful reminder to some as the anniversary of one of Chicago's deadliest fires. Ninety-two students...

The Social Life of Our Urban Spaces
"Placemaking" comes to Chicago

Don't '&' Me, OK?
The ampersand gets Wenner thinking about the distinction between race and ethnicity.

Photo Essay: Transitions
Rearview contributers interpret the theme "Transitions."

People from the Rearview Archive
Gapers Block digs into the Rearview archive in search of portraits.

View the complete archive

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15