A Day in the Morning of a Cook

I enjoy cooking breakfast. I don’t know why, exactly, as most cooks that I talk with and Chef’s that give me advice say to stay away from breakfast, that if you gain a reputation as one of those freaks that enjoy getting up while everyone else is still asleep and preparing the first meal of the day for people who are more or less sleepwalking through it then you will never get another gig. There is a dearth of true breakfast cooks, those that can and will do more than just show up generally within an hour or so of when they are supposed to, rinse the night before out of their eyes and mouth and prepare a meal that is worth eating.

I’ve found that to be a bit odd, as people who are taking the time and trouble to go somewhere for breakfast and not take the obligatory bowl of cereal but instead opt for a full meal prepared by someone who is supposed to know what they are doing are people worth cooking for. Breakfast also gives the cook an inordinate amount of freedom with his or her menu, cooking techniques, ingredients, preparation and line arrangement. The wait staff can be sullen, but if they too are morning people or have other reasons to choose or want such a shift, such as children, another job, whatever, then they have every cause to make the most of what is usually considered to be the most irritating and demeaning shift ever. Did I mention everyone else is usually still asleep or fighting their way to work?

A breakfast shift usually begins for me the night before, poring over dog-eared recipe books, magazines and catalogued recipe entries for everything from Cheese toast, red-eyed gravy with lard biscuits to homemade sourdough cinnamon rolls. Breakfast, I’ve found, is an endless variation of savory and sweet, with it being perhaps one of the only meals of the day where it is completely acceptable to drown the client in an accompaniment of flavors, bursting through the early morning drudgery with tastes both fresh and bold, comforting and familiar and new and sublime. People develop their favorites with breakfast, and for whatever reason, it becomes easy to remember regulars’ names at breakfast. Clients are more punctual, more pleasant and generally happier with their meals in the mornings, as the mornings signal a day full of potential, of opportunities not yet missed.

Based on what I know is in the walk-in and the ingredients I have available, the night before I’ll pull together a few client favorites, one savory, one sweet and usually one traditional (French Toast with fresh blueberries and thick cut bacon is very popular. Portuguese Sweet Bread is the all-time favorite.) I’ll make a note to call the bakery in the morning, that place is usually in full swing at 4:00 a.m. Around 8:30, I’ll set the alarm, much to my wife’s dismay, and head off to bed. She still hates my getting up that early as it usually means that she will also be awake, no matter how quiet I am or the fact that I usually remember to place my work outfits near the door so I can dress by the light on the stove and not turn the lights on in our bedroom. I almost always still wake her up and get a warm sleepy kiss as I steal out of our bed into the waiting darkness.

As soon as I’m up – It’s go time. Shower, check shoes, check pens, check knives, check steel, check lighter – our old gas stoves are cranky and it takes a flame to get them going in the mornings. I start my old truck, scrape the windshield, feed the cat and then I’m following my headlights out the valley and up the mountain to the kitchen.
I like the kitchen first thing in the morning. It’s quiet and clean, usually, from the previous night’s shift. There usually isn’t much to put away, but I make coffee first and slip back outside to catch a glimpse of the first few rays of morning. A jay stirs up a fuss, but not too much, more of a sleepy chatter. The gray Momma cat comes out to say hello in the deepening cold just before dawn and parades her kittens out for me to see. I duck back inside for a few scraps of leftovers and a fresh cup of coffee.

It’s now almost 5:20 a.m. and I can see the headlights of the dishwasher’s car coming up the mountain. A deer chuffs at me and bounds away as the door slams to the loading dock hard for the first time that day, a sound that will become background in a few hours. I grab my few supplies from the truck along with my knives and say hello to the sleepy night clerk manning the front desk. She wants Pancakes this morning, with the usual plate of bacon and endless coffee. I tell her it’ll be in the window soon.

The dishwasher is much more than her title suggests. She is grumpily rearranging dishes, cleaning the filters on the sinks and ancient dishwashing machines and dragging my supplies out of the cold room where we stored them the afternoon before. I arrange my station, nonstick pans to my left, my favorite spatula lifted from its hiding place behind the Pastry Chef’s muffin tins. Everyone is terrified of the Pastry Chef and so they leave her stuff alone, making it the perfect spot to stash things. I clean and sort through fifty pounds of Idaho potatoes, taking only the best and those most consistent in size, placing the largest and smallest back into their bin, with which I will no doubt be making mash later in the day. I then slice the remainder for fries with my knife, listening with half a brain as D, the dishwasher, fills me in on the latest in County gossip as she mops the floor hard enough to scare the foundations.

People trickle in and out, bacon comes out of the ovens, potatoes go in the steamer (twenty minutes), more bacon comes out of the ovens, sausage and sliced potatoes go in (twenty minutes) and we arrange the bacon and sausage to cool and the potatoes on racks by the fryers. Even though I know the time, for I hear the wait staff coming through the perpetually slamming door, I check my watch, synchronizing for absolute point of no return. The test batch of pancakes are golden brown and I arrange the thick slices of bacon by the runny egg on the plate and slide it onto the window, essentially the first order of the day, although people have been snagging bacon and biscuits as though I don’t know for an hour. I don’t care, we generally have enough, but when I warn to leave the bacon alone I mean it.

The first few orders are always chaotic, especially if I’ve changed the menu, which I usually do. Then things fall into the way they should and orders start to go out in a blur. D, as usual, is chaotically ruling the kitchen as only she can, starting at least ten projects and working on them simultaneously, some pertinent to the moment, some not. That’s her value – everything is important to her. No task too small or too large to be left for someone else.
Omelets, build your own, house special, pancakes with berries, pancakes without, French Toast with bacon and regular toast, you name the combination and we are spitting it out. I drop the bread into the toaster, fries into the fryer, batter on the flat top and eggs in their skillets and then plate in the same direction, always one order, and one ticket at a time. Things hit the window in order and I usually have to rush the wait staff to pick up.

Orders slow and I get a small slump. I check to make sure I am sort of presentable, make my rounds through the dining room and usually get mostly positive feedback. By then I can hear the tickets chattering and I’m back at my station on the line, rolling though the orders.

I clean and attempt to straighten the knots out of my neck. I roll my knives back up, hid my spatula again and put the pots and pans away. We suicide wrap what we’ll need the next day and prepare the rest for lunch shift. We reset the line for lunch and start to heat soup stock for round two. Help arrives and things become more chaotic and I catch myself longing for breakfast again, when I can for a short while be captain of the ship.

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