It's almost twenty minutes to daylight when I arrive at the kitchen. Sous Chef M's monster Yamaha is parked right outside the dish room and a half empty box of Sweet-n-Low props open the door. Half asleep, we slip through, beat-up toolboxes hanging heavy, checks rumpled and damp looking. I'm almost sure that some of us have spent the night in our pants.
There's little talking as we flip through the chef coats. It's hard to find one that fits, especially if you're small. The linens from last night are still lying in a mountain of mesh sacks, waiting for the laundry company to pick them up around 7.
Most of Garde Manger, with their fiddly salad and appetizer prep, are already at their stations. They're a neat, dedicated bunch. Some even have managed to bring thermos mugs of coffee from home to help them through the morning. The line guys have to wait for someone to kick the industrial urns into action. Until then they suffer their hangovers in silence.
By 6:15 we've done inventory. We know how many eggs need to be poached, fish pecan-floured, strawberries cut. We all get together and the Sous reads us the brunch menu. No big surprises, not yet at least. We're told we've got 657 on the books. A party of 75 will be here at opening, will have turtle soup, a special salad, eggs sardou, petit filet, and end up with pecan pie. That's ten pies we'll have to cut. Ten pies we made yesterday. Ten pies we'll have to replace today. It's on our production list. One more thing we'll have to produce before 10:30 when the jazz musicians start strolling the dining rooms and the first eager brunchers put in their orders.
"Laast week wus good. We just got to work on the second turn," Sous Chef M says in a thick Irish brogue. "I know yer gonna be tired. Even I was tired laast week. We'll have 15 minutes between turns. Wipe down yer station. Drink a bit a water. Then be ready to fookin poosh it out. Be ready. It's gonna be busy." He says it with a grim smile.
We all know that already. It's going to be tough. But Sous Chef M is in a good mood and his pre-game talk does give me energy. He's been in a good mood for the past week. M's a scary guy. A rugby man. Last week he came to work with a broken nose and a cut eye, roaring up on that Yamaha like the vision of Hell from Raising Arizona. Just two weeks ago, anyone in the kitchen would have said to steer clear of M, mean and unpredictable, like a bear or a Sasquach. Hair grows on the insides of his forearms, furthering the point. But recently he's been a positively pleasant brute.
I wonder if Chef has told him, and all the Sous, to be nice. Even Sous Chef, D, handsome but cold, has shown a sweet side. He even helped me carry a heavily laden lexan from the walk-in. "It's not worth blowing out your back," he said, not kindly, but matter-of-factly.
"It's not worth dropping this shit and having to start over for service," I said, taking the practical stand.
"No, it's not worth hurting yourself," he replied. His sentimentality almost made me cry, especially since I've seen a line cook slice the top off his finger and get scoffed at for going to the hospital.
Yes, it must be Chef. He's new, you see, and he must be trying to civilize the kitchen.
We're about to enter May and Jazz Fest is just around the corner. Sunday Brunch is going to be tougher from here on out. I've just been in the kitchen a couple of months and even I know. I share in the kitchen's communal queasiness. Still, given the chance to sleep til 10 and then go to church, I seriously doubt any of us would take that option. I couldn't put my finger on why at first, but it was explained to me that working Sunday Brunch earns you respect. It's true. When the P.M. Crew comes in you can see respect in their eyes. It's like they're saying, "OK, lunch guys, today you've paid your dues."
And you can tell they are grateful. Grateful because they know we'll be the ones to serve 650 again next week.