From the Kitchen – Show Time!

My doctor prescribed a stress test the other day, to be safe. That’s cool. I’m thinking, what’s a treadmill for a spell? Upon further thought, however, maybe he should do an actual “field study” and strap me up on an event night while I’m running the kitchen expo station.

“Expo” is short for “expediter.” The expo is akin to the director or conductor — but in an environment not quite symphony hall. He or she performs as the eyes, ears, voice and timepiece in orchestrating the entire kitchen staff during dinner service, maintaining cadence and harmony as their hands work feverishly, heads down, to the desired delight of hungry guests.

An expert expo multitasks with extreme focus, knowing when to push and when to relent. He/She receives the food-order computer tickets, often in unremitting, tick-ticking succession, calls them aloud for the cooks, regularly reminds and further defines (“no bread, gluten-free”), clarifies for the harried cooks everything they have working at any one time, serves as the liaison between servers and kitchen as guest orders are constantly modified, regulates when dinners are ready for “pick up,” systematically tastes/confirms that final recipes are performed correctly — properly temped, portioned correctly — that plates are free of chips, drips and a cook’s greasy fingerprints, that the soups are hot but unbroken, that the cooks are hydrated, the floors are clean, and that the obligatory “no bread”  has been eliminated. Expo then adds finishing touches to each dish, wipes edges clean, and wishes servers a happy return: “Table 34 will be up in two minutes. Hurry back now, ya hear.”

Show nights, event nights, game nights … they are one in the same. For restaurants that are fortunate enough to be located close to arenas, theaters and other heavily attended venues, event nights are both blessing and curse. Likewise, they serve as the definitive test of a staff’s fortitude and ability. They produce both crier and quitter. They magnify the daily madness, times three. On the upside, they bring an early, intense “full house” crush, typically before the mid-evening dining crowd arrives. Events also often bring first-time guests hungry to dine before the curtain goes up or puck gets dropped. In Lowell, for instance, both events occur frequently, often simultaneously, at separate venues. On such occasions, the grill cook goes head-to-head with saute—burgers vs. seared scallops: Ready, set, go!

The downside, blood pressure notwithstanding, is the simple mathematic reality that it becomes nearly impossible for a restaurant to universally deliver excellence by everyday standards when all guests arrive for the same inflexible time period — a less than ideal opportunity to dote on a first-timer, or any guest for that matter. On the busiest of “normal” nights, restaurant reservation strategy is ideally structured to seat tables in a continuous but staggered flow — theoretically allowing staff to distribute service and production. Optimally, seating capacity occurs incrementally then remains full, each next-empty-table at a time. Note the emphasis on “theoretically.” In reality, our ability to manage nightly flow is customarily tested by certain yet unpredictable behaviors known as “late arrivals,” “no shows,” “chatters / squatters / campers,” “high maintenance,” “p.i.t.a.,” and other such terms of endearment. Predictable behavior is also challenging, as the overwhelming majority of guests want “something around 7 p.m.”

Show nights? Now there’s a certainty. Folks are a-comin’ — and all at once — ordering, dining, “check please” and exiting the same as they arrived. The only “staggering” that occurs on a show night is the intensity of meeting demand with the same number of employees (and martini glasses!) that will serve the next, more evenly-paced “turn of the house.” (Years ago, a disgruntled — “waited too long” — customer made the “helpful” suggestion: “You should just hire more cooks for busy nights.” Don’t even get me started on the “you should” folks. That’s a rant for a future issue of mvm, perhaps.)

Ah, event nights. Bumper cars-meet-roller coaster in extreme restaurant amusement! In all its heart-and-adrenaline-pumping, senses-heightened glory … a marching climb to top capacity, and then a furious rush to the end, where wheels could come off at any moment, clinging to the track around one sharp deviation then another … two hours of thrill ride, staff deftly hip- and hand-checking each other while ducking hot pans, popping grease and pirouetting team members, with barely time to catch a breath.

With no disrespect to my incredible doctor over at Lowell General, to quote one crazy-ass chef:

“I’m not here for a long time, merely a good time.” Amen, brother.

Tips for maximizing enjoyment on a show night:

• Arrive early, as a complete party.
• Prix fixe and reduced menus are truly intended to create a smoother dining experience.
• Save conversation for after you have ordered, leaving more time to relax while we get your food started early.
• Expect delays; be flexible and patient. Everyone is in a hurry.
• Allow for the possibility of returning for coffee and dessert.
• Consider ordering your meal “as is.” Special requests slow our roll. Just sayin’.

Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass.

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