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April 2, 2014

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Kitchen communication

In a full-service restaurant, the front (service team) and back (cooking, prep, warewashing and janitorial team) of the house have to work together in concert. As two teams, we rise and fall together like a chamber orchestra, like a synchronized flight demo team. If everything’s going well, we look like heroes. But if even one team member gets off script in any way, it’s chaos we have to look forward to.

How do we keep the chaos at bay? Communication. But not just your standard “let’s stay in touch about all this” communication. Not just knowing that “86” means we’re out of something, or that “SOS” means “sauce on the side.” Kitchen communication is something more, something specific. It’s the only way to survive in a busy, hot, noisy environment.

Let’s say I’m a line cook and suddenly I’m out of spinach. “Can I get some spinach, please?” I say with all the force I can muster, pushing my third pan through the window, toward the edge where finished dishes could be waiting to be served … if only I had some spinach.

Whoever’s on the other side of the pass should/will say: “Spinach, HEARD!” That’s how I know they heard me, instead of just hearing anyone talking about anything else. (I’d hate to mistake some “Downton Abbey” gossip for an acknowledgement that I need SPINACH RIGHT AWAY).

After that, I look forward to receiving my spinach post-haste. When the refilled pan of spinach is in the window, I will hear the spinach-bearer say, “Spinach IN THE WINDOW.” Then I will say, “Thank you, spinach,” as if your name was “Spinach.” But really I just mean that I asked for spinach and I noticed you brought it to me in a timely manner.

Or, a server will come to the pass and say, “I need a cup and a bowl of soup flying.” (“On the fly” means do it fast, so either they forgot to ring it in, or the guests waffled and later decided on soup after ordering their mains. So give it to me quick!) As a cook, you’re talking to everyone on your team already, but you have to let the server know you heard them. “Cup and a bowl STAT, HEARD.”

Nodding doesn’t work in these situations. The person communicating with you has to know you heard them and heard them correctly. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of people standing around in a kitchen hoping someone heard them. The request has to be specific. The acknowledgement of the request has to be specific. And the verbal notice that the request has been fulfilled has to be specific, too: “Thank you, flying soup.”

Poor communication can lead to the “cascade effect,” a sort of restaurant kitchen boondoggle that happens when kitchen communication starts to slip sideways. Suppose a guest orders a dish and then later tells his server he is allergic to parmesan cheese, even though the menu plainly says the entree is going to be garnished with parmesan cheese (true story). The server rushes to the kitchen only to find the guest’s meal is already in the pass (cheese already applied), ready to be served — along with the meals for the rest of the table.

Well, the cheese-allergy person’s dish has to be made over, obviously. And, depending on the delicacy of dishes chosen by the rest of the party, some of those may need to be done over or re-heated as well. That adds a few minutes or more to the ticket times of the folks whose order was rung in a few minutes after cheese-allergy person. And so it goes.

Believe it or not, a single table changing their mind about their order, or the order their dishes come out of the kitchen, can cause a ripple effect that may throw the kitchen and waitstaff off for the rest of the night. I’ve seen it happen. Suddenly everyone’s in the weeds, trying to make up for lost time and synchronize themselves with everyone else on the team.

Avoid the “cascade effect” in your own kitchen at home. Be clear about what you want and train your family to respond appropriately. When you say, “Would you please take out the garbage?,” expect to hear, “Garbage, HEARD!” And don’t feel bad about raising your eyebrows and saying, “Thank you, Garbage.”

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou.