Snapshot of Restaurant Catering
I recently watched HBO Max's series called, "Event", where it features Wolfgang Puck's premier catering service. Watching that reminded me of the restaurant I used to work at in Texas, where we had a full-service restaurant and catering service, and how I miss aspects of those days. Here is a snapshot of what one of my typical days would look like during the busy season:
My phone alarm goes off at 3:30 AM, jostling me awake after getting less than 5 hours of sleep after working 17 hours the day before. My body is tired and sore from a long week of working, but my mind is ready to get the day started as it’s going to be a busy day, so I get out of bed without much issue. Being mindful not to wake up my partner, I quickly and quietly brush my teeth, throw on my chef uniform, and am out the door by 3:45, with the only souls knowing I left being my two dogs sleepily seeing me leave from their kennel.
There is no trace of sunlight this early in the morning, the only lights being the orange-hued street lights, fluorescent flood lights of buildings, and a couple of other tired souls in their cars sharing the streets with me. Being up this early and running on little sleep, a familiar feeling in my stomach and body is apparent. It’s an empty ache, like your stomach is empty but you don’t feel hunger, like your body’s natural recovery process has been interrupted, a sluggishness that has an edge to it. This feeling is normally accompanied by feeling oddly cold even when the weather is in the 50s, a cold that seems to stick with you even when you think your layers of shirt, long sleeve, chef coat, and jacket should warm you up. I’ve grown accustomed to my body telling me that it’s being overworked and that it needs to rest, which is what this feeling is. As much as I selfishly want to go back home and curl up in my soft bed, I know that I have a full day ahead of me and people are counting on me. So, on I drive.
Rolling up to my normal parking spot, beneath the only street light in the parking lot, the restaurant rests in complete darkness. I’m the first to arrive, which makes sense as I am running the show today. Using my phone light I grab an apron and bag of kitchen towels then unlock the back door, disarm the security alarm, and flip on the lights to my second home. I walk my way through the restaurant, flipping on sets of lights, and clocking myself in at the POS, about 4 AM, and check to see how many reservations we have for lunch and dinner today. Once I get the coffee going, I make my inspection of the kitchen and walk-ins, making sure the night crew did a good job cleaning the night before, if the tasks I gave them the night before were completed, and what the stock levels on assorted prep look like. It’s a peaceful process as the kitchen is rarely this quiet, filled only with one person. After my inspection, I begin turning on the equipment, with the droning roar of the hood vents quickly filling the kitchen with noise. After that I set up my station by taking assorted knives and equipment from my knife roll, cutting board set with a wet kitchen towel beneath it to make sure it stays in place, and make up a sanitizer bucket. By this time the coffee is ready so quickly make myself a cup, with a splash of half and half, then walk up the chef/catering table in the kitchen to look at today’s catering from a beat-up clipboard. Today we have 8 caterings of various sizes and menus, 5 leaving during lunchtime and 3 during the evening, with one of the lunch caterings with a Sticky Note saying, “Pick this up last night, sorry!”. Thankfully the menu is simple, a small amount of people, and is using ingredients we typically have. I lay out each catering sheet in chronological order and see what else needs to be done. Items that have been highlighted means that they are ready, whereas no highlighting means they haven’t been touched. Well, time to get to work.
A few crewmates arrive by 6 AM, and after getting their coffee I get them together to discuss the game plan. These guys are my dedicated catering team with varying skills that I carefully bring out to their fullest. They go off to start their assigned prep, talking and joking with each other as they work.
The typical morning line crew arrives at 8 AM, and these guys are more valued than they know. It’s uncommon to have reliable people who come in on time, every day, and work their daily station day in and day out without complaint in this business. I purposely check in with these guys often to ensure they are happy, that their needs are being met, as if one of them decides to not show up it will upset the whole operation. I can work double-time ensuring a catering goes out on time if I’m down a catering cook, but I can’t do that if I have to cover a position on the line due to its unyielding, demanding nature. These are some of the unsung heroes in the kitchen that often get overlooked in the restaurant industry, I’ve personally experienced it, so I make it a point to take good care of them as often as I can.
The lunch rush hits at the same time the afternoon caterings need to go out, so a very chaotic, organized, communicated dance begins. The only fryer in the kitchen is being fought over from needing to drop an order of fries for a burger to a basket of stuffed wontons for a catering, both convection ovens are filled to the brim of sheet pans of chicken parmesans for caterings to roasted cod fillets for a customer in the dining room. The hood vents are barely keeping up with the massive amount of smoke being produced from the hundreds of mini slider burgers being grilled on the grill while the line cooks are fighting for a tiny corner of grill space for themselves. The catering delivery crews, 5 in total, are asking me where their food is and try to take travel-ready dishes without asking. The ticket machine is singing its shrill song and spewing out a line of orders. A front of house member comes back with an order where a customer decided to create their own dish, requiring me and a line cook to stop what we are doing to closely listen to what they want. Essentially, madness. A madness that some people thrive under and oddly enjoy.
You really can’t truly control this level of madness, but you can steer it in a direction that best suits you, and that’s through organization and a cool head. In those early morning hours, I organize each caterings food into their own sections, with detailed descriptions of what the food is and for which catering, and when possible even the front-of-house member's name who was going to deliver the catering. All of the catering items are designed to be held at a warm temperature without losing quality, so once the food is cooked it's wrapped with aluminum foil and is stored in warm areas like the tops of ovens or hot boxes. Everything has its dedicated home for easy access and reference. The moment the first caterer is asking for their food, I have it ready. I quickly walk them through which pans are theirs, both of us carrying our copies of the catering menu with us. As they are walking out with the first catering, I help the second caterer. By the time the second cater is loading their food, I walk out with the first caterer to personally ensure the correct menu and quantity of food are loaded in their vehicle before I give them the green light to get going. This process continues until all the caterings are out, and by this time the lunch rush is near its end. The catering cooks and I help the line cooks push out the final orders so we can collectively clean up the kitchen before the night crew arrives, and before we start on the evening caterings.
I let the catering guys have a brief break, allowing them to make themselves something to eat and smoke behind the dumpster while I get things organized for the next set of caterings, seeing that we still have a few things that haven’t been started yet and need to get done in a few hours. The night crew rolls in, a rowdy bunch of younger guys that, though are a bit too talkative for my taste, work hard, which is all I really care about. I walk them through how many reservations we have tonight, have the lead guy get to work on the night's specials with some suggestions of what we have on hand he can incorporate into the dishes, and we get back to work. Luckily the three caterings are straight forward in their menus and are easy to execute, but are just in mass. A 150 catering here, 300 there, and a 425 to finish things off. The evening shift usually has more guys on the line so I’m not as worried about needing to hop on the line to help, so it’s nice to focus on the catering and help the couple guys who are behind.
By the time the last catering is officially out it’s 8 PM, and the only couple caterings tomorrow are small, simple ones where we can get to work at a reasonable time to prepare. I thank my catering guys, letting them know that I truly appreciate them and that they did a great job, and send them home. I too am ready to head home, but I spend a bit of time looking at what will need to happen tomorrow, if I need to run by the local store in the morning to pick up a couple of items to get us by until our food purveyor arrives in the morning, then finally swing by the boss’s office to check in on how the caterings and general day went.
It’s the first time I’ve sat down since I got to work. If you’ve never been on your feet for 16+ hours without sitting down, you’ll experience some strange sensations when you first sit down. The immediate feeling comes from your feet and ankles. As I sit down, I can literally feel my feet and ankles decompress, like if you squeezed a sponge and watched it expand out. My whole body essentially goes slack after being in a constant state of tension and use. My speech slows down as if speaking begins to use up more energy than I have to spare, and gravity feels like it’s increased its power on my head, pressuring me to either let my head sag or lean against the wall. My boss informs me about the feedback he received about the catering, luckily all across the board good, and I wish him goodbye. I individually wish my night crew goodnight, pack up my knives, and fall into my car seat. Shooting a quick text to partner letting her know I’m heading home, I sit in silence as I drive home. I get home and am greeted by two very excited dogs and my partner in crime, and eat the first full meal of the day before setting my alarm to 7 AM and falling into bed.