In the weeds

A server glides through a packed dining room, projecting calm serenity and competence. She breezes through the door that separates the dining room from the “engine room.” As it swings shut behind her, she is delivered to the heat, clamor and chaos of the kitchen, and her smile drops away. She exclaims, to everyone and no one in particular, “Oh my god — I just got triple-sat! I’m in the weeds!”

She runs toward the beverage station to pull out a tray of iced teas and waters with lemon. She runs to the pass to beg the cooks for haste in preparing the appetizers she just entered into the computer. She pleads that someone — anyone at all! — visit the wine cellar for her to see if there’s still a bottle of that 2007 Pinot that Table 43 ordered eight minutes ago, and, “Bring it to me! I’ll double-tip you out!”

Tray of tea and water in hand, she pauses at the door and straps that smile back on, and then passes through the portal back into the public space, her serenity slightly askew. Snickers echo from all quarters of the kitchen. “Check out Weeds McGee, there. She’s losing it.”

“The Weeds” is a place no restaurant employee wants to be. Imagine yourself standing in an expanse of weeds. They’re already tall. They’re only going to get taller, fast. When you’re in the weeds, you’re so far behind you can’t even envision yourself catching up; you can’t see over the weeds. But speak it aloud and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For cooks, the weeds is a little different. Cooks don’t have to switch back and forth from public to private personae, but that can be as much of a curse as a blessing. When the ticket rail is full, and you don’t know what comes next, it can degenerate into a nightmare, and there is no opportunity to even feign serenity.

The Chef barks: “Hey, Sauté — I’m waiting for that *&%#! garnish for this steak that’s dying!” Sauté guy: “Thirty seconds, Chef, I swear on my sainted grandmother!” Chef: “What’s the problem, Sauté — you weeded out over there?” Sauté guy: “No, Chef! No weeds here!” Sometimes the last thing a line cook wants when he’s in the weeds is “help” from anyone. It might take more time to explain how badly behind you are than it would take to get it together yourself.

In “The Making of a Chef” (a book I’d strongly recommend to any foodie), author Michael Ruhlman describes how an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America explained to him the phenomenon of being so busy you’re frantic: “Cause when you’re in the weeds, this clutter starts to build up,” he said, gesturing to the messy, disorganized station of one cook, so buried that he wasn’t pausing to neaten his work area and get his mind in order. “And if they cut you open, that’s what your brain would look like.”

Yep. Full of weeds.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou. She is currently a teaching assistant at Sullivan University, her alma mater.