Keep ’em coming

Around 11:30 p.m. or so, back when I was working in a kitchen, shortly before close, we’d often find ourselves in some sort of last-minute rush. This happened a lot in the summer, when the back of the house was sweltering and we were just dying for the release of stiff drink. I can still hear the sound of the ticket machine. The chattering scatter of rapid-fire orders surging into our little space in the restaurant. The late-night crowd ordered wings, burgers, chicken sandwiches, all of that, but sometimes too they’d want ribs, steaks, pastas, the more involved dishes. Part of the flow state in a kitchen includes staying ahead of the curve, which means that cooks are incrementally closing down their stations before the night is truly over. It’s a gamble: If I start shutting down part of the grill a half-hour before close, are we going to be hit with an eight-top of burgers and steaks? But you’ve got to stay ahead of something. You’ve got to assert your control over the environment.

The reason I bring this up is to say that when those orders would come in late at night, when we’d be down to one or two guys in the kitchen, maybe one of us working through some dishes and trying to keep the barrage in order, Sammy would get frustrated. He was a lean Puerto Rican dude who taught me a few things about cooking. He had deep brown eyes and a jocular smile, and he told me you can fry the shit out of wings and they’ll still be good to go. Extra crispy.

Anyway, I remember Sammy during those late nights. He and I would be trying to close down shop, stay ahead of things, prepare the mind for a cold beverage at the bar, when suddenly the ticket machine would light up like fireworks. No warning, usually. Just an abrupt descent into the core of the evening again.

And I remember he’d lean into the madness of it all. Meat on the grill. Pans on the burners, moving fast now, tossing bread into oven and firing up the brain for sheer speed needed to process these orders. The dexterity required is something I look back on fondly, now that I’m removed from the gig, but in the moment it is a soul-sapping pace. There is no choice available but to immerse your entire being into the physics of the kitchen.

Sammy would start shouting to himself, setting a rhythm for the sprint.

“Keep ’em coming, motherfucker! Keep ’em coming, motherfucker!”

It’s an attitude that I think about in times of duress. In certain scenarios, certain moments, the punches just keep coming. There’s really not much you can do. What, Sammy was going to walk? Are you kidding? We’re in it, now!

“Keep ’em coming, motherfucker!”

I don’t know if it’s the most helpful attitude for everyone, but it’s something that has stayed with me. The gritted teeth clenched in a scowl, the unerring commitment to finishing the fucking job, knowing that the cycle will come back around again, forever.

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