A Night on the Line
It’s 7:30 on a Saturday night at Blackfish Wild Salmon Grill and you are in the middle of your second push. You’re expecting to serve 350 covers tonight for dinner service…and of course each plate must be perfect, every guest must be happy with their dining experience, and the Chef must be satisfied with the way service was executed. Another ticket comes in and you realize that the ticket machine is an oblivious task master…even though the board is full of orders it continues to spit out more tickets.
There are seven cooks on the Line, all experiencing the adrenaline, the challenge, the various degrees of duress which goes with a busy service period. Each cook is multitasking…working on multiple orders at once and planning which dishes they can fire next. Saute’ pans hiss and sizzle as ingredients are added, the grill sporadically erupts with tendrils of flame as steaks and fish are rotated, plates jostle as cooks add the finishing touches. They are caught-up in “The Dance” of service…skillfully riding the wave of a busy shift and trying not to be crushed by it. But regardless of how slammed any cook or station is, the focus of everyone is on one thing … the voice of the person who is “calling the wheel”.
“Ordering: 3 New York’s…2 medium rare, 1 medium; 2 bounty bowls; 1 Halibut.” He’s just given instruction that this food needs to be ready in 20 minutes, and he follows that instruction with this one: “Plating: 2 fillets: 1 rare, 1 blue-rare; 1 crab Mac, 1 heritage salmon.” This instruction means that these dishes are to be plated and in the pass within the next 2 minutes.
Each station echoes back both sets of instructions. If someone doesn’t echo back then the Wheelman calls out the item or the cook’s name until they do call back…”1 heritage salmon (pause)… 1 heritage salmon (pause)…Richard 1 heritage salmon!” This is to ensure proper communication… i.e. everyone has heard what is expected from their station. One missed call in the middle of a busy shift can result in a train wreck, so proper communication is of eminent importance.
Another ticket! “Ordering: 3 Bounty Bowls, 2 Lobster Macs, 1 Grilled Halibut.” You hear the sauté cooks swear as this ticket is called. Five of those dishes come from sauté and they are already buried. A quick look tells you that:
- they have 15 sauté items on the board (they only have 8 burners)
- they are slamming out quality food w/o taking shortcuts as quickly as possible
- and most importantly, they still have their wits about them and are not utterly and completely cluster-fucked in their mental focus/production. They are pressured but they’re holding their own. That’s good…because you know that if they go down, then the whole Line goes down while they gasp for breath and try to dig themselves out of the hole.
Right then a server runs up and says “I need to hold table 23. They went out for a smoke.” Your mind screams “Dammit!!”, but you respond by making the call, “Sauté, drag table 23 x 10 minutes.” You hear a chain of expletives followed by the call back “dragging 23!”
Another ticket spits out of the infernal machine…and it’s all for sauté! You decide to hold this ticket for a few minutes before calling it. The sauté cooks are already at their production/stress limit. It’s better to drag the table and let them put a few plates out rather than to utterly bury them.
Expeditor – Wheelman Qualifications
If you run an à la carte restaurant then you have someone who fulfills this role. The position is referred to as “calling the wheel” or “calling the board” and typically the Chef, sous chef, or lead line cook will take this position. Although duties vary by operation, typical responsibilities include: calling the tickets, organizing the flow of food to the window, plating dishes, final inspection of food, and final garnishes.
If the Chef is not filling this role then the position goes by a variety of names including the following: the wheelman, ticket man, expo, and/or expediter. Some operations are busy enough that they will have a Wheelman to call tickets and organize plates in the kitchen, and they will have a separate Expeditor who does finishing garnishes and organizes plates for the waitstaff. In this type of operation the servers communicate only with the Expo, and the Expo is the only one who talks with the Wheelman.
The strength or weakness of the Wheelman or Expediter’s ability directly impacts both the efficiency/quality of service and your food cost.
S/he keeps the kitchen moving at a steady pace, regardless of the calmness or storminess of the shift. S/he controls the flow of plates to the pass, evaluating the quality of each plate to ensure that it meets the Chef’s expectations before it hits the window. They communicate timing to the different stations on the Line so that the five-minute dish from Sauté comes up at the same time as the 20 minute steak from the Grill station.
The wheelman acts as the mediator between front of the house special requests/food problems and the corresponding need for the back of the house to get something fired on the rail (get it done as quickly as possible).
If the wheelman becomes flustered then the entire Line is in jeopardy. If s/he gets “lost” and loses mental focus then the Line comes to a standstill while the expeditor gathers their wits. Seconds are precious during service, so if the expeditor crashes then the Line is instantaneously buried. Life was already hard…now they have to take out shovels to dig themselves out of the hole they’re in. Tempers flare, ticket times escalate, table turns slow to a crawl, and servers pull double duty in order to keep customers from getting upset over the extra wait.
This is the point at which things can go from a bad day to a fucking living hell. A poor wheelman is now going to slam food out of the kitchen as fast as they can regardless of its quality. “Just fire everything!” s/he will scream. Tickets get missed, extra food is prepared by accident while other tables are missing part of their order. And food starts coming back because it’s overcooked, low quality, not properly cooked, or otherwise unsatisfactory to the guest. As a guest, it’s bad enough if you have to wait a long time for your food… but its unforgivable if the food which finally arrives after too long a wait is substandard. If the kitchen is buried it is better to let the guest wait longer to get quality food rather than to just slam something in the window which will disappoint them. It is the Wheelman’s job to keep the ship afloat until things get caught up again.
And while we are on the subject of the kitchen getting buried, it is my experience that this is usually a front of the house problem, not a kitchen problem! Too many managers will allow the restaurant to be mass-seated and then blame the kitchen for falling behind. The fault is with the manager’s inability, or unwillingness, to control the seating. So don’t blame the kitchen for a problem which you created!
The expeditor/wheelman has the hardest job in the kitchen. A good wheelman MUST have the following qualities:
- must be able to remain calm under extreme pressure
- must be able to think clearly under pressure
- must be able to make excellent snap decisions while under pressure
- must be mentally organized
- must be able to multitask
- must be flexible and able to change organization and priorities on the fly
- must be emotionally stable…able to handle the demands/frustrations of the cooks and the servers
- must demonstrate calmness in the midst of chaos
- must be able to maintain the highest quality of food and require items to be re-made if they do not meet the Chef’s standard (resisting the urge to simply sling shit out as fast as possible)
How to Call the Wheel
Calling the wheel varies by establishment but here are some general procedures which most operations follow.
- call every ticket as it comes in, trying to group same items on each ticket. For instance, rather than calling “ordering: halibut, salmon, fillet MR, salmon, halibut, salmon” you should call “ordering: 1 fillet MR, 2 halibut, 3 salmon”.
- always require a call back or echo from each station for items ordered.
- if you do not get a call back then repeat the item, or call the cook’s name, until you get a call back
- there are typically at least two kinds of calls:
- “Ordering” which indicates a new order to put into the flow
- “Pick~up” or “Plating” which indicates the dishes or table which is now being plated
- “Fire” – this is a 3rd common call for establishments where servers ring in their entire order of multiple courses and then tell the kitchen which course to “fire” as the table moves through their meal. For instance, “Fire talbe 21 entrees: 2 salmon, 2 NYs MR.”
- maintain the timeline, meaning that if your goal is a 15 minute ticket time for entrees then you maintain that timeline
- give occasional “all day” calls. For example, “all day you have 9 New Yorks: 2 Rare, 4 MR, 2 Medium, 1 MW.”
- if a dish comes back from a guest and needs to be re-fired then it takes highest priority over other tables
- when things go horribly wrong (because they will!) look for solutions…do not look for who to blame
- maintain quality control of food and presentations
- clean plate edges
The Board – a straight bar which holds tickets while they are being prepared. The Board & the Wheel are 2 versions of the same device…a place to hold tickets during preparation.
The Wheel – an old fashioned round ticket holder which looks somewhat like a wagon wheel from the old west.
Call back; Echo – when the wheelman calls an order it is expected that each cook/station “call back” or repeat the order to ensure that it was heard.
Kill it – cook it well done! “Ordering a New York…kill it.”
Sell table __ – means that specific table is ready for the server to pick-up and deliver to the guest. “Sell table 31” or “Table 31 is sold”.
Table __ is up – has same meaning as ‘Sell table __’.
All day – a summary total of one or more items from all tickets. So, if you have 10 tickets with lots of steaks (each ticket is one table) you might give an “all day” for the total number of NY steaks ordered, “all day you have 9 New Yorks: 2 Rare, 4 MR, 2 Medium, 1 MW”.
In the Weeds; Weeded; Buried – falling behind on producing orders. “Saute is in the weeds.” There are many other phrases used for this predicament!
Re-fire – the need to cook something over (for any number of reasons). Always means that it is needed ASAP. “Re-fire 1 fillet MR.”
Rail it; On the fly; On the rail – cook it as quickly as possible…highest priority of all items being prepared right now. “Rail a crab mac.” “On the rail: 1 crab mac.” “I need a crab mac on the fly.”
Window; In the window; Pass; In the pass – the area where plates are put when they are completed and ready for servers to pick-up. “In the window (pass) I need…” Pass is short for “pass-through” which describes the area where food is “passed through” the “window” from the kitchen to the servers.
The Line – the kitchen line where the cooking takes place during service. When leaving the Line its common practice to notify everyone, “Off Line for romaine”. This lets everyone know that your station is temporarily unmanned and it gives them an idea of how long you will be gone incase someone else has to cover for you.