Use The Force: Tips from a seasoned chef on getting through the day

Use the force, I heard in the back of my head. It was 4:30 in the morning on a day more than twenty years ago, and I had just walked/stumbled into my little one-room apartment and collapsed onto the bed. Tomorrow was going to be rough. I had a 7am shift setting up the lunch line for a busy Friday service. The restaurant was only a five-minute walk around the corner, but 2 hours of sleep was not enough. It was in this moment, head pounding, eyes scratchy and irritated from being open too long, that I had an idea. What if I just pretended to get 8 hours of sleep? I lay back and set my mind to thinking about how great it would feel to wake up refreshed and ready to take on the day. If I could just concentrate hard enough as I drifted off to sleep, believing I would get 8 hours of sleep and feel great… maybe it would work.

I held on tight to that feeling and let myself drift off. My eyes popped open! Turning my head I read the digital clock next to my bed. 6:58! My alarm was set to go off at 7am every day!! The previous night’s alcohol and cocaine fueled evening flashed through my head. Then I remembered falling asleep!! Oh my God. It had worked!! I felt fine. Great, in fact. I hopped in the shower with a little smirk on my face. I felt completely rested and ready to go, as if I’d slept like an entire 8 hours. For a brief moment as I stood In the shower, my mind started telling me a different story. I’ll crash soon, this isn’t real, you’ll be wiped out within the first hour of your shift and the only thing to get you through will be a gallon of coffee and a few more lines.

I pushed the thoughts away, fuck that, I believe I got a full nights rest, therefore I did, I told myself. I combed out my hair in the shower with a half cup of conditioner. I had long hair at the time (down past the middle of my back) and it was so curly that if I didn’t comb it out every other day it would be a tangled mess of dread locks by the end of the week.

I walked into the back door of the restaurant. “Morning chef!” I said enthusiastically. “Good morning Paolo,” six-foot-four-inch Chef Tony said in his booming voice. Glancing over I could tell he had already been working for hours. Five or six pots simmered on the stove in front of him in various stages of completion. I grabbed a fresh chef coat and headed to my station.

The day flew by. We got our asses kicked as always on a Friday lunch, but I never slowed down. Moving at my regular quick pace, not once did the night before cross my mind. The PM crew started rolling in around 2, all the guys I had partied with the night before.

“How ya doing Paolo?” Chuckling and expecting me to respond with the normal, ugh… I’m hurting.

“I’m great, I feel great!” I had acquired another super power. The Jedi Mind Trick served me well through most of my twenties. I got so good at it that I would never even set an alarm. My body would automatically wake up within minutes of whatever time I’d set in my brain before I fell asleep.

Now, I was a completely different person. Not a partying, drug taking kid. I was a dad, a responsible manager of a well-known restaurant. But the skill I had developed all those years ago became the foundation for the transformation I went through during the months of COVID.

Not for the first time in my life, I realized that the ability to set an intention and know, believe, and feel it as the truth is a very powerful thing

It was a day about three months into the pandemic. The printer, like so many days before this, started spitting out tickets, one after another. Online orders where coming in non-stop and the patio had filled up in the course of about fifteen minutes. Not many people wanted to sit inside yet but we had added an extra fifty seats on a grassy area outside, bringing our outdoor seating to over a hundred and twenty. We were getting crushed.

Everyone put their heads down, stay calm and focus. As we started to fill the pick-up window I could sense the the front of the house staff panicking. Where the hell was the rest of the staff? they had to be wondering. They needed help Now. But the window was full and we couldn’t put anymore food up.

One after another the managers started getting to the kitchen. Go!! This tray needs to go to 48 now!! Where’s the grilled chicken for the salad ? Fuck!! Izzy I need grilled chicken on the fly!! 30 seconds chef!! In a seasoned line cook’s world, anything can be produced in 30 seconds. They slowly started getting the to-go orders packed up and every time they pulled something out of the window we would fill it right back up.

We started firing on all pistons. The whole staff was flowing like a well-oiled machine. Organized chaos. We were keeping the ticket times down to 20 minutes and the food looked good.

“Do you have an ear chef?” The server said that the woman at the table was expecting the pasta to be like it used to be two months ago, before we changed the menu. “Can you make the old style kind on the fly?”

The pan hit the burner before she even finished her sentence. “Jesus Christ!! Didn’t she reading the fucking menu? It’s coming right now. Send a manager to the table to apologize and offer to buy her a drink and bring her a pair of fucking reading glasses.”

“Yes chef!! Thank you chef! I need two sides of bacon to-go please.”

Reaching for the bacon… where’s the bacon?

“I used it all chef!”

Darting off the line, I found the prep cook in the back, traying up bacon to go in the oven. I need some NOW! I grabbed 6 slices and tossed them in the fryer.

“Thirty seconds for the bacon,” I yelled.
“Hey where’s the bread baskets?” a server yelled.

“They must all be out on the floor. Check the dish station. Pick up!! I need this new pasta to go to 302. Someone make sure she’s happy!”

An hour and a half at this pace and, finally, finally, the printer started to give us a break. We were getting through it.

“Can you shuck some oysters, chef?”

I’m dragging a dozen hard and the back line guys are buried. But I’m on it!! One by one we started stabbing the tickets. Almost there. I looked up at the front-of-house manager and took a deep breath.

Brodi and I looked each other in the eyes for a split second and in that moment had the feeling of … holy shit, that was intense!! But we’d gotten through another overwhelmingly busy night and come through relatively unscathed.

Executive Chef and author with 30 + years in the service industry. I have two amazing sons and a passion for food and the restaurant industry.

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