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Feature Wed Jun 27 2007

Besides the Castle, the Most Distinguished Address in Ireland: Part 2

(Read part 1.)

Friday the 13th gets off to an ominous start.

Service begins badly enough and deteriorates throughout the day and into the night. One man short on the hot line and the person enlisted to cover it moves like a snail with an attitude. He's a bit pissed off because he's worked five doubles in a row, was supposed to be off but was pressed into duty instead and doesn't want to be here. He's the one that likes to remind me what city we're in, or not in.

"Dublin, mate, not Chicago."
"As if I need reminding, mate. "

The raw bar isn't set up and there's already people sitting there ordering. In an open exhibition kitchen there's no hiding anything. Every itch scratched, every epitaph hurled, every sweat bead wiped is in plain view of all to see or hear.

Last night's service went smoother than any other since I've been here. Today is the opposite. A humble reminder of how tenuous the battle can be so as not to bask in past glories.

People watch us lamely scattering to fill orders.

I spend most of service shuffling half filled orders around, stealing from one to send with another, as the kitchen doesn't seem capable of timing what I need as I need it. Even though I've told them numerous times in the last five minutes (besides the last two hours) exactly what I'm waiting on and what their priorities should be to sell the goddamn tickets in front of me.

I'm eternally one plate short, or ever maddeningly waiting on anything fried that accompanies most orders.

The expediter conducts your meal. He orders it, times it for pick-up, assembles it, garnishes it and when it passes final inspection, sends it on its way to the proper table and seat position. That's how it's done. Except today. No one has what I ask for when I need it.

Communication breaks down, stress prevails, attitudes are copped deteriorating to tempers lost and basically we crash and burn, mortifying me in plain sight of all the guests.

As expediter, I have the big picture here… I know how bad it really is going. And it's bad.

The cooks are just putting out food, any food in desperation. The wait staff is buried and don't have a clue to the chaos. If I were on the receiving end, I know I wouldn't care for the poor service and mediocre (at this particular moment) expensive food we're selling to people who are paying 500-800 Euros a night for the honor of staying with us. That's around $650-$1,100 American and you have a right to be picky at those prices.

They expect and deserve better. They're paying top Euro. It's not like they're getting a discount because we're not operating at 100 percent. They're paying full price and we're at 75 percent. Maybe.

06192007_diningroom.jpg

The sense of urgency doesn't exist and moving past second gear is unheard of. Ill prepped, we get slammed from the start and barely survive. Pathetic. Before you know it, it's 3:30, lunch is over and we begin to pick up the pieces, regroup and get ready for tonight's service.

Never forget. It's all in the prep.

A food and beverage meeting from 1600 to 1700 (4 to 5pm) with all department heads is followed by scrambling for dinner service starting at 1800 (6pm). Because of how buried we got during lunch, as a general moves his troops, we've reassigned some additional staff to feed the beast. That is, prep and run for whatever is needed on the line.

Back-up biatches so to speak.

As a result, there's plenty of mis en place and service actually starts out fine. It appears as if we're living down some of the embarrassment of earlier today. This is more like it.

Yeah, right.

8pm on a beautiful Friday (the 13th) spring evening in a newly reopened gotta-go-check-it-out hotspot.

As more and more orders are rung in to be coordinated by "moi" to get to "youse" guys, I gradually realize that the ever important last part of the chain, the food runners, the people that actually deliver your food to your table, are nowhere to be found. In their absence, food begins to back up without enough available space to keep it warm. Later after the fact, we found out that there was a scheduling error and they'd all just reached the end of their shifts and had gone home.

Not even a kiss good bye.

They had read their schedules, followed them and in fact would have had to answer for it if they did stay past their scheduled shift. The manager that wrote and posted the schedule a week ago is at fault, but at this moment that's a moot point.

We have numerous VIPs in house we're trying to soigné, and once again, we are looking mighty foolish.

Think of it this way. When the food leaves the sauté pan or grill to be plated, it's ideally at 100 percent. But the clock is your enemy, and it begins to deteriorate from that point. 98, 95, 90, 85 percent. The longer it takes to get to you after we plate it, the more compromised your food becomes. That's when the fun begins. In the midst of everything else, we resurrect the meal by reheating and re-plating it, but there's 10 other orders coming up behind it and even after it's been resuscitated, I still have no one to take it to you.

And, we have an audience. Cheers mate.

If all this isn't enough, this evening we also were visited by the top food critic in Ireland from the Irish Times newspaper. FYI, pictures of food critics are routinely placed in high traffic areas in professional kitchens, like at the coffee station, so that the staff can hopefully be vigilant in spotting them and in turn, inform us.

Well he's been spotted and is holding court with a small party just to my left.

They had gotten in under the wire before the runners left, had their apps without issue and their entrees had been fired for pick-up. We were working on plating their food when the runners disappeared and yet another horror story occurred.

As this is a new hotel inside an old one more or less, we've been plagued since my arrival with various kinks in the operating systems, like the POS systems crashing or housekeeping forgetting to clean the restaurant between shifts and so on and so forth. At the exact moment of plating Mr. Critic and pals dinners, the fire alarm went off.

Sirens blare, lights flash and a fire curtain descends from the heavens, containing the entire exhibition kitchen while simultaneously turning off all electricity and gas. At the height of a busy Friday night the restaurant, both hard jamming pubs in the lobby and the Lord Mayor's Lounge have to be evacuated along with all hotel guests, including a wedding banquet for 300.

I couldn't make this up.

After a brief time, we're allowed back in to try to recover from where we left off. Pilots need to be relit and turned on (a key point). Tickets spew forth from the printer, adding to the 15 or so we were working on when we had to abandon ship.

The show must go on. The only thing to do is dig in, put your head down, pick it up and put it out.

We are acutely aware of the critic's presence during what will become known as the "gaffe of the false fire alarm fiasco" and had already rebounded in a small way with a round of vintage Champagne for all restaurant patrons (excluding us, who at this point could have really benefited from it).

Mike, the chef de cuisine ringer Chef John brought in from Gray Kunz's four star Lespinasse at the St. Regis in New York, was finishing Monsieur Critique's meal to perfection but the chips were not cooperating. They're soggy and soft and it's taking forever to accomplish even this. As his food begins to die, tempers flare and all eyes are on the fry station.

Like daggers.

It should come as no surprise that the Irish like their potatoes.

Mashed, gratin, fries, chips … they take them seriously here. Most orders come with at least one or sometimes several types as a side. Mr. Critic had finished with his Seafood Chowder with local Galway Bay mussels and smoked haddock and was about to receive his giant tiger prawns with sautéed fennel and a side of chips.

I'm doing what I've done a lot of here. I'm waiting for "chips." We even went to the point of installing two-way radio communication from the expo station to the production kitchen after complaints from customers of me yelling in sarcastic irritation to the back kitchen in need of the never present "chips."

Attempt after attempt yields the same inferior product. While important, the fry station is generally manned by a novice. The most talented, experienced cooks are the ones cooking on the hot line with the expensive ingredients for demanding guests. Or running the back of the house, overseeing the 1000's of details that go into running a professional kitchen of over 50 people.

The culinary gods are not cooperating in helping us recover gracefully to put Mr. Irish Times meal out.

Remember when we relit the pilot lights after we came back in from the false fire alarm? The next obvious step would have been to turn the deep fryers back on, which in the newbie's panic was omitted, so we've been trying to fry chips in ever cooling oil.

Just shows to go ya.

I'm writing this at 2am. I started at 10am. yesterday. In the meantime, I stood and endured the lunch crunch until nearly 4, after which I sat in a bitch session, i.e. staff meeting, for an hour. Then went back for more punishment until around 1am. In the last 14 hours, I've stood for 13, had my ass handed to me numerous times, drank maybe three glasses of water, ate one container of yogurt and finally grabbed a dead Caesar salad that never made it to its destination 3 hours after the fact with a bit of misfired cold filet eaten standing up next to a garbage can round about midnight. This is the life.

I've worked approximately 170 hours in 14 days.

I'd say I've stood for 150 of them. My feet hurt. Not a complaint, just a fact. Even with the best sole-supporting footwear, which in this case are some specially fitted clogs and insoles that were a gift from a thoughtful friend, my dogs are barking. Most civilians would never stand for it (pardon the pun) and the line dawgs just press on. It's our reality and we're fine with it. This is what we do.

Tomorrow will be the same, but different.

Three weeks in and I'm in the home stretch of my stay. We're starting to see some progress. The food goes out in a more orderly fashion. Fewer mistakes and timing issues are being made due to course lines and seat positions being used. The cooks respond when I call out an order, as do the runners when I tell them where they're taking it. Additional heat lamps have been installed to be able to keep more food hot without re-plating. The two-way radios are helping with the ongoing fry dilemma, occasionally eliminating the irritating wait. The printer is even reading correctly from most outlets.

General food quality has greatly improved, with more consistent product and presentation. Production schedules, prep lists and waste sheets have all been posted. Sanitation has improved.

Cooking is like the child's game of telephone.

Show or tell the first person something and by the tenth or thirtieth person, it's a completely different animal. Unless you're fastidiously on top of it, which prior to my arrival was a luxury the rushed opening did not permit, things have a way of devolving. Now we're getting back towards the original intent before the shite hit the fan and the snowball ran down the hill. All is improving on a daily basis.

The kitchen Bible — the cookbook for the menu is finished.

Standardized recipes with photographs of the dishes are printed and placed in plastic sleeves in a bound notebook available to all. Most everything is documented now and can be accessed by the cooks instead of explained by the chefs.

Things that are quite necessary but were not in place when I arrived are becoming routine. Amazingly, even the pace has picked up slightly when we're busy. A few outstanding issues need to be dealt with but all and all an obvious improvement can be seen and more importantly, felt.

The inmates are losing their grip on the asylum.

I'd like to think that my being here has allowed Chefs John and Mike the much-needed luxury of time to implement the above. One of them would have had to have been doing what I've been doing for the last month. As the opening was rushed, they just had to jump into the volcano without properly documenting everything and were unable to hire and train everyone adequately. Aware of what their needs were, I tried to act as pressure relief and help them in a way so that they could direct their efforts elsewhere. Just being there for them.

06192007_chefs.jpg

We may now go about, as John says, "making delicious flavors like never before."

My last few days are busy. Mr. Irish Times Critic actually enjoyed himself and thought not the lesser of us for his fine dining misadventure. His review was very good and business is up.

Evidently, what our discerning eyes find glaring, most others are blind to.

This hotel truly is legendary in the eyes of Dubliners, and in spite of the few that would never be happy unless it were a carbon copy of the Saddle Room prior to its closing, which it is far from, most are gushingly happy we're back.

It makes them happy to be here again. They want to like it.

I've met numerous patrons of the hotel that during the two-year remodel encamped to the Ritz or the Four Seasons and are quite thrilled to be home again at the Shelbourne.

It's not exactly how they remember it. A lot has changed, but the part in history the Shelbourne has played, with the rebels writing the Constitution upstairs and the memories of generations of Dubliners, some having worked here and some having partied here, are what holds the Shelbourne close to their sentimental Irish hearts.

We have our detractors, and we have a long way to go, but by and large, the response has been overwhelming and the locals are thrilled to have "their" hotel back and can be heard to say once again…

"Fancy a pint of Guiness, mate? Meet me at the Shelbourne."

~*~

Alan Lake has been a professional chef for 25 years and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He has also been a professional musician most of his life, coining the term "jazzfood" to describe "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational skills." Just like the music.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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