Kitchen Apprentice: The Sunday Brunch Crunch

201100908-kitchen-apprentice.jpgCooking in a restaurant is a lesson in endurance. I have so much respect for every cook who comes in at 7 a.m. or leaves at 1 a.m.; the cooks for whom 300 covers a service is just business as usual. Every cook at The Restaurant moves with serious hustle, but it is on the weekends when the varsity cooks emerge: The Sunday Brunch Cooks.

Of course, any service can be rough, but several factors can turn Sunday brunch into a minefield for cooks. Parties are usually smaller at brunch so the turnover time for a table can be much shorter than one for dinner. The increase in potential diners, coupled with the fact that brunch is longer than dinner, turns a typically busy (300 covers) service into a marathon where cooks find themselves sprinting (350-430 covers) the entire way. To top it all off, there are two fewer cooks during brunch service than there are during dinner.

Every Sunday morning starts the same way: batches of pancake batter run through a chinois with enough backup batter to last the service (because there is nothing worse than having to make batter on the fly), trays of roasted vegetables cool on speedracks, Jeff measures out the dries for pasta production.

The dining room smells like coffee and fresh pastries. Everything is humming, moving along, beat by beat. At 9 a.m., family meal is out on the pass, and we help ourselves to eggs and Sriracha in between chores. When 10 a.m. service begins, I retreat to the pasta closet.

At the height of service, tickets are pouring in, food is starting to get backed up, cooking surfaces are maxed out, everyone at an eight-top ordered pancakes at once, four different sides (no dairy) need to go out with a single order and a series of dishes just got re-fired. Suddenly, people are scrambling: salumi needs more prosciutto, pancake batter is running dangerously low, an order of eggs didn't get cooked right and the sous needs everything like yesterday.

Brunch service requires a different kind of adrenaline from dinner: in addition to producing food to the usual standards, there is just so much more of it. Plancha is unmanned during brunch because there is no steak, lamb, rabbit, or other heavy protein offered on the menu. However, there is still pasta, there are sides, there are pancakes and there are eggs cooked six different ways with fewer people to push food out of the kitchen. Instead of the steady rush at dinner, where the dining room can be booked solid weeks ahead of time, brunch sees many more walk-ins, jolts that can upset the kitchen's rhythm.

To say that cooking on the line is hot is like saying stepping on broken glass might hurt. Walking down the line, passing the contorni station, you get an express sunburn on half your face. In between services, when there are no pans on the cooktop, the whole area pulses with a temperature so high it seems tangibly repellent. Once, during a rare lull in brunch service, Erica turned around from her pancakes to show me her forearm.

"I totally just burnt all my hair off."

Her arm was stippled with old scars, salmon pink and only a few shades lighter than her cheeks. If you're on the line, you'll lose the hair off your arm, maybe a bit of brow. You'll burn yourself with pans, steam, water, butter, oil. You'll drink five quarts of water and only pee once because you've sweat so much. Your face will feel like it's melting and your back will start aching because you've been up and down into lowboys, lifting giant cambros of scrambled eggs and pancake batter for hours.

But you just have to push through it: walk-ins are still trickling in. Your last pancakes have to be just as golden brown and fluffy as the first. Your last eggs have to be poached, baked, scrambled or fried with the exact same precision as your first, twentieth, or hundredth. You cannot flag. The Sunday Brunch Cooks are my heroes.

Seeing how it is in the brunch trenches, I am deeply embarrassed whenever someone refers to me as "chef." It is usually something casual in passing, "Good night, chef," "And how are you doing, chef?" where the title is extended out of courtesy, but I am still mortified by how undeserving I am of such a greeting. Me? A chef? I'm not even a cook. And until my arms are bald and have helped me conquer a brunch service on the line, I doubt I'll see myself as such.