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Order Up!

Benjamin Austin-Docampo

Nick's been having me come up to the line more. If he gets slammed with tickets, he has me make the sandwiches or lay down some pancakes while he handles the egg orders. This is happening more and more, which he says is a good thing because business has been slow. Maybe it's starting to turn around. This is something that was often remarked upon at Laughing Planet as well. Almost a spoken ritual. It starts with the lamentation that lately, business has been slow. Then, the mention of some anecdotal evidence to suggest a change is in the air. Something about the way we've been making the pancake batter with less sugar or how the wait staff has been taking care to wipe down the tables after every party or the extra crispiness of the bacon from leaving it on the grill a minute longer before it's plated is making the difference, people out there are starting to notice, word is spreading, and they're coming in. Business is about to get better.


I'm on the line with Nick during the lunch rush every afternoon, leaving me less time for prep and dish. Working in food is like operating a clown car; it's all about doing the same things every day, faster and more often. How many omelets can we pack into this shift? How many ovals can you scrub? Great. Now do twice that amount.


Today at close, instead of spraying down the floor mats, emptying the grease trap, doing the last of the dish, checking what we have left to prep and mopping the floors, Nick does all that while I practice my egg game.


“I took the liberty of buying an extra box of eggs out of your paycheck,” he grins. “Now we can get you up to speed.”


He's calling out orders to me as I practice my flips, timing and plating. The Marshall Mathers LP is blaring through the kitchen speakers above the stove where I've got four egg pans going, two eggs in each. Nick's sweeping up behind me, calling out orders: “Over easy! Sunny side! Over hard!”


On into infinity. He comes over after I plate each one. If I did good, he says nothing. If I fucked up, he flings the eggs off the plate into the compost with a spatula. By the time Nick's done with the floors and the rest of the dish, I've gone through 180 eggs, the whole case, and I've managed to stack a long line of ovals with perfectly plated eggs on the cutting board. Nick saunters over.


“Looks like somebody's handling the lunch rush tomorrow.”

Now that I'm ambidextrous in the kitchen, that is, able to hold down a line shift as regularly as prep, I've got a little more juice at the Cup and Saucer and a little more pep in my step everywhere I go. Things are evening out. I'm not scrounging anymore. No longer the need for the constant lookout for a job, a gig, a hustle. I've got my hustle. Say what you will about it, but at least it's mine. I have a place I go to every day for work and I hop to it. I'm developing a reputation among the staff for being punctual, dependable and easy to work with. After a while, I'm allowed to cut up a little the way Nick does sometimes when he gets an order for pancakes—makes an extra in the shape of a cock and balls (with powdered sugar all around the tip) and plates it next to the bacon and eggs just to try to get the waitstaff to serve it to a customer before they realize. I think how restaurant work is one of the few professional avenues where that kind of behavior is tolerated. A joke like that in an office—if you were to Xerox a meeting agenda with a Sharpied-on dick under the date—would get you written up or worse. In a restaurant, that kind of thing hardly registers as a blip on the radar screen of inappropriate behavior. Restaurants, especially kitchens, are havens for people who are perfectly functional, in some ways more functional than white collar pros at performing myriad tasks under pressure quickly, but who have some kind of character trait that makes them unsuitable for the stifling quietude of the cubicle farm. In an office, a cock and balls gag would easily constitute sexual harassment. Not so much in a diner. Like the saying goes, if you can't stand the heat...


I never do anything like that, nothing that playful with the food, I just notice a little more leeway around conversations, the music I get to play without any pushback, or being able to use down time in the store for just that—down time—instead of having Anna or someone bug me to do side work like folding napkins around silverware.


One afternoon Autumn is in the prep room with me pouring half a ketchup bottle into another half full ketchup bottle to make a full ketchup bottle and piling up all the empties to run through the Auto Chlor while I'm getting ingredients ready for a batch of pesto which lasts a long time because who the hell orders pesto at a diner? We're making small talk and eventually our small talk rambles onto the subject of tattoos. She asks me about the one on my forearm. “It's the Right Hand of Doom from Hellboy comics,” I tell her. I ask about the one I can see cresting the top of her dress on the nape of her neck.


“Oh, that's this old stupid one. It's supposed to be a tree, but it looks dumb. I'm gonna get it covered up,” she says. “I have this other one that I like on my side here,” she tells me, pointing to the space between her breast and hip. “I want it to wrap around. That'll help cover up the tree.”


“Have any others?”


“Oh yeah, lots. I think I get so many because I don't think I look good naked.”


I can't help but laugh—nay, chortle—at this little remark. Autumn is a more buxom Debbie Harry. “I... kind of doubt that,” I tell her.


She giggles. “Well, I could show you, I guess.”


This little comment stops me in my tracks. There is a lot to unpack here. What exactly does she mean? My silence lasts long enough for Autumn to notice that perhaps she has drifted out into a realm she didn't quite intend to venture into, but then again, part of her must've, or she wouldn't have said anything. Right?


I dice the pile of spinach and basil on the cutting board, rocking the knife back in forth a few times to make it easier to break down once I throw the greens into the food processor along with some pine nuts and olive oil. “Well,” I say, “we could step into the walk-in for a minute.”


Autumn smiles. “I dunno.”


I look up at her and grin. “Another time, maybe.”

A good restaurant staff is like a band in full orchestration. Every person is doing their bit—and everyone's bit is made up of tiny little movements that most people, including your co-workers, never see—because they're all too preoccupied with their own little bits to notice. The bassoon might pick out the violinists refrain from time to time, but if she were to focus on it the entire time, she'd come in late. Same for restaurants. Your wait staff has to have faith that the kitchen is keeping it together, that your grill cooks are talking to one another to stay on top of the tickets, pushing them through along the rail as the restaurant fills with more and more people, calling up the prep cook in the back if they fall behind or need an extra pair of hands laying down bacon, dropping toast, plating sandwiches or doing some quick triage on an order that was a little ornery, and needs a little cosmetic surgery before it's ready to go out. Likewise the kitchen has to have faith that their wait staff are paying attention to the rhythm of the customers, that they're being attentive to when they've finished reading their menus, noticing when their coffee mugs are half empty, if a guest is trying to catch a waitress' attention for a ramekin of sour cream or anything else their little hearts can dream up. Through it all, the entire staff must have faith in their dishwasher, the hardest working member of the crew most shifts. A good dishwasher never stops moving, not even when their shoulder goes numb from pulling the Auto Chlor door lever up and down over and over. They don't stop when their hands go numb, either, from being submerged in scalding water or icy water or when the pads of their fingers prune up and fall off from too much contact with degreaser detergent. No. A dishwasher never stops. They're the bass, they're the drums, they're the primordial rhythm of the restaurant no one hears and everyone scorns. Without them, there is no restaurant. When I started at Cup and Saucer, in addition to learning the prep duties, I was also the drum and bass man. I know the dizzying feeling of scraping yolk from ovals, dunking, spraying and setting dishes on trays. The satisfaction of pulling the door lever down is real, but it is also a sort of violent relief. An exclamation point of finality on that particular set of dishes and urns and mugs and ramekins even as another tray lies in wait for the cycle to finish and its turn to be pushed through the great steamy steel cube of cleansing. I was the drum and bass man at Laughing Planet, too. There, I never stopped. Here, the staff decides to move me up. Take me off cube duty after a while. Our new drum and bass man is a young girl fresh out of high school and mother to an infant son. Michelle is the sister of two long time Cup and Saucer employees, youngish line cooks who hold it down at the original store in South East, where legends tell of rushes that last for days and a kitchen twice the size of our own. Whenever the owner Karen stops by for a spot inspection—rarely—she always makes sure to tell us how much busier it is at her other store, how we need to put a little more pep in our step and do our part to make business better. I do my best to ignore this, but it's hard when I'm sweating underneath my Nationals flat brim hat cooking up eggs and bacon or greasy up to my elbow from dirty sink water. I know none of us have paused for even a second during the rush. We can't. As for building business, hell, what does she want when the store is located on the sleepiest corner in the Alberta district with four or five perfectly acceptable brunch alternatives just a few blocks away on the main drag where folks are more inclined to stop after they've satisfied their various goat milk candle and essential oil needs.

When I walk into the diner I catch Autumn in the middle of a coffee round. A smile of relief comes over her face when she sees me walk through the door and not another group of customers. It's early on a Saturday. I'm here for the midday shift to help Nick get through the rush at ten and the second one that can happen at eleven o'clock or noon. I survey the floor and see that every seat is taken, even the booths in the back room. Anna is ringing people up at the register, there's a small line that looks like it used to be two or three tables not too long ago and they've already been turned. There are people sitting on the bench waiting for a table to open up. I proceed on back to the kitchen, walking past a few tables before disappearing behind the narrow opening that separates the front of the house from the back and step into a different world. The front of the house was busy, sure, but the customers aren't in a hurry. The wait staff are more stressed out than they are, thinking about orders going in but not coming out and more and more people walking in wanting a table they'll have to wait for. In the kitchen, it's like a house on fire, with Nick as the fire chief, calmly telling me what to do first to bring this thing down in an orderly fashion. Michelle is head down elbow deep in dish. Nick has half a dozen pancakes down on the flat top and at least the same amount of bacon sides. There are four skillets going on the stove top, each one with a different egg dish in some state of completion. There are four pieces of toast piled together at the bottom of the conveyor belt toaster and the fry trap is submerged in oil when the timer goes off.


“I need those scones out of the oven, please,” Nick yells from the flat top where he's using two metal spatulas to flip, push and toss the bacon the pancakes and piles of veggies and other omelet fillings. I fast-walk over to the oven, glove up, and pull out the tray of scones. I turn off the timer.


“I've got two omelets with sides of sourdough ready to go,” he says. I retrieve the ovals from the stack on the overhead shelf above the toaster and put them on the cutting board in front of the toaster. I turn around and walk to the stove, lay the fillings of the omelets along one half of the round egg beds and fold them over to close. I walk the omelets over to the oval plates and slide them gently onto them. I replace the skillets on the stove top in case Nick needs them right away, then, walk back to the oval plates where I add two pieces of toast to each of them, walk over to the flat top for Nick to add the hash browns and bacon, then set them in the window. I palm the bell ringer and read off the orders from the tickets. “Ooorrderr up! I've got a Garden Omelet and a Black Bean with Jack.” I pull the tickets off the rail above Nick's head and tuck them below the ovals in time for Autumn to come up to the window, check the tickets against the food on the plate, say a quick word of thanks and hover off to the two top to deliver the goods.


“Thanks,” Nick says. “Rush came early today. Looking like maybe it won't let up. If you want to go in back and finish up the prep I started, then come up to the line that'd be awesome. Oh, and we could use another order of biscuits,” he says checking the square bin where we keep them below the flat top.


This is the best kind of shift. The demand makes the hours go fast. There is a certain stress in making sure the food comes out right and on time, but it's fun, too, in its own way. Kind of like the arcade game Defenders—how long can you hold on before you get blown up from above? The good rapport between the staff goes a long way. There's a camaraderie and sense of team work that keeps this place humming along. If an order comes out wrong, we get through it together. If something comes out a little late, we get through it together. When a break comes for someone, we all know they've earned it. When a shift ends, there's a feeling of satisfaction, of a job well done. Walking away with some cash in hand always feels good, and makes it easy to stroll down to Alberta Street and post up for a drink before wandering back to the house. On these days, the repetitive nature of the work—of dicing potatoes, flipping eggs and plating food isn't loathsome. There's music we get to play and bad jokes to be made. A sort of secret coded language that's spoken that tells you both what to make and what you're thinking, of each other, of the customers and maybe even time to mention an aspect of life outside the kitchen. These days on shift remind me of the Bukowski poem Nirvana. A young man on a bus to somewhere has a particularly good meal and cup of coffee in a rest stop diner. The meal's so good, he thinks maybe I'll just stay here. The waitress is unaffected and the fry cook says crazy things and the dishwasher laughs a good, clean laugh. I used to see myself in the young man. Now I'm the one in the back saying crazy things.

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