The other night my wife, son, and I were treated to absolute poetry in motion. A group of trained professionals were executing their craft, each one knowing his specific responsibilities as well as supporting the rest of his team. Hours - no, years - of practice was evident in their graceful moves, focused intensity, and clarity of purpose. We had front row seats, and the show was excellent.
No, we weren't watching a ballet or dance company, or an athletic event - we were eating dinner, celebrating my son's 18th birthday.
This was not just any restaurant, but Rooster's Wood-Fired Kitchen, where the "open kitchen" concept reigns. The kitchen is right in the center of the restaurant, and we had reservations in the prime observation spot - the Chef's Counter - where all the action was just a few feet away.
The food was excellent: fresh ingredients, prepared in such a way to bring out the natural flavors, served by a warm and friendly waitstaff. But this isn't about the food, as good as it was.
It's about two fundamentals of the restaurant business that can be applied to your organization: efficiency and mise en place.
Rooster's doesn't have a large kitchen, but it is designed to function with efficiency. The saute' station anchors one half of the center; this is where constant motion is an understatement. Saute' is where the chef is juggling eight or ten pans at a time, making flames, making things jump.
Around the corner at the rear of the kitchen is the namesake of the restaurant: a wood fired grill and oven. The chef here grills all the meat dishes called out, sending them to the front to be paired with side dishes - some from the saute' station, others from the other half of the kitchen center - the salad, soup, and fry station. To call these dishes "sides" is an injustice - any one of them (we had five among the three of us) could stand alone as a signature dish.
The front area is grand central station: here the expediter calls out the orders as they come in, checks on orders in progress, and makes the final touches as they head to the guest. The final touch is important - it may be the finishing touch of sauce, or a garnish, or a quick wipe of an errant splatter on the plate.
The corners of the kitchen: pastry chef, preparing delicacies to finish out a wonder dinner; meat chef, taking larger cuts prepared on the grill and finishing them to order; and the support staff, taking out dirty pans and bringing in clean ones and bowls, plates, cups and saucers for the chefs to cook and plate food.
A picture doesn't do this justice - you would have to have a video camera to catch all the movement involved above. But I want to drive home the point: it's all about efficiency: no wasted movement. Everyone in the kitchen knew what was going on, what their job was, and how they can support the rest of the team as needed. The pastry chef would slip around the saute station, helping the chef plate items as they came off the stove. Once, she literally held out a plate to her back, out of sight, and the chef plated the dish, while she was moving another one with her other hand.
The meat chef helped out on the grill; the expediter helped out on saute'; the pastry chef started an item on the grill when that chef had to step away for a moment.
That is more than efficiency - it's the solid work of a team that knows individual and team roles, to the point that they are one.
Mise en Place
French for "put in place", this is what allows all the action described above to take place. It is the hours of work that start before the first meal is fired: washing, cutting, peeling, pre-cooking, weighing, portioning, and positioning of all the ingredients that go into the wonderful final product. Taken broadly, it is the slow simmering of the soups for the night; the baking and preparation of individual items that comprise the wonderful complexity of desserts. It even goes to the preparation of the wood fires that will later cook the wonderful meats that anchor the meal.
Mise en place doesn't get any attention in the final review, but you wouldn't have anything without it. It's all those things that aren't noticed till they're not there. It's the saute' chef reaching in the cooler knowing that he has all the right ingredients to prepare the dish just called out. It's the pastry chef preparing 3 different kinds of ice cream for the desserts on the menu. It's the fry chef making sure the oil is fresh and hot, ready for use. It's the salad chef having everything ready to assemble a variety of salads from the same few ingredients, differing in presentation and dressing. It's the dishwasher, knowing if he doesn't get the dirty pans out and clean ones back, the whole kitchen grinds to a halt.
Mise en place is all about the knowing everything that is required to produce the finished meal, and making sure all the ingredients are ready to use when needed. It's about thinking through things before they happen, so that when they happen, you're one step ahead.
It's all about being prepared.
Our evening at Rooster's Wood-Fired Kitchen was delightful on so many levels. The front of house staff were gracious in working with me to make sure we could have a front row seat to all the action; the waitstaff were friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive; the chefs prepared wonderful food while displaying their skills to an audience.
But it was more than just a meal - it was a demonstration of excellence from top to bottom, one that any organization could learn from.