I've seen them on television and in the movies. I've seen a closed one on a cruise ship. But, one thing I've never had the good fortune to do is to work observe a commercial kitchen in action. And I've always wondered what it's like. Is it like we see on the screen? Temperamental chefs. Pots, pans, utensils, and dishes flying around. Fires theatrically flaring up from stovetops. Kitchen staff chopping and cooking and yelling and running like crazy. In a nutshell...pandemonium.
Well, just recently I had the good fortune to visit a popular local restaurant (Canopy) during one of their busier times - a Sunday morning brunch, What an awesome experience! It was a little like what I had imaged but to be honest so much more controlled - and much less dramatic. Just good people doing good hard work they love.
I've eaten at Canopy (and their co-owned restaurant, Shade) a number of times, so I know the wonderful, beautifully presented food (and some of the best baked goods around) they churn out. I wanted to know how that all happened. What's it like there in the back of the house? Is it anything like I'd imagined. I asked the owner Claire if I could pay a visit to observe sometime. She graciously said yes.
My overall mission? I wanted to see how they managed the ebb and flow of orders. I was curious to see how the kitchen team worked together and could make it all look so easy from a diner's perspective. It was such an eye-opening experience. My goal was to watch the action, learn a few things, and stay out of everyone’s way while the Sunday brunch business roared out front.
I started my morning at about 7:00am with Chad, the restaurant’s baker (and owner of his own growing wholesale baking operation). Now, on a normal day Chad gets to the restaurant about 4am; so he had been at it for a few hours before I arrived. He was a great guy to hang out with - and learn things from. One piece of evidence was that he and I chatted about baking, cooking, kitchen tools, family, you name it - and he was still able to keep churning out scones, muffins, bread, croissants, etc. He has done this for so long and so often that at times he seems to be on auto-pilot. How impressive to be able to churn out such great baked goods almost without thinking about it.
I got to watch the cooking team (under the direction of Executive Chef Liz Brooks) take on orders that seemed to appear almost out of nowhere. They keep the orders on a set of clips near the cooking area (yeah, it's a little cool and diner-like) so the waitstaff and the cooks can both know what orders are in the works. I found myself periodically glancing at the set of tickets up on that clip bar - one minute there’s almost none and the next minute there’s 7, 8, 9. Just as Chef Liz takes a second to glance at her phone a bunch of orders appear from the dining room. And the cooking staff goes to it. They crank out plate after plate as the waitstaff communicates some specifics with them - “That one needs bacon. I need a scone on this one. How many croissants do we have left?”.
I think the entire day I may have seen only one dish come back from the dining room for a little....ummmm....rework (out of several hundred). Not bad!
And I also got to see (and help with) the less-glamorous side of the restaurant. Imagine. A stack of cloth napkins. A utensil holder full of knives and forks. They all needed to get together. And guess who got to help with that fun little task? Me! Actually, in all honesty, it wasn’t bad at all. Give the utensils a final polish and roll them up properly (just as Claire told me). And for awhile the hostesses made them disappear almost as fast as I could roll them. LOL. And hopefully it was a little bit of help to the waitstaff. And let's be honest, it IS part of the business.
So what were a few of the things I learned? Well, my little brain could only soak up so much at once, so I know I missed a bunch. But here are a few things I learned…
1. New Tools.I was able to learn about the "sheeter" a machine that pulls dough through rollers and flattens it out. It can be adjusted each time the dough passes through to make the dough flatter and flatter. If you've ever made pasta on one of those countertop machines with a manual crank, imagine a much, much larger electric model with a two way roller capability. We used it to process the croissant dough. The previously-made dough got folded over and folded over - and on one of the foldings a bunch of butter (you don’t want to know how much!) got laid across the dough. And the dough got folded back over the butter a few more times - pressing the butter into the dough and forming layer after layer. This gives the croissants their distinctive look, texture, and butteriness. The final product is beautiful - buttery and flaky.
2. Thinking ahead. Chad has gotten really good at estimating tomorrow's volumes. No, it's not a perfect science of course (I think the kitchen ran low on some sweet potato muffins the day I was there.) But he knew that part of his work flow was to not only have today's bakery items ready but also to start thinking about tomorrow.
3. Measuring. I've read enough about baking to know that weighing your ingredients (instead of measuring them by volume) is THE way to put together a recipe. And Chad reiterated that to me in spades. There were no measuring cups or spoons in sight. But that scale got quite a workout. I saw the results. I'm convinced.
4. Communication. Making this all work demands a tremendous level of trust and communication across the kitchen. A commercial kitchen is no place to remain quiet and silent. Dishes. Orders. Special requests. Amounts. All of it has to be communicated clearly and quickly. In my opinion, that's part of what makes a restaurant kitchen work.
5. Roles defined. When I arrived I was particularly amazed that everyone seemed to be working on their specific tasks. They all appeared to know how their own job was important to the overall functioning of the kitchen. Ingredients were being prepped early and then continuously throughout the day. Baked goods were getting cranked out and stored - and prepped for the next day. Early in the day it seemed to be that people didn't talk to each other very much. They just seemed to know what to do and were going about getting it done in a very focused way.
Fundamentally it's about teamwork. In my short time there I saw several examples of individuals pulling out of their primary tasks and pitching in to get things done. A lunch order was a perfect example. The order had to be delivered by noon - and Chef Liz knew it. All of a sudden I look over and she's putting together 8-9 falafel sandwiches (which set my little vegetarian heart aflutter!). Someone was packing up salads. The search was on for the cookies that everyone knew were ready, but no one could find. The cookies were eventually found on a shelf; but did not meet the staff's high standards so they were discarded and others found to replace them. And Claire (the owner) stepped in to make the delivery. I got to go along and spend a few quality minutes chatting with Claire too. A treat.
6. Timing. One thing I noticed is how everyone is almost constantly glancing at clocks and watches. It seems to me that one key to success in a kitchen is timing. There are the obvious. Breads, scones, and muffins get mixed, proofed, rested, placed in ovens - each accompanied with a glance at the clock and a mental note made. Cooks (and pretty much everyone else in the kitchen) being aware of the time and noting how much time they have until the heaviest part of the brunch rush will begin. The executive chef, Liz, knowing that with all this going on around the kitchen a lunch order still had to be put together and delivered by noon.
And there are the less obvious. Washers speeding up their work to make sure clean dishes are ready and in place when a cook is ready to plate an order. Several people knowing that an order needs to be delivered at noon; and working backwards to know when pieces of the order need to be put together and driven to their delivery location.
All through it all the kitchen team was professional, smiling (for the most part), laughing, and keeping standards high (plated dishes had to be just right, the cookies for the delivery order were replaced because they didn't meet the team's standards, etc.). I could tell, the kitchen staff was not just cranking out orders. They really cared about what came out of their kitchen. It had to be right.
And speaking of the staff…what a great bunch of people I met. Chad was good enough to spend a lot of time with me and showed me so many tips and tricks that make his work easier. The owner, the chef, and the waitstaff were also really friendly and patient. (I bet I asked a bunch of dumb questions.)
I'm sure there are even many more things going on behind-the-scenes and/or in the minds of the kitchen staff as they go about their day that I didn't even know about or notice. And I'm sure the stress level floats up and down throughout the day ("Where the heck are those cookies!?!?! I know they're here somewhere.") But, what I saw was a cool, confident, professional, and yes fun kitchen staff cranking out busily cranking out some of the best food around. And doing it as a team - and even with an intruder like me floating around and probably getting in their way.
Thanks again to Claire Smith and your team at Canopy! What a wonderful opportunity you gave me and what a great experience I had.
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