It was early in the shift, and Sous Chef and I were talking and chopping. He was curious about my background, so I told him a bit about life at The Paper-News (that’s what my daughter called it when she was little, and I’ve always liked the name). He brought up the similarity of deadline work with cooking and journalism, and he was right both ways. The first is what everyone thinks of with deadlines: getting a task done by XX o’clock. No leeway, no excuses, no calling in sick, just get it done. Very similar in both occupations.
The other is the floating deadline, getting something done as quickly as possible without cutting corners. Getting the food out in timely fashion, getting the story written and published as soon as possible. Working faster than other people. It’s the acquired skill that occasionally makes you laugh at your own anxieties.
Over the summer, I had the floating deadline at the Patio Grill. Now I have the firm deadline with appetizers — I have three hours to make two appetizers, 100 pieces each.
It’s always a horse race, but some days the horse goes lame. On Thursday, for instance, I flunked meat grinding. I started with 20 pounds of beef scraps and only got about five pounds of ground meat before the inner bits of the grinder overheated. That heat transfers to the beef, and it comes out in a partially cooked grey smear. Yucch.
As my wife will tell you, I am totally incompetent with machines. That’s as in using machines. Actually fixing a machine — lawn tractor, car, computer — is way beyond my abilities. But in a crunch, WTF. I shut down the grinder, took it apart, hauled the pieces over to Dish, cleaned them, put it all back together and started again. Two minutes later, smear. Took it apart etc. On the way back to the grinder, I stopped and asked one of the line cooks what to do. “You need ice,” he said. “Put a couple pieces in every minute or so to keep it cool.”
That worked eventually, but by the time I was ready to make meatballs I’d lost 90 minutes … and I’d done nothing about the other app in my head, the smoked catfish taco. Okay, meatballs first. I went to dry storage for basil, oregano and granulated garlic, grabbed parmesan from the cooler and picked up an onion. I chopped the onion down, threw it on the meat and added the spices. There is no teaspoon this, 1/2 tablespoon that … almost all measurement is by sight. I added salt and pepper and started squishing the ground meat.
The week before, I’d found I could make meatballs with both hands, which really came in handy now. I cranked out two sheet pans of golf-ball size apps in about 15 minutes (yeah, I clocked myself), and thought about the catfish tacoes while I was doing it.
The major chunk of work involved would be the roasted corn salsa. I’d done that a lot over the summer, and I thought I could make it in half an hour. As soon as I finished the meatballs, I put them in the oven and walked quickly to the produce cooler for six ears of corn, a green pepper, cilantro, a jalapeno and a tomato. No cilantro. Fine, I picked up some parsley from the banquet prep table, already chopped. No jalapenoes. Okay, went back to dry storage and got crushed red pepper flakes.
I stripped the corn, rolled it in olive oil and put in on the grill, sending flames four feet high. Exec Sous Chef ran over and had me pull the corn off before the fire suppression system kicked in. Oops. I’d never seen that happen, so I didn’t know it could. He had me rinse some of the olive oil off and put the corn back on. Which was cool, but the five minutes I’d gained by not chopping the cilantro and the jalapeno was lost to the false start at the grill. Damn.
With about an hour to go, I had the salsa made and I was marking the tortillas on the grill. Usually it’s just a presentation factor — people like food with grill marks — but with tortillas, putting them on the grill both softens the bread and makes a nice pocket when they’re folded in half.
When I first thought of making a taco appetizer, I had in mind a small tortilla, about 4 inches across. We didn’t have any. We had 8-inch tortillas, way big for an hors d’oeuvre. I was standing next to Banquet Chef at the grill, and asked him how he’d cut it. Four pieces, he said.
So I had the elements: tortillas, corn salsa, shredded cabbage and a dozen smoked catfish fillets that I’d cut into 1/4-inch strips. Forty minutes to go. I pulled the meatballs out, tossed them in a demi-glace that Banquet had left over from lunch, and put them aside to start assembling the tacoes. Thirty-six minutes to go.
Dinner apps go two places, out to the restaurant and up to the Towers concierge on the 15th floor, where people are paying $450 a night for a room. So a hotel pan full of appetizers had better look … appetizing.
These didn’t, I realized after about 10 minutes. They looked okay cut into triangles, but in the pan they jumbled together. With the quesadillas I’d done a few days before, the melted cheese bound the layers together. Nothing kept these together. I had a service pan half-full of what looked like garbage. Twenty-five minutes to deadline.
What? What to do? How to make this work as individual pieces that people would want to pick up and eat? Toothpicks? Stuck somehow through a triangle maybe 3/16ths of an inch thick. No.
No, not smoked catfish tacoes. Smoked catfish burritos. Well, sorta burritos. Nothing the National Burrito Council would support, but a burrito shape would save my bacon. And my catfish. Ta-Da!!!!
So I grabbed a tortilla off the pile, slammed some cabbage into it and a handful of corn salsa, laid in three strips of catfish, rolled it, stuck it with three toothpicks and cut it into three pretty little wraps. Three down, 97 to go in the next 19 minutes.
Chieko stopped by to ask how soon the appetizers would be ready. I didn’t answer so she walked away. She came back and asked again, and said she was ready to take out to the restaurant. The fact that they weren’t ready didn’t seem to be relevant. I pulled in my focus and pushed food into the tortilla, rolled it, stuck it, cut it and panned it, then reached for the next tortilla. Chieko asked if she was making me nervous.
Matthew the server stopped by to tell me a pizza recipe I’d asked him for about three hours ago. I managed to nod while he rattled it off and told me about his vacation. I estimate nodding took about 4.8% of my energy, or roughly 3 seconds per burrito.
Kumba stopped by and asked if I needed anything. Yes, I said, I need toothpicks in all those meatballs. “All of them?” she said. Yup. “All right, my friend,” she said. It was already past her quitting time. I would never have asked her to stay, but since she asked me …
With 8 minutes to go and about 30 pieces left to do, Exec Chef stopped by and told me to put the pan in the over for 5 minutes so the apps go out hot. Yes, chef. So it was actually 3 minutes to go.
Exec Chef has this theory that people can work as fast as they need to to beat the clock. I have this theory that I only learn by doing something a hundred times. Those two theories fused in that moment and my hands were a blur, my knife flew, my brain pushed and the pan filled up with the last of the small toothpicked burritos. I stuck ’em in the oven, cleaned up my station and pulled ’em out.
Right on time.