Expeditious restauranting is a key to success
As the former owner of a media production facility, I understand the importance of organization and timing. When a lot of people work together to produce a product (count the names that scroll by at the end of your favorite sitcom or movie!), systems must be in place to ensure that everyone’s efforts are focused on the final outcome.
Take a look at the pages of the newspaper you’re holding. The various-size ads, articles, photos, headlines, subheads and features are all married together like a big jigsaw puzzle. And every piece has to fit perfectly. The ability of the Cape Gazette (or any good newspaper) to put together one of these complicated things - several times a week, yet! - never ceases to amaze me.
Restaurants (or at least well-run restaurants) are not all that different from a busy newspaper or a high-tech audio/video studio. “Farm to table” might sound cute on a menu, but the reality can involve hundreds of people. And unlike the Gazette or my control rooms, restaurant customers have to put the end product into their mouths!
I got to thinking about this a few weeks ago when I visited the newly revamped Salt Air on Wilmington Avenue. Longtime local boys Norman and Eric Sugrue have made the names Big Fish Grill, Summer House and now Salt Air synonymous with quality, efficiency and consistency. Nobody’s perfect, of course. But it’s certainly not by magic that their facilities run smoothly day in and day out.
I love the row of counter seats that faces into Salt Air’s kitchen. After strong-arming my dining companions into sitting there, it wasn’t even 15 minutes until each of them likened the kitchen operations to a ballet. Of course, this isn’t peculiar just to Salt Air: That choreography is integral to any successful commercial kitchen. And, in concert with the head chef, the conductor for the dance is the expeditor.
The “expo” is the liaison between the kitchen and the wait staff. Did you substitute cole slaw for green beans? Did you ask for no sauce on your fish tacos? The expo makes sure that happens. If not, food (read: money) ends up in the trash, and an unhappy customer stalks out, brimming with desire to tell everyone about it.
The evening we were at Salt Air, the window (where the completed dishes are placed by the chef and/or line cooks) was manned by none other than Eric Sugrue himself. Filled to capacity and on a 45-minute wait, Salt Air was in festive pandemonium. But the quietly calm Sugrue handled it all, inspecting and occasionally rearranging each dish, returning some to the cooks, and wiping up spills and splatters before servers’ trays were loaded for delivery. We sat transfixed as each entree, appetizer and side stood the test of his watchful eye.
When Matt’s Fish Camp first opened, owner Matt Haley expedited every dinner service to help his kitchen get up to speed. From the bar that faces the window, I watched him double-check orders and correct errors before they had a chance to tarnish the restaurant’s reputation.
Last fall I found myself seated in full view of Chef (and oenophile columnist) John McDonald’s kitchen at the Grove Market near Ocean City. On that night, the talented McDonald was both head chef and expeditor. He guarded each plate until a table’s entire course was assembled. In between cooking and directing his staff, he took the time to make final adjustments to each dish before servers swooped in to pick them up. I was impressed. (No wonder it takes three weeks to get a reservation there!)
Many restaurants rotate managers and/or senior wait staff in and out of expo duties, and smaller places often rely on trusted servers to check their orders and make adjustments. Like the Cape Gazette feeds the eyes, and my recording machinery fed the ears, dedicated and efficient restauranting can provide a lovely symphony for the mouth.