Volume 10
An Online Literary Magazine
November 30, 2015


Dinner Service


Gizelle Jancovic


Line cooks at Charlie Trotter's navigating the madness and magic of the dinner rush.


t is a relentless, merciless, ravenous force. And it’s coming for you. You just keep pushing those plates out in the hopes that eventually it will finally be sated and it will let you live to see another day. The ticket machine spits and spits, and every time you hear the noise, your heart jumps and your ears perk for the call. For the rest of my life if I ever hear the word “pastry” uttered in a crowd, I will break out in anxiety sweats. Dinner service is the big show, the common goal that the whole kitchen staff preps for all day long. It is all things addictive, adrenaline charged, exhilarating, and infuriating.


The cooks on the line always made fun of me because pastry only gets a small percentage of the tickets that the hot line gets. Let’s face it: not everyone orders dessert. And I get it. I see the guy working pizza all night. The sweat pouring off him in waves, the latex glove, meant to protect a wound, melting into his hand as he plunges it in and out of the 800 degree pizza oven. I know I’ve got it good. But sometimes, just sometimes, ticket after ticket after ticket spills out of the machine and the expediter calls, “Pastry! Pastry! Pastry! Pastry!” and I know I’m fucked.


I didn’t work a full dinner service till I was almost thirty. I’d been working in bakeries for a couple of years and when my latest boss laid me off a week before Christmas, I decided I’d had enough.


I began applying for hotel jobs. Every cook knows that hotels pay more than independent restaurants. Hell, they might even give you health insurance. A coworker of mine told me that a new hotel in the city was hiring for its pastry team, so I went to the website and applied. When I got a call from the HR department of one of Chicago’s most legendary restaurants, I was dumbfounded. I realized that it happened to be the restaurant inside the newly renovated hotel where I’d applied. It was a happy accident really. If I’d seen a listing for that restaurant, I would never have even considered it, purely out of fear. I interviewed with the pastry chef, staged without incident or injury, went back for three more interviews in one day, and left several hours later with a contract for employment.


To say that I was on top of the world would be an understatement. I felt like I’d gotten away with something big—like I’d fooled them all into hiring me. Ha ha! Joke’s on you! I have no idea what I’m doing!


The facilities there were amazing. In restaurants, pastry is often shoved into a tiny corner of the kitchen, far enough away so that it won’t get in the way of the “real food,” but not so far away that the butchers can’t conveniently wrap their raw fish on our station. One restaurant I staged at had a single spatula designated for pastry and when I sent it to dish, it never came back.


The pastry department at my amazing new job was an entity unto itself. We had our own kitchen with all our own burners, fryer, and ovens. We had our own dish station, our own freezer, and walk-in. Even a sheeter and a proofer. It was pastry heaven, full of laminated doughs, cake batters, silpats, and sheet pans as far as the eye could see. Even now, after working in other pastry kitchens, I still marvel at the facilities we had there. The facilities I would never take for granted. The moment I walked into that kitchen, I knew I was home. Working in that space was Zen-like. We had music and coffee and calm chats with various visitors from all manner of departments looking for a nibble of something sweet. The pastry kitchen was all production. We had huge cambros of caramel corn and tuile, endless tubs of chocolate sauce and huge sheet trays of cheesecakes waiting to be unmolded. These were just the components of the gorgeous desserts that would eventually land in front of chicly dressed guests a whole world away in the opulent dining room.


The pastry line, where the components came together and all the desserts were plated, was in the hot kitchen with all the savory cooks. That kitchen terrified me; the executive chef, the tickets, the grill, the steamers. I was passionately concerned with getting in the way, knowing that most savory cooks thought of pastry as a nuisance. Every time I had to venture into the hot kitchen, I would try to make myself as small as possible. When my chef started scheduling me to work the pastry line during the easy-going lunch shift, I was nervous. But the more time I spent there and the more I got to know the cooks, the more comfortable I became. The pastry line was fairly large and we had our own freezer and coolers. It was pastry territory, and we had to defend it. One day, after being shooed back to the pastry kitchen for production work, I realized I didn’t want to leave. I was in love.


The hot kitchen was where the action was. It was where the show happened. That ticket machine went off and the adrenaline started pumping. After working two busy brunches, I was hooked. I wanted the rush of life on the line, and the calm, low-key environment of the production kitchen simply lost its luster.



That ticket machine went off and the adrenaline started pumping...
Two months into my time there, my chef came to me and said that she’d scheduled me to work dinner service for the following Saturday. I was ecstatic. Finally! I was going to witness the madness and the magic of what we all worked for every day. As the week progressed and I watched the hotel occupancy and reservation numbers climb, my excitement turned to anxiety. The evening line cooks teased me, asking if I was “ready for Saturday,” and I began to think I wasn’t. When Friday rolled around and the numbers for Saturday were written in ink, my nervousness turned to terror. “Dinner: 324.”


I arrived at work Saturday afternoon with a serious case of nerves and a serious hangover. I’d been out to an incredibly decadent dinner at Charlie Trotter’s the night before with ten courses of wine pairings, and the wine had stuck with me as a booming headache.


The girl who usually worked nights was finishing up her day shift when I arrived, and she and my chef immediately began giving me advice. “Make sure you always have amuse bouche ready to fire. Make sure your station is always clean and organized. Always have enough towels. Always have your ice cream tempered to optimum quenelle consistency. Always have backup chocolate writing bags.” My head spun.


I went upstairs and reorganized the line the way I liked it. I refilled my whipped cream, orange segments, tuile pieces, and chocolate sauce. I checked my chocolate bags to make sure they were writing well; I stacked up all my plates and bowls. When 5:30 hit, I fired the first round of amuse bouche and I waited.


When you’re plating pastry, all your tickets are order fire, which means that from the moment that ticket comes out you have X amount of minutes (10 in this case) to get all your desserts plated, walked to expo, and run to the table. Ten minutes is actually a lot of time when you think about it. Anyone worth their salt can plate a sundae, a tart, a cobbler, a cookie plate, and doughnuts, all in five minutes, and get them to expo. Child’s play. Until you have six tickets that all come in at once. And each one has five items on it. That should take you thirty minutes, right? No! You’re fired! You’re going to make a table wait thirty minutes for dessert? Move faster, fool! So you push them out three by three, two cheesecakes at a time, four sundaes, three doughnuts…. People are waiting!


My chef stayed on the line with me all night that first night. She showed me her own system for working the line the way she had learned it. Her philosophy was that you should know your station so well, you could work it blindfolded. She explained to me the intricacies of the service, what times I should expect a push, how I should handle orders that come in at the same time. She told me to keep my ears tuned for words like “dessert” and “pastry.” Eventually, it would be freakish how well I would be able to pick out my own ticket calls from the cacophony of cooks, servers, runners, and chefs. And that night she told me something I’ll never forget. “If they go down, you’ll go down.”


That night we did over 350 covers and I worked my ass off. The two of us plated countless desserts. I wasn’t perfect. My chef regularly scolded me for leaving my towels all over the station and forgetting to dip the ice cream scoop in water before dishing it. My thumbs were always in the wrong places on the plates when I was running them to expo. She would wait for me there and I would hear “thumb!” and mentally smack myself.


By the time it was all over, I felt like I’d time traveled. It was 1 a.m. and I felt like I’d arrived ten minutes ago. The adrenaline was slowing and I realized that I still had my hangover headache. I was sweaty. I was emotionally exhausted; I felt fucking amazing. The line cooks were breaking down their stations. The ticket machine went off one last time. I made one final plate and I was done.


My chef showed me how to break down my station, what to send to dish, and what to wash myself, lest we send it off and never see it again. She told me to enjoy my day off the next day and left the building. An hour later she texted me and told me I’d done a great job.


In the locker room afterward, the one female line cook who’d never spoken to me before chatted me up. Our executive chef asked me where I was heading afterward, and the line cooks told me I’d “crushed it.” I felt like I’d earned some respect. And I couldn’t wait to do it all again.



Gizelle Jancovic is a finance professional and freelance writer. Prior to her financial career she spent several years in the culinary industry. She received her baking and pastry certificate from Kendall College in Chicago and studied pastry abroad at the Ritz Escoffier in Paris. Her experience ranges from cake decorating to fine dining, and she has worked in bakeries and high end restaurants across the city of Chicago. Although she has traded in her plating tweezers for spreadsheets, she considers her pastry career as one of the most valuable learning experiences of her life, and she continues to experiment with new recipes and flavor combinations as often as she can.


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