Mess en Place

“It’s all about ‘mise en place,'” I kept hearing as I trained for my transition from dishwasher to backline, where I’d actually be doing some cooking instead of dish washing. (Roughly translated “mise en place” is kitchen talk for “put all the stuff you need where you can get it before all hell breaks loose.)

backline1After the rigors of dish washing, which I’m still doing on a regular schedule, anything else may sound like a holiday. The backline, though, turned out to be a trial by fire rather than by dish water.

The backline is where the boring and routine stuff gets done— as in “David, fire some sprouts, please.” To which I shout back, “Sprouts heard”—and frantically go to work braising a pan full of Brussels sprouts. Carrots, green beans and spinach also need to be sauteed, plus cooking and then whipping 15 pounds of potatoes in the equivalent of a cement mixer. And the bacline is where gallons of polenta gets cooked and hand-whisked to make sure it’s creamy, not lumpy. None of which was, of course, routine for me. In fact, I’ve discovered why people go to cooking school: Firing up several handfuls of green beans to perfection requires art and vigilance. Luckily, I had several veteran chefs willing to take the time to teach me the tricks of the trade. The other evening Jessie, for instance, patiently demonstrated how he fires a mean pan of beans:

• Start with a pan that’s been thoroughly preheated in a compartment over the stove top—to the point that its handle is too hot to touch.
• Put the pan on the stove top, add olive oil and wait until the oil literally starts smoking.
• Throw in the green beans at that point when the sizzling sound is so intense you think the beans are going to hop back out of the pan.
• Agitate them with a deft, but hard-to-master flip of the wrist that sends the beans from the bottom of the pan into the air so that the ones on top cascade to the bottom (As seen on TV).
• Add butter and keep ’em flipping. If the pan catches on fire, which it probably will, pretend there’s someone shooting video.
• Add vegetable broth, salt, pepper and herbs.
• Do several other things in the meantime, such as starting two or more other vegetables that the chefs on the line are screaming for.
• The moment the beans turn a slightly different shade of green, yet are still crisp, deliver them to the “line,” where four chefs are cooking their hearts out.

Each pan of beans is pretty exhilarating and requires a  perfect balance between frantic movement and total focus, sort of doing a yoga exercise while your hands are on fire. But getting the beans down the line, where four other chefs are cooking protein, is the really tricky part. Imagine carrying a scalding cup of coffee down the length of a subway car without spilling a drop. Then picture everyone else on the subway doing a whirling dervish dance with pans full of hot grease in their hands.

The other tasks on the backline were not quite so challenging, such as making sure the 30-40 loaves of French bread are heated to the right degree of crunchiness and keeping the French soup vat replenished. There’s garlic to be roasted and the odd special order of spinach and carrots with no butter or salt. The guy on the backline also is sort of a runner in case someone on the line runs out of mussels or asparagus. But emphasis is on the vegetables, since entrees can’t go out of the kitchen without a complementary side of veggies. If you don’t hear the order or get distracted doing something else, you can become the main focus of the kitchen while two or three chefs wait for you to fire carrots, not a pleasant situation.

At any rate, after a week of cooking on the backline under close supervision, I went solo on a busy Saturday night—and was frankly impressed with myself. And I must have done all right because after apologizing for not being as sharp as others around me, one of the chefs explained that if I weren’t pulling my weight, I’d be “gone” or moved back to dish washing. In fact, on Easter Sunday, a particularly hectic day, I even got a compliment from one or two of the guys on the line (they are all guys right now). And last Friday and Saturday, at the height of the High Point Furniture market, I similarly proved myself capable of taking the heat.

Which brings me to the other night. I was scheduled to wash dishes, but with the furniture market still in full swing, I was flattered to be asked to run the backline while someone else worked my early shift on the sink. To me, that seemed like a real vote of confidence. It was another crazy night, with literally hundreds of plates of duck, lamb, beef, fish and fowl flying off the line in a flurry of flaming pans, sizzling sauces and hissing protein. At times, it looked as if the chefs were almost sword fighting with spatulas, so blurred was the activity. At almost the business point in the evening, I threaded my way down this fiery gauntlet with a pan of sizzling spinach—the last clean saute pan I had. Dropping off my spinach and holding the empty pan out of the way, I reach up to a tower of skillets, at least six or eight nested within one another, and grabbed the handle of the top one as a chef to my left hustled some coq au vin and the chef to my right seared some scallops. Suddenly, a hard rain of pots fell from on high—and not just the nested skillets—down came all the neighboring pots, on my head, on my shoulders, on my toes, but thankfully, not onto anyone’s skillet full of hot grease.

What amazed me is what happened next. Standing there when the horrific last clatter had subsided and there was that rare moment of silence in the kitchen, the first thing the other chefs said was, “Are you all right?” “Dave, you OK?” “You’re not hurt, are you?” Once I apologized and said I was fine, the line’s dervish dance resumed as it nothing had happened.

Yes, I was humbled. Yes, my pride was hurt (though I later found out that it rains pots not infrequently). But what struck me most is that instead of being ridiculed or read the riot act, these guys saw me as a co-worker, as someone who was part of their team, as someone they cared about.

Go ahead and call me needy or maudlin—but that felt good.

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12 Responses to “Mess en Place”

  1. Richard Gilbert Says:

    I love this account! The backline sounds intense–fast and real; no wonder the camaraderie and endorphins are released . . .

  2. dclaud Says:

    David Kinney says via email:I’d have left this as a comment on your blog if I could have figured out how:
    No wonder nobody gave you any shit. In that photo, you look like an escapee from Devil’s Island. No telling what heinous, violent crimes you committed to get sent there.

  3. Sarah Says:

    I’m glad you’re actually enjoying it, I’m certainly enjoying reading about it. I cracked up at the whirling dervishes with hot grease.

  4. jim m. Says:

    david,
    it is obvious you are having too much fun and by writing about it have pulled off the coup equivilant of a man with two beautiful lovers, who themselves are aware of each other and are also friends, and as you age they do not but they are never too demanding as you age, only pushing you enough that each day reveales new mysteries. jim

  5. jeff beamer Says:

    Brilliant! I’m going to try the green bean recipe ASAP. Without the distraction of working on the line of course!

  6. Lisa Says:

    Great stuff, you’re inspiring, David.

    Liked the yoga reference, Cheryl would appreciate that.

  7. Tom Lassiter Says:

    Jiminy! I had always thought cookin’ a hog was an art, but now I see it’s just barbaric. Pass the pommes frites.

  8. Kathleen Scott Says:

    What a great story! You must have nerves of steel and, as they’d say in Texas, big cojones, to take on pan flipping without first getting a black belt.

  9. scott sapp Says:

    that’s the way we cvook pole beans here, though a little longer. nice read, and excellent descriptive piece, almost like guitar riffs from clapton.

  10. chris Says:

    i think we were all a little confused when Chef hired this old timer and put him on pots, then the backline. but by all means you held your own and rocked it out like no other. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to work with you. When anyone would give me shit, “what the hell is this guy doing here?” all I had to do is ask you a question about food in front of said person and watch their jaw drop when you gave a detailed response of what purloo or frogmore stew was and the traditions behind it. your truly a badass…….

  11. Mike Fincham Says:

    David, congratulations on joining the brotherhood. You are in for quite a ride. I hope you stick with it. My year+ on grill and saute was the most rewarding thing I’ve done besides getting married and becoming a father. I put the lessons I learned on the line on my family’s plates every single night. You deserve to feel great about this, because the line is a place for young men (which we are not).

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