Thursday, October 21, 2010

Contagious Calmness

So, I've still got it.

One of the classes I'm taking right now is called A La Carte.  It's really fun and easy (although sometimes frustrating) for those of us with industry experience. (A lot of my fellow students have never worked, or honestly will ever be able to hack it, in real restaurants)

Basically the class is divided into four groups of 4-6 people and we rotate staffing each portion of a restaurant at school.  People can come and have a student prepared six course lunch served to them by students for only $10 per person.  Each group rotates through hot station, cold station, dish pit, and service staff with the teacher, who actually is one, serving as chef.  One of the added benefits for us industry pros is that the chef allows one of us to serve as sous-chef and expediter each class.

This position in a classically structured French kitchen using the brigade system is the chef's first officer.  The sous-chef, or "under-chef" serves as a go between for the chef and staff, making sure things get done.  In most kitchens during service time they act as expediter, taking orders from the waitstaff and communicating them to the kitchen then staging them for service and finishing them off by wiping plates and adding garnish.

This is what I got to do today.  I've wanted to be expediter at just about every restaurant that I've worked in, but even though it takes a slightly different skill set than other positions, I was never taken seriously or believed in since I don't excel in back of the house* positions.

At school we don't have fancy computers to print out tickets so each server turns in a ticket for each table's order all at once.  Normally each course has a separate ticket that goes out with the food.  Instead the servers ask for each course to be "fired" and the expediter relays that to whatever station is responsible for that course.  The station then prepares it and puts it in the "window" which is a shelf between them and the expediter.  The expediter then wipes any drips and dresses the plate with any garnish to "sell" it in their own window between them and the servers or food runners.

Doesn't sound all that hard, does it?  Well, tickets come in constantly as well as servers coming back on top of each other to fire different courses.  Sometimes there are modifiers to an item, such as no bacon, a vegetarian substitution, or desired doneness.  The expediter will "add on" another number of items to a station and the station will call back the order to confirm.  If a certain number of items has already been called and more need to be added, the expediter will add on the new number and then add that to whatever has been already called, letting the station know how many they need "all day."

The expediter has to keep straight what's been fired and what hasn't yet, what's been sold to them and to what table it's going.  Sometimes servers make mistakes and need an order "on the fly," or they have to go back to the table to let their guest know we're out of something because it wasn't sufficiently communicated to them that an item was "86'd" because the kitchen is out of it.  There's all kind of slang that will put you "in the weeds" if you don't learn it quickly.  On top of all that, in the real world, kitchens are a cesspool of machismo and trash talking is the vernacular. If you can't hold your own, the kitchen won't respect you and they'll still make work near impossible. It can get hectic.

I had five servers each with about three tables each ranging from one to eight people, which I was told was the most we'd had all semester. I think we served 37 people.   Every one did a really good job and we got it done without any serious problems.

The thing that really pleased me was something that I hadn't heard in more than five years.  Before he left, the chef thanked me for doing such a great job and keeping a cool head.  The expediter has to have the strongest personality in the kitchen to keep things in control and he noted how well lunch service went despite issues in the dining room and the volume we did.

Back in the day, when I worked in a "quick service restaurant" (QSR, that's industry-speak for fast food.  Seriously, there's even a trade magazine by that title) I really knew what I was doing.  First of all, it wasn't really that complicated, but it was a lot of stuff to do and the volume a QSR can do during a weekday lunch can be insane.  If all the pieces don't fall into place, it's very possible for it all to come crashing down.  People freak out about irate customers, the grill person can lose count of how many patties are on the grill, there's a lot of stuff that can go wrong.

In my four and a half years of dedicated service, I had confidence in my ability. I take pride in my work and it showed.  I'd show up with a job to do and the intent to get it done.  Stuff happens, I'd push through it.  Freaking out isn't going to fix anything.  There were shifts where Murphy's Law was proved accurate and I just kept going.  I had several managers over the years tell me that I was like a calming influence on the crew. The freaking out would begin, I'd come up from that first drive thru window (it's actually referred to as the "bubble") to help out and everything would calm down.

I enjoyed the work, it didn't pay well enough for me to stick around any longer, but I do miss it sometimes. Working the drive thru, I'd have nearly 120 brief conversations with interesting guests everyday.  Through my back window I got to watch many South Texas sunsets.

The difference between that and what happened today was that back then my confidence was based on experience.  I knew the limits and all the variables, and I could do the work. I knew I could because I already had.  Today my confidence was a little of that, but it was mostly just guts.  There were a few times when I'd look down at the tickets and couldn't remember what they hell I'd called for or sold or anything.  I'd take a breath and attack the situation one thing at a time.

The funny thing about this was during my last dokusan ** this past Tuesday, my teacher asked me about whether or not I was paying any attention to my practice while at school.  Sure, I find myself correcting my posture or watching my breath, focusing on just what I'm doing in front of me, but these aren't really new things.  I enjoy what I do at school, so I'm usually pretty focused.  It was a difficult question to answer.

But that question Tuesday really primed my mind to be aware of what was going on when the going got tough today and it was nice.  I didn't have the option to freak out and just run away, I mean I did.. but not really.  I had to just keep going, and I did.

Keeping your head in a situation, especially one where everyone around you is losing it, can really impact how things will pan out.  I really feel this is one of the best ways my practice shines in my life.  This is the Bodhisattva  way and saving all beings really does start with yourself.  By improving my ability to keep my cool, I've saved others from losing it.  The effort really pays off.

So keep two things in mind.

The first, next time you go out to eat, whether full service or just the drive thru, yeah the people working there may be idiots screwing everything up, but it's a tough job that a lot of people don't appreciate. Be nice to them, pissing off the people that feed you is never a good idea.***  Food service professionals work long hard hours in hot cramped quarters so that others can enjoy a nice meal before heading to the movies with their sweetie after making probably better money sitting in an air conditioned office in a nice comfy chair crunching numbers on a computer.

Second, be mindful of how your attitude affects those around you.  It can be pretty easy to just go with the flow and let it all go to hell, but with just a little effort you can turn it all around.  Even if no one else realizes it or appreciates, you'll know. 

*"Back of the house" refers to the kitchen, while "front of the house" refers to the dining room.  Traditionally the maître d’hôtel, "master of the hotel/house"or maître d' for short, is responsible for the front and the
chef de cuisine, or "boss (chief) of the kitchen" is responsible for the kitchen with various other chefs under him.

*** While spitting in food or other such childish things are actually considered food tampering and a felony, there are things they can do that can't be prosecuted.  Orders do honestly get mixed up, but not all the time, fixing it takes time and even if it's comped you're never getting that time back.  What time did that show start again?  Do you still have time to eat your food before you have to get back to the office?
Forgot to mention post at Dangerous Harvests with a similar theme that I enjoyed.  I know I never seem to mention anybody else, but it just happens that way


  1. You know, this post reminded me of two things:

    1) My classmates at law school, while I love them, seem to be getting a little "judgey" lately (if you'll excuse the pun and the obvious irony that it bothers me that they are judging others). I've been talking to Mom about it and how it frustrates me because I feel like pretty much everybody considers me a friend and I'm walking a fine line between reminding my classmates to be mindful of each other's feelings and experiences and gossiping. This is what Mom said to me about it, based on something she heard at an in-service a while ago. If you do act in a way that is hurtful to others or don't act to prevent something hurtful from happening when you can, the sin is on you. Once it is beyond your control and you've done what you can, the sin is on the person doing the hurtful thing. I thought that was pretty wise. :)

    2) I was thinking, in the shower this morning (because that's where I do my best thinking), about what it means to be an effective leader. It occurred to me that the key to being an effective leader is to believe and communicate to everyone you may be leading (or with whom you are attempting to partner/collaborate) that you know their role is important and that they are valued. As I was thinking about it some more, it also occurred to me that the only way you have the opportunity to be an effective leader is to be an effective self-advocate. In my experience as a student leader, and even more as a leader in my work experience, it was the first part that came naturally to me, as I would imagine it comes naturally to you. I would say that we are both fortunate in that we think in wholes and see the big picture, because it allows us to impact the world around us in ways that can be beneficial to many, which makes me happy. I'm not surprised that you are good at expediting, exercising that same skill set, whether in a store or in an office, is where I am in my element and I would imagine that we experience the same thrill from being our most effective selves.

    Obviously, thinking in wholes can be frustrating, too, though. Take this paper I'm working on, for example. My professor wants me to only write certain sections after asking me to decide the whole question. It's frustrating because I had trouble figuring out how to get passed the whole and focus on the parts. What I realized the other day is that the parts are just smaller wholes, and that's how I needed to see if I was going to finish this thing and do it well.

    Which brings me back to my point, learning how to self-advocate, either externally, to other people, or internally, believing in myself that I can find the answer and somehow either convince the universe to bend to my will or convince my will to bend to the universe, has probably been the hardest lesson I have had to learn as an adult. It surprises me that this was not the part that came naturally, but I think moving to Texas and then to Chicago probably triggered that axis-shift in me. Moving to Texas forced me to learn to empathize and appreciate differences in ways I can't imagine how I would have learned if we hadn't moved. Because it was a lesson hard learned, but one that I think will serve my life's missions (as they manifest, I haven't quite figured them out :P) very, very well, and I have learned to be grateful for that gift. Oddly (or perhaps not), through a sort of spiritual journey, myself, through my theology classes and access to Mass in college and in my neighborhood, now. I think it's interesting that we took such wildly different paths, but both ended up at a fundamentally similar conclusion.

    Anyway, please Dori that the "keep on swimming" mantra is proving to be very helpful to me as I struggle my way through my first semester of law school and that I appreciate her guidance for the both of us. :P

  2. "My professor wants me to only write certain sections after asking me to decide the whole question. It's frustrating because I had trouble figuring out how to get passed the whole and focus on the parts."

    This is why I hate hypothetical situations. You can't propose a situation without defining its boundaries, living fully means being aware of all variables and those can't be defined in a hypothetical situation.

    Zen rejects hypothetical speculation as a product of the mind and not real. Even the ethics and morality of Zen are flexible instance to instance. The guidelines taken in this capacity (the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts) are not rigid in the sense of the Ten Commandments.

    They're not intended to judge others, but our own actions. The Precepts are habits of compassionate action, rules followed in spirit not in letter, so even they're not subject to hypothetical speculation. Instead they apply only to the moment in that moment.

    "...believing in myself that I can find the answer and somehow either convince the universe to bend to my will or convince my will to bend to the universe, has probably been the hardest lesson I have had to learn as an adult."

    Not really having been around daily as a part of your adult life, I've only really heard the highlights and the occasional problems so I'm not really sure how well this works. It definitely comes across in your personality.

    When you get stuck consider this: there is just as much of the universe in yourself as there is you in the universe (I've even heard the ridiculous contrivance of "you-niverse") When you enter a situation intending to bend it to your will, you will encounter resistance, the same happens when you try to bend yourself.

    Read what I wrote about musubi and realize that there is no difference between conflict and cooperation. They're both situations where individuals or groups with differences interact.

    When it comes to influencing others into cooperation or anything else, one of my favorite quotes which is very Taoist comes from an episode of Futurama, believe it or not.

    The episode dealt heavily with the theme of theology and what it means to be God, but applies to other situations. It ended with what I remember as "you know you've done a good job when no one can tell you've done anything at all."