Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Sparks Will Be Flying (Originally published March 2009)

My first full time job was cooking at a Victoria Station Station restaurant. It was an upscale boxcar themed National prime rib chain. It was the place that got me hooked on this business. As I've said in the past it wasn't food that got me into chefing it was the actual physical act of cooking that attracted me. Having been an an avid high school athlete I found myself craving the action, energy or adrenalin, if you will. Cooking in a high quality, high volume atmosphere provided that. You had clear goals, a prescribed path, tools and the team to do it. You had a game every night and you got paid to play. You were pushed to the extreme. Three line cooks would serve a thousand covers on a weekend night and three to four hundred during the week. It was a busy place.

Of those thousand or so customers 75% of them are going to have prime rib. They have a choice of four sizes, some with bone, some without and of course how well they like their meat cooked. Needless to say the prime rib carver is going to be a busy guy. Not only does he have to accomplish satisfying the customer he also holds the key to profit and loss. 75% of all revenue goes through this one guy. He has to be good.

We would use the expression "Sparks are going to fly tonight!" when we knew it was going to be busy. "Sparks" was more than fitting for another crazy night at V.S. The term was coined not only for the tempers that would flare on a stressful night but more so for the actual sparks that would fly on the cooks line at the carvers station.

Because of the value of the carvers the company would import experienced prime rib carvers to open up new restaurants and train their replacements. We had a couple guys out of Chicago. Bob Zoufal and John Holland. Man I loved cooking with those guys. Those were the crazy days when we'd dole out the white cross, black beauties or black Cadillacs before the shift to fuel the afterburners during the rush. Not to mention pick us up after a heavy duty night of partying. It was practically a daily event. This is the same era Tony Bourdaine talks about in his book Kitchen Confidential, I can relate, we were all a bunch of crazy pirates that lived for the fast life and cooking. In that order. Despite being hard core partiers Bob and John could slice some beef. Between seven and eight hundred slices on a busy night, each one weighed so the customers watching in the lobby could see the weight. V.S. had an open kitchen and the carver was positioned on the far left on the cooks "line" with a tile wall to his immediate left. We'd carve the PR horizontally slicing from right to left. (For right handers.) The customers would gather and watch us while they were waiting for tables. All 750 slices within a 1/2 ounce of 8,12,22(bone-in) and 32 (bone-in). When John was carving and we'd really get going he would be slicing so fast he would hit the wall with the tip of the knife on his follow through. When the knife hit the wall, sparks would literally fly. Hence the phrase, "sparks are going to fly". The first time I saw it I shit. Johnny just laughed and he would do it occasionally through the night. Coincidentally, when there were the most people watching. Then I noticed the tips. The more often the sparks would fly the more tips we'd make. I wasn't sure what the empty pitcher was for in front of the carvers station, now I do. It was my first lesson in selling the sizzle. Johnny didn't always hit the wall on purpose he would do it by accident too. We cranked out an unbelievable amount of food. When all you have to do is slice and serve 75% of your menu you can serve alot of people real fast.

I started there as a broiler man. I would stand immediately to the carvers right and set up his plates as well as cook all the steaks and expedite the line. It was a chore but I loved it. I touched every plate served and how well we did was dependant on me being focused and in "the zone". Which brings me to Bob. Johnny was an excellent carver but Bob was just fiendishly, savant-like superb. He didn't need to sell the sizzle, he did it the old fashioned way. He earned it. There was always a scale at the carvers station so the customers could see how much the slice weighed. Bob would have the scale completely facing the customer, he couldn't see the scale. He didn't need to. He'd weigh over 700 slices and never look. The customers loved it. 90% he was right on or within a 1/4 ounce. Never more than 1/2. His tip jar was always the fullest. Another thing about Bob was he wasn't physically able to hit that wall with his knife even if he wanted to. He was left handed. He didn't swing towards the wall, he swung.......towards me. My first time working with him he said, "don't worry, I haven't lost a broiler-man yet". He never did get me, came close many times but no matter how fast he was slinging that knife he never cut me. For that I'm most appreciative of his skill.

Over time I became the carver and began to travel the country opening new restaurants and training carvers. I was very good at it and logged over a quarter million pounds cut but I was never as good as Bobby Z. I still had to resort to the sizzle.