Monday, January 5, 2009

a day in the life

5.30am. the crackling static of abc morning radio snaps through the early morning quiet like a twig. I rise, look out the window. the cloud cover is low again, and a thick white fog engulfs the village. the park is barely visible across the highway.

I throw myself into the shower. the bathroom's in need of serious repair, and the broken shower plumbing gives the effect of being in a submarine that's been torpedoed. water shoots everywhere, and I somehow manage to catch some of it. I make a mental note to ring and find out what's taking that plumber so long to get up here.

into my chef whites and trod down to the kitchen. we live just behind the cafe in the same building, it's a convenience that I'll certainly appreciate come winter. I step over the puddle of water from the leaky fridge and kick on the kitchen lights. a pile of dirty pans, tools and chopping boards on the wash sink remind me of the hurry I was in last night to mop out and get over to the pub.

I check the temp in the oven that I switched on while on my way to the shower and pull a bowl full of roma tomatoes from the fridge. a quick rinse, then slice the ends off and bisect them, placing into a roasting pan and drizzling olive oil, sea salt, pepper and herbs over them, then into the oven at 180c for an hour, slow-roasting. a customer asked me for my 'recipe' for roast tomato the other week - heh.

the stove gets lit, I pray that the pilot light holds and the cylinders don't run out again. we'd love to have direct natural gas, but we'd have to pay for the installation. at this point in the cafe's life, we can't afford to just yet. I switch off the radio in the kitchen after catching the 7am news and turn on the dining room sound system, starting with some nice acoustic guitar recordings.

I go about the morning's prep routine, slicing bread rolls, mushrooms, tomatoes. eggs and butters are brought out to room temp, sauce bottles refilled. I set up the mise en plais, which means literally "put in place". another of the classic french terms still used in commercial cooking. the idea is to have everything one may need at hand, seasonings, garnishes, etc. depending on how I've slept, I'll inevitably forget something until I'm plating up an order.

by now, my partner is down front and pouring her first coffee of the day. several will follow in the next hour or so. she ducks next door to get the morning papers as I do a quick inventory of the cool room's stored foods and make a decision about what specials to do. then, while I have the chalk out, I write something pithy on one of the outdoor a-frames for our ongoing 'chalkboard wars' with the boys at the pub across the road. it's now five to 8am, and the outside settings go out. the 'open' sign is flipped, and we await our first customers.

the mornings are all but typical, some days we'll have a big breakfast trade, others, just a few in for coffee & toast. today, we have a return couple who didn't get poached eggs yesterday as I'm still having problems with the burners on the stove. I quickly fill a pot with water and vinegar, shove the mushroom sautee pan aside and bring it to a simmer just as their order comes in. I don't want to say 'no' twice. several orders later, I'm standing at the hot plate wondering why the bacon's taking so long to cook. I bend down to look underneath the plate and sure enough, the gas jets have shut down again. I grab a grill pan, throw the bacon in and finish it off on a burner.

around midday, the last of the morning customers saunter out, and all three of us are left standing around, looking at each other. I top up my underbench stock, then wander up the back stairs to my office and sit down to read some email and news in the cool and quiet. I get about ten minutes or so before the intercom buzzes, and I return to the heat of the kitchen, nodding and greeting the arriving people.

from 1pm or so, lunch starts to pick up steadily. the kitchen's a blur of activity as orders come in, empty dishes come back from the dining room, cakes and breads go out, meals are plated. we have a run on smoked ham focaccias and a mild panic starts to settle in as I realise that I've already cleaned the last from the leg in the cool room, saving the bones for soup stock.

being over or under stocked is as tough a problem as the staffing issue in the previous post. too little stock, and you risk disappointing customers by running out of what they wanted. too much, and you end up throwing most of it out, which eats away at your profit margins. because we use organic breads, for example, they don't freeze and defrost as nicely as preservative-laded store brands do, so we need to keep fresh stocks on hand daily. the wholesale office closes at 3pm, so if we suddenly get a late afternoon rush of burgers and bacon egg rolls, we're in trouble. which is exactly what happened last monday.

quarter to 2pm, and as it's sunday, the first of my music artists has arrived. I'm knee-deep in orders, one hand on the pans, one on the salamander racks, so all I can muster is a quick wave and hope they can sort out the p.a. and mics on their own. by now, the grill plate's reminding me of that classic olympia cafe sketch from 70's saturday night live - "cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger".

as we get busier, the tension increases. I bark at a waitress for not clarifying a ticket, my partner's running in circles trying to please a fussy parent's kiddie drink (and who came up with the babychino anyway? more importantly, why?), the dishwasher's overflowing and plates aren't getting returned to the pass. we take it all in professional stride though, they're no gordon ramsay-style histronics here, although the rationale is the same. the singular aim is to get it right for our customers. it doesn't matter if it's the quiet lady from the next block who comes in everyday for her latte, or the german family of eight that we'll probably never see again. they're all important, and they all deserve the best we can give them.

by four-ish, the pace begins to settle down as the last orders slowly trickle in. I stick my head out of the kitchen to catch a breath of cooler air and to listen to my guests perform. I can't hear the music when I'm in the kitchen due to the extraction vents which roar like jet engines. shortly, the tables get cleared and we start to break down some of the kitchen, leaving the toaster and presses on in case we get any late customers. I hate to say 'sorry, kitchen's closed' when I can always throw together a wrap or a salad on the fly.

eventually, I shut down the rest of the equipment, cling-wrap containers and wipe down counters. I grab a cold water and go out to have a chat with my music guests, who by now are packing up. I promise them that the next time they play, our second chef will be on deck and I'll be able to get out of the kitchen to hopefully join them for a tune or two.

I do another inventory of what's on hand and what's been demolished and make a prep list for the morning. monday trade has been steady enough to warrant opening, and the whole menu needs to be available. then the doors get bolted, the place gets a mop out and the trash goes out. then we wander up back and change into cooler, cleaner clothes. anything's a relief after ten hours in a 43c/110f kitchen.

we grab some cash and start out the back door to head across the road to the pub, where we'll see some of our waitstaff who work there after they finish shifts at our place. but we stop dead in our tracks as we discover three trays of breads and pies on the back bench. the bakery's delivered someone else's order to us, and they've been sitting out in the sun since daybreak. we'll call the office in the morning and let them sort it out. but it does worry us, as it may well be our order that goes astray next time.

an hour or so sitting at the pub, chatting with the locals is my ideal wind-down. we've learned a lot from them, and were astute enough to canvass as many as we could when designing the menu and our price structure. we've also found a base of good tradesmen that have been kind enough to work for 'mate's rates" before we opened. it's a nice community up here, we're glad to be part of it.

home to chill for a bit, possibly dinner although I'm rarely hungry after cooking and tasting food all day. monday trade looms as night falls. tuesday morning, we'll go thru the takings and bills, deciding who to pay, and who to avoid/put off until the following week - hopefully. then we're heading down the mountain to take one of our visiting kids to the airport. along the way, we'll stop at a couple of wholesalers and pick up supplies, then to the hospitality store for more large coffee mugs, sauce trays and other miscellania that we've been taking notes on over the past couple of weeks. there's no such thing as a 'day off' in this biz.

drive home by (hopefully) early evening, then up again on wednesday to the butchers, fruit & veg and grocery for stock. the rest of the day will be spent prepping sauces, burgers, chicken, soup stocks and the like, roasting coffee and getting the front of house cleaned for thursday's service.

and it all starts all over again... and again...