Customerizing, and Preference | (prologue)
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
Real food. Real preferences. What are these? Do they even exist? Borne of your food memory babies, your nana's tamales or your mother's beef stew or your father's orange roughy, wrapped in foil and slathered with butter and cooked on the grill in the middle of summer. Memories and experiences which the cooks on the line have no idea you're carrying around with you, or that are determining or helping to determine your current preferences, and which you will hold against those that prepare and serve your food because secretly that is indeed what you seek: Not necessarily the food, but the re-creation of a memory. Which leads one to conclude somewhat logically, that in fact there are no real preferences, and that's part of what makes catering to the individual customer such a fucking task, chore, and worthless effort. Either buy the product or force those that make it bend over backward as you customize it. Customer-ize it.
It just never really seems to be about the food, per se. Most of the time, it's about preference. Customer preference, dietary preference, schedulling preference, location and demographic preference....I might continue but I think the idea's pretty clear: When it comes to the food being served, I remember the preferences more than the food itself. I do suppose that when it comes to anyone's particular, at the end of the day one's job as a cook is based upon fulfillment of essentially every desire want need, since without happy customers, coworkers, owners, and everyone else there simply is no job, no orders to fill, no food to prep. Because if it's not about preference, it's about money.
But I am also surprised at how much preference played a role in the kitchen itself, as when it came to performing some of the most basic--and, for me, satisfying--rituals of kitchen preparedness. In short, I simply don't understand why there are so many cooks who look down on prep. For some of them I think it's obviously ego. But for others I have concluded time and again that it boils down to sheer laziness and overall stupidity: Really it's just a question of to what degree and ratio these two might affect a cook's, server's, manager's, owner's, dishwasher's, delivery driver's, whomevers'--personal work ethic.
Er,--excuse me, their work preference.
There ends up being a grand sense of tit-for-tat. As I've mentioned, a classic example is the Day Crew versus Night Crew bullshit rivalry: Night Crew didn't clean well enough so now Day Crew has to pick up their slack. Meanwhile by the time Night Crew comes in, Day Crew has had time perhaps to tidy a little but more likely than not they piddled around bitching about how Night Crew didn't clean and who cares if they're set up for service because Night Crew left us fucked anyway; and Night Crew begins their shift bitching in like manner, about Day Crew. Except usually Night Crew bitches about Day Crew "not getting any work done" versus whether or not the station is clean. The station's filth or cleanliness is certainly one of the last things on Night Crew's mind, because all they can think about is how Day Crew never gets anything done and Night Crew always has to scramble to get their station stocked and ready to go.
But of course all the while, despite the fact that both are at fault; that both Night and Day Crew are indeed playing catch-up seemingly at all hours of operation;--yet they can be united in their general disdain for prep. The prep work, the prep cook, the fact of prep needing to be done. So many cooks daydreaming about working in a scratch kitchen, making everything fresh and using local ingredients and everything's all kinds of awesome food.
Do you know how much prep it takes to work in a scratch kitchen.
Do you know that it takes more and more time to prepare each and every dish, the more and more you add complexity in the form of sauces and garnishes.
Do you know that whilst you and him and her, and Joe and Jack & Jill Schmoe down the street, may have some grandiose, pathetically beautiful notion about how the food on the plate on the table in the restaurant in your belly has arrived at this Ultimate Finality, of being cooked and aesthetically pleasing and whatever the shit else;--whilst y'all be dreaming up all this rose-fart bullshit, Day Crew is dealing with Night Crew and Night Crew is sleeping off Day Crew.
Even as a customer: You don't necessarily go out to eat as a matter of taste. You go out because you either don't know how to cook, or you don't feel like it. And either preference/feeling is quite fine, because it's unavoidable. I go through it, my wife goes through it--we all go through it. But to some degree, the decision to eat out, or to buy a prepared or half-prepared meal, has to do with those two things. Well cooks are customers too, and so cooks also tend to do what they do--to act like idiots, that is, and the definition of in what sense is, I think, one of my main motivations--based on the fact that either they don't know how to do it, or they don't feel like it.
Which is what I understand the least. How can you not enjoy doing prep work? If this is about the food, then shouldn't that be one of your favorite places to be? Shouldn't that be one of the best parts? When you get to be at one with the ingredients, focus on the task at hand, make the thing and see it transform from one state of being into another quite entirely different?
Perhaps many folks are thinking, Yeah, that's exactly when I love working in a kitchen the most. Again, fine and fair enough. Maybe you're one of the good ones.
But you see I'm getting this overall sense of inconsistency. You don't want to do the prep work because you're a line cook now. But you want to complain about the prep work not being done. And you also want to complain about the other crew, Day or Night, not getting the prep work done so that all you can do is fucking stand there and wait for dainty little orders to come in and get your shit pushed in, in a most gentle manner. So everyone else is supposed to do the prep, except for you. Because apparently the job is more about your glorified ass standing around, your great Ego Stroke-Off, your own insecurities and inabilities, versus being actually about the actual thing that you're making, the product you're handling and the material you're producing. You want to be a badass on the line but in fact you don't actually know how to fix broken sauces or, if we're being honest: You probably don't even know how to make a good stock.
...I don't know.
I just don't know.
The customers: It's about the customers, some of these kitchen folks say; these customers, and seeing their happy faces. "I like when they smile," that's something I've heard plenty of times before, especially from those who are blatant in their deference to prep (the worst offenders in some ways, and yet by their very declaration and deference you kind of already know what to expect, which makes it just a little bit easier to manage versus not knowing at all whether someone is for, against, or even capable). "I like when they smile because of something I made them."
God- dagnabbit, you didn't make that fucking dish all on your own! You had a lot of help from a lot of people along the way (presuming anyone got any prep done, of course), and more likely than not, because you work in a restaurant you're probably not even preparing something according to your own recipe.
Yes, you are preparing something good.
Yes, this something good might even be delicious; and it might make the customer happy.
But did you really make it? Did you make it simply because you were the one who put together the final combination of fire, salt, and fat? Is it your dish because you were the one to gather this abomination versus Louie Reggae making the exact same dish (because then it's "his" dish)?
Shit fuck a motherload. Did you grow the godforsaken tomatoes. Did you brine the capers. Did you grow the capers. Did you arrange for their shipment from yonder and beyond, unto your restaurant front door step. Did you bottle that wine.
Did you even cut the fucking vegetables? Did you even fabricate the chicken? Or did someone else do it for you--someone who's maybe a little more conscientious and aware of his or her surroundings, who knows you're going to come in with your bitching and moaning and, in order to avoid as much of that as possible, has in fact gotten all--or most of--the prep done for you (and probably for one or two others, as well).
Not even that person, the busybody that gets everything done, knows where everything's placed, keeps things relatively organized, watches and listens his or her coworkers; that person, is not even motivated by the food. That person is motivated by preference: Another cook's preference (your preference?) for coming into a line that's fairly well-prepped so you can do one or two things like clean salmon and cut mushrooms and feel some kind of accomplished.
It's really quite amazing, actually. How little the industry has to do with food.
It should take no great leap of the imagination to conclude that, for myself, I always enjoyed prep-work. That was always one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen, because without those bases and those foundations, not only will line cooks be scrambling to produce an inferior product but the product is likely, indeed, to be inferior for inconsistency. Rare be it, the line cook who actually knows how to throw together something real, without a pre-determined recipe to back it up.
For me, prep is when it's probably most about the food. Whether pondering the farm from whence the ingredient(s) came or the murder scene from the horror movie the night before, the food is just there. And it doesn't argue. And it never misbehaves. It may not always do what you think it was going to do exactly, but that's because every bit of food is different. Despite their outward similarity, even the genetically-modified fuckers are technically just a tiny bit different, one from the other; but the relative and general science of food cookery always remains the same. Which is exactly why great cooks and chefs are able to maintain consistency of product, versus relying on a lot of bells and whistles for Wow-Factor attractiveness and sale-ability. If the dish does not turn out as you'd imagined, more likely than not it's something you did, or perhaps that your prep cook did, versus anything to do with the ingredients themselves (I've seen many an immature cook, including myself, blame the ingredients for shitty end results, and it's just so obviously insecure it's actually quite pathetic).
None of which is to say that I'm alone. Many of you are probably thinking, as many of you thought earlier, Yes: That's exactly when I most love working in the kitchen.
But I learned that that's about as far as it goes. The quote-unquote You-ness of the dish, the singularity of contribution and fabrication. I can make a sauce, I can prepare a braise. I can cut the veg, I can pound some meat, I can do whatever. But once I hand it off to the line cooks, it becomes a "we" thing, and an "our" thing.
To be sure, there's a we with regard to the preparation process: The delivery driver bringing the food into the restaurant, the chef who ordered the food in the first place, the company that handles such deliveries and the connections they have with manufacturers, producers, farmers and technology. Yes, there is a whole team of "we" when it comes to each and every ingredient going into the restaurant; but with regard to the preparation, it feels like it's just you and the food. And the end result feels like something you have created, borne of your bare hands' work.
And yes. It is certainly possible to train your staff so they prepare everything in just such an exact manner method and means. But those are few and far between, if only because the staff required to successfully operate such a kitchen are even fewer and even farther between. Many simply lack the dedication and motivation not to learn about food or even to cook food, but to let go of their own selves, to recognize the fact that, for them, it's not really about the food either: It's really about finding themselves. That's what it's all about, and I've said it before but I'll say it again: Being a cook is a state of becoming; being a chef is matter of having become.
Yes, I can train all these people in this or that kitchen, to do everything I want them to do, exactly the way that I would do it, every single time lest they don't care for their jobs. But that takes a lot of time and energy if you're going to do it in today's HR-friendly kitchens, and you have to take other people's feelings and personal situations into consideration; the thought of which is pleasing, and the fact of which is indeed fair, but the reality of which is that, even with a kinder, more gentle work environment, still there's a high rate of turnover perhaps not throughout the industry per se, but just internally. Everyone always seems to have worked with someone else, anyone but no one for me.
In the end, then, when managing the kitchen, you kind of just need your staff to do the job as relatively consistently as possible, in order to make sure the food's getting out on time and that it's at least something like what you'd originally envisioned. So you put some of that hard-line standard to the side (so many times I've been told by someone else, that "someone else" doesn't do this that or the other in the correct manner, or to the proper standard; only to be told by the aforementioned someone else that the first someone can't do the other, this or that to the proper standard or in the correct manner!) and you make do with you've got because the owners are breathing down your neck about labor and you're actually scratching your head yourself, trying to remind yourself that you're paying these fuckers because there aren't many other options and your owners can't afford the really good ones and, in any case, the really good ones don't really care about the money anyway so to hell with it because by now the underlying thought feeling perception is that the food service drinks are okay, but generally leaving something to be desired and that's probably at least in part because you don't have the time to train in your persnickety ways, because you got tied up earlier in the day week month trying to assuage Julio's hurt feelings and being short-handed when so-and-so called out and yet the show must go on so the cooks kept cooking, the dishes kept coming and now here you are, stuck in it and telling yourself you're loving it but knowing that it's not even about the food anyway, and if you believe it is then you're a fool yourself and you might as well join the rest of 'em who don't really know what they're doing and can't face the fact that they can't find themselves to save their future.
Call for hands, dammit.
You just need your staff to do the job and you can't yell at them the way you used to, that's a fact and it's a good thing but it's also a hindrance. No one really wants to cook "other people's food", most of the time, because he or she as a line cook or prep cook, with this or that experience or upbringing or history or what the fuck ever--they know things. Can't really explain to anyone just what those things might be, but somehow and most assuredly (and authoritatively) they know things. And they dream of kitchens where everything is all nice and prepped, everything is all kinds of scratch, everything is neat and tidy and glistening and service is based on reservations and head counts alone, and modifications are basically nonexistent; but in the meanwhile those are dreams and they're stuck here (wherever here may be), cooking someone else's food according to someone else's directions (usually). So it's not even about the food per se, at that point, either: It's about the paycheck. It's about getting through it and getting home and then doing it all over again because of the adrenaline rush. Coupled, most of the time, with varying degrees of creative, philosophical, personal, and sexual tension if not outright frustration. Except as relates to the creativity, roundabout none of that has got to to do with the food; and creativity, as relates to food, is not necessarily about the food itself either, so much as it's about one's need and/or ability to prove oneself to both others and self.
I say usually it's following someone else's directions, because most of the time that's just how it goes. But for me, aside from prep, one of my favorite things about working in the kitchen at a chef-designated level, was the conceptualizing: Something not everyone necessarily gets the chance to do, have their recipes added to or wholly comprising the menu-at-large. It was fun because it could be systematized; and it was fun because it could be both envisioned and realized, by my own hand. Even as I knew that once I passed off the prep and execution to the destination kitchen things would inevitably get mixed up in some way or another, to some degree or another, it was indeed a whole and complete thing handed over: Menu, catering menu, recipes, photographs insofar as possible, build sheets by dish, list of allergens and suggested substitutions, charts and logs and a few diagrams relative to how the stations might make sense with regard to set-up.
In a sense, this to me was what constituted the basic structure and established basic workflow relative to pretty much anything in the kitchen. It was the necessary prep, for the business side of things. But it had somewhat less to do with the food, than to do with making sure the menu itself was balanced; so that everyone's preferences might be met, while still remaining within the context of the concept itself. And also taking into consideration the kitchen layout, the kitchen's overall skill-set, and the restaurant's overall volume of business; not to mention projected food cost and individual menu item pricing, time of the year and seasonality, et cetera and so on.
I knew there would be some degree of inevitable change, because what I was passing off and distributing was, in fact, a road map for none other than cooking someone else's recipes. Doing something someone else's way. At best I might expect a close approximation, and in reality I'm not saying cooks don't try, and I'm not saying that if your recipes are indeed well-written then you shouldn't have a problem with consistency; or that if you are indeed fully-present and able to guide your crew both in the moment and over time then you won't wind up with a well-oiled machine. That is certainly the end-goal, usually the closest anyone can get to actualization of the line cook's daydream.
But then you have to factor in the servers. And the fact that they don't necessarily care about the food, either. To be sure, I'll bet you'd be hard-pressed to find a server who will tell you he or she does not have some level of appreciation for food, possibly even for the cooks who prepare the food. Servers are friggin' scavengers when it comes to food, they love to stuff their faces with whatever they can get their hands on. Generally speaking, of course.
But when it comes to calling for hands, there are a a number of factors in play. For one, many restaurants nowadays seem to be geared toward rather loud acoustics, often relegating intimacy to a level of impossibility. The louder the atmosphere, the more likely you might be to eat your food and then leave; it's not very leisurely and so you're not going to want to sit around and talk to your friends and family about life, the universe, and everything in between. Moreover, the faster you get out of the restaurant, the faster the table might be re-set and new diners' orders taken and another check slapped down at the end of the meal, more money in the pocket to feed the banks and the cooks, the dishwashers and maybe the owners at the end of the day if they're both smart and lucky.
Meanwhile everything is about preference, and the servers have got to take everyone's preferences into consideration with every single table order customer. You, as a cook, might look at the reservation book and see there are going to be three hundred or so covers that night; but for the servers, this means literally three hundred preferences, variations, and modifications that could easily number in the tens of thousands. On top of the fact that the owners can't quite seem to decide if they're going to get rid of the straws, switch to the new eco straws, or offer them only upon request (not to mention whether or not to lemon the water), which in and of itself creates a variation in addition to the fact of the customers' arrival in the first place.
The main task is to keep everyone's orders in line; to make sure everyone is happy, or at least relatively happy and, if there are any concerns, you do your best to assuage but grab a manager to touch the table and maybe offer something like a discount or a free dessert. But as the servers take their first orders and send them through to the kitchen, they get more tables; while the cooks prepare the first order, the servers get more orders and potentially another table; once the food is ready to go, it may be that the server is dealing with that third table, getting waters for the second table, refilling drinks for the first table, grabbing a napkin for one of them somewhere, and also trying to remember to grab the dessert menu because table one looks like it might actually be interested.
And I'm calling for hands.
More often than not it's about the money, when it comes to the servers. It's about relatively easy money in a short amount of time, and it is this financial gain which motivates servers to turn tables quickly as well. Aside from the established rotation or sectioning for the night, the goal is to take as many tables as possible, get as many tables as possible; which requires a balancing of many multiples all at once, and which potentially sets the hot food in the window in a middling and bottoming area of the list--especially when you don't have a food runner, or the place is so busy that the runner is actually running food and can't run yours specifically because he or she is getting stuck, flagged down by a customer asking for water and another fork as he or she makes way back to the kitchen to handle the main task at hand, which indeed is running the food, which by the way is kind of dying in the window. Because cooks can't just time it in such a way, they do the orders as they come in and push it out as fast as possible because yours is not the only order they're trying to fill in that exact moment.
The food dies in the window. If I run the food I have to leave that window, which means the orders might not stay organized because most of the servers, if they do have time to run any kind of food, are only ever going to look for their own and pay no attention whatsoever to anything else (like the fact that two customers might order the same thing, and that particular dish in the window, even though it's "part of your order", is in fact for the other table for the other server with the same damn order). In the sixty to ninety seconds it takes me to drop the order at the table and return to the window (assuming I'm not stopped by some customer needing another drink or whatever on my way back), more likely than not fucked up is pretty exactly what I'm bound to come back to, and I'd really just rather not deal with it so I'm out when it comes to running the food. And I'm not going to tell them to go slower, I'm just going to yell louder.
Fucking hands, I need fucking hands!
But everyone is busy. Everyone may actually be on point that night and for that service; but that doesn't mean that as soon as I call, the runner's going to be able to show up right away, and that's okay because literally everyone is doing what everyone is supposed to be doing and in spite of all the adversity and Day Crew vs. Night Crew, Kitchen vs. Servers, it has in fact become for a brief moment, that beautiful happy dance that so many so fondly remember when they look back on or try to define what keeps them going.
Whatever the cause, as the food dies under the heat lamps (which in this sense begins literally the moment the dish is plated and placed under the heat lamp), it becomes very slightly different than was originally intended. The main task of getting the food to the table is to get the customers fed, to get the customers out, to get new customers in, to make a relatively large amount of money in a fairly short amount of time and for hardly more than a bunch of different requests that won't really mean anything in five days let alone five years. It's not about the food, it's about the bill. It's not about the food, it's about the sell: The up-sell, the successful increase of the check average which technically should mean an increase in overall tip which ultimately means more money. Servers might like food, they may be scavengers indeed, but the individual dish is hardly their concern in the heat of the moment.
So little to do with food, in the end, and yet food is the product and vessel with which all this gets done; around which all convene and fester foster poke and prod and pickle ferment puree and pasteurize, package and market and sell upsell resell retail. The more we pay attention to preference the more we can fine-tune and manipulate and maybe even convince people of their own preferences! Because of course when it comes to Big Food, food is certainly the very last thing any of this is all about: It's about the marketing, and the packaging.
While it may be no secret that successful marketing has to do with effectively altering an individual's perception that he or she actually needs the product so advertised, I think it's safe to say a lot of folks probably don't think about it in their every day-to-day when it comes to food. Do you really need the baking cooking spray in addition to the regular cooking spray? Do you really even need the cooking spray at all? What's wrong with the old-fashioned, tried-and-true method that involves a bit of oil, a paper towel, and a bit of flour? Do you really need to buy organic, or do you know that, organic or not, most generic/store brands are in fact the same as the name brands, labelled more generically?
Whether or not you need it, when it comes to food, Big Food has got nearly everyone in a tizzy. Fad diets, trending diets, image consciousness, supposed green manufacturing and organic and local and whatever other hot, trendy words you want to use: It's all some kind of marketing. Because in order to be successful in business, whether a restaurant or otherwise, it is necessary, if not to convince the individual that he or she needs the specific product, then to convince the individual that even if your product is not exactly what they want, he or she can actually customize it according to their preference, their every desire, wish, and need. We are the nation of instant gratification. Have been for some time, and it's probably not going to change with the way things are going with next-day delivery and online grocery shopping. Cooks and servers, active and wannabe restaurant and food truck owners, all remain subject your preferences, dictated not only by Big Food but also all your previous experiences and your parents' weirdness. All of which have just about nothing to do with the actual tomato you're putting (or getting) on your caprese salad.