I think most people use a clock or a calendar when it comes to marking off the tick marks that denote time. Those two methods, after all, are what most prominently represent time in our heads.
In a kitchen we have some decidedly different ways to track time. There’s food time, dinner time, service time, burning time, quitting time, smoke time, and probably a dozen others.
Here are some simple times that you’ll see almost every day in every kitchen.
The first is, and I’m only partially joking, break time. It takes the average line cook two minutes to smoke a filtered Marlboro cigarette from stem to stern and drop the butt in the ash can. That might not seem like much time to some, but when your head is swimming with a million orders and temperatures and the pans are all full and on the burners and the orders just won’t stop coming in, two minutes might save your life.
I know you might think smoking is a disgusting thing to have going on outside the kitchen doors but I assure you, of my 20 some odd years in this industry, I’ve worked with only 3 people who did not smoke. I am one of those three. Don’t worry, they always wash their hands.
Break time allows you to clear out the chaos, set things back in the lineup mentally within your head, put your heart rate back to a manageable beat and slow your breathing so you don’t black out. Once those two minutes pass the world seems approachable again and you can go back to the line to finish what you started.
Another time that exists in a kitchen and not really anywhere else is between time. Between time is the moment when prep is done for the day and service begins. It’s denoted only by the second hand on a clock as far as passage of time, but in real time it’s a physical shift you feel to your core when you know everything better be wrapped up and ready to go or you’ll be so deep in the weeds by 7 o’ clock that you’ll contemplate if life is really worth living anymore.
When prep time got the better of you that day, and service time just came a little too fast, you’ll find yourself running to play catch up and you almost never catch up. There’ve been many times when the night is done, the last guest waves goodbye and walks out the door, and only then do I say, “Okay, I’m caught up, let’s get started.”
Letting between time get the better of you will keep you in lost time for what seems an eternity.
Then there’s burning time. This is that instant where you realize you forgot a pan on the far right burner or a sheet tray in the oven. It’s passage is denoted by that jolt to the heart when you realize that you just lost a good 20 to 30 minutes of work you slaved away at because the fires rule all in the kitchen and they just took your pastry shells as penance. It is the most painful measure of time one can feel and it supersedes all other forms of time. When you realize you just hit burning time, you’ll drop what you’re doing, run to the stove, and see if your mistake is salvageable or if it’s time to start again.
Food time is the most crucial by far. It measures the time it takes to bring food to its completed state.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “That’s a measure of time equated with the clock”. Well, you’re sort of correct. The clock factors in because it’s the passage of time on its face that we are accruing. But we almost never look at it. When we throw bread in the oven, we also throw the clock right out the window. It’s done when it smells done, when it feel s done, and when it looks done.
The myriad of factors that go into bread are so immense that there’s no true measure of time for it at all. It really comes down to, “It’s done when it’s done.” When I bake Challah bread for brunch service, I place it in an oven that can range from 325 degrees all the way up to 500 degrees. It is, once again, important that you throw the clock out the window at this point. What a recipe may say will take 20 minutes to cook to completion can happen in a lot of different time frames when you’re working with that kind of variation. It takes longer to cook the bread at 500 degrees than at the standard 400 degrees because it requires tremendous amounts of door opening, turning, shelf adjustment, the list goes on. Now as you read that I’m sure you’re thinking, “Well, turn the damned oven down then!” Astute of you, but once again, the passage of time must be factored in.
Turning down the oven will require that it be turned up again once the bread is done so that it’s hot enough to roast the cauliflower. The lag time that can exist between those two processes can throw your day out of whack like nobody’s business.
Turned down the oven for the bread? Okay, now you’re cauliflower is late going into rotation. No big deal, right? But after the cauliflower you’ve got to use it to cook the bacon, and then it has to toast the walnuts, and after that the rice needs browning, and then the jalapenos have to cook, and then, and then, and then.
Each fraction of time absorbed by oven adjustment eats a little more of your timing that all culminates in the single most important time in all of restaurant history.
Once service starts there is nothing going in those ovens but people’s dinner. And if you slow that down? May the kitchen gods help you, because there certainly isn’t anyone else who will.
At that point, you’re introduced to another form of time. Guest time. It’s their dinner and they expect it in a timely fashion. This is also not denoted by a clock. It’s denoted by exactly how long you can stand to listen to the person sitting across from you talk. How was your day, how was the trip, how’s the (insert non-specific event that generates conversation)? All these questions are biding time until dinner arrives. Now if you haven’t seen your dining partner in a good long while then time shifts again. It’s more about how much time can I take between bites to tell more stories and ask more questions. On the other hand, if you’ve been married to your dinner guest for a number of decades about 10 minutes is all you need before you start wondering when the appetizer is going to show up.
Then there’s the time that begins when you catch the waiter brining your food out the corner of your eye. All time stops as your brain goes into overtime, “Is that my food? I think it is. He’s almost to the table! I can’t wait to get the first bites in my mouth” It’s at this time that what your guest is saying might as well be the recitation of the phone book because you’re not listening anymore. Their time is done now, it’s dinner time!
All the while, the kitchen continues to count down time in a totally different way.
“Is table four cleared yet?” Time. “Is the pizza crust burning or browned?” Time. “I need a cigarette!” Time. “Come get these pans!!!” Time. It starts the moment we walk in the door and it doesn’t end until it’s time, and we call it a night and close the door on another day. But here’s the best part. When you love it, the way everyone I work with does, time accounts for nothing at all. We don’t mark days, we don’t stare down the clock, we don’t longingly wait for 5 o’ clock to show up. It’s all timeless to us. And we happily, proudly, and ebulliently wait for the time to start again every day.
So the next time you’re in a restaurant, even if it isn’t mine, watch to see how many variations of time you can recognize. If you are observant, and patient, during the time that you dine with us, you will most likely see at least a dozen different examples. And again, here’s where time doesn’t really matter, because you’ll be enjoying your time in the restaurant as we take care of time on our end. So put down the watch, pick up your beer, and just let time pass you by.
And now if you’ll excuse me, it’s finally my bed time.