Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Chef Waltz

Before you quickly come to the conclusion that I've completely lost my marbles in attempting to create a new art form involving bow ties and spatulas, please allow me to explain. This has absolutely nothing to do with Strictly Come Dancing, or Dancing With The Stars as it's known to my American readers. It does not involve Gordon Ramsay on stage with Thomas Keller in penguin suits. To understand what I mean by 'the Chef Waltz', you need to consider how a professional kitchen operates. Not the cooking itself, you understand, but the process by which everybody working in the kitchen interacts to generate the final product on the plate at the pass.

Anyone with experience of the catering industry knows that when it comes to kitchen operations, things are certainly changing. Interviewed by Observer Food Monthly last month, Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road Head Chef Clare Smyth revealed: "I hate banging and shouting. It's all a bit... brasserie," she spits out the word as if it were an undercooked Turkey Twizzler. "In a well-run kitchen, it shouldn't have to be like that because everyone is motivated and everyone knows what they're doing. It should be like ballet." And that is the point of this post. I won't go as far as to call it ballet, but a dance it certainly is. To me it's a waltz... in double time.

I tried not to be too smart and claim that chef's are getting jiggy
Before I go any further I must first point out one very important thing, and please don't be offended by this. You see, explaining the Chef Waltz to someone who has never experienced it themself is kinda like trying to describe 'purple' to a blind man - they've just got no references. The truth is if you've never had the pleasure of performing the waltz yourself you're unlikely to ever fully understand and appreciate exactly what it is. On the other hand if you're a chef reading this and you have indeed danced the waltz with a partner during a busy service, I hope you take great pleasure from reading my experience of what it means to waltz and perhaps share your own thoughts in a comment.

There comes a time during a hectic, fast-paced service when a chef goes into what I like to call 'the zone'. The zone is a special place where you'll never be when service is going wrong, when you're in a bad mood and especially not if service is slow and you're bored out of your skull. The zone is a subconscious state of mind that you never realise you're in until you're almost out again. When you enter the zone your heart begins to pump faster, your mind becomes so focused that you drift into your own little world where your body starts to move mechanically, almost machine-like.

As Anthony Bourdain so wonderfully described in Kitchen Confidential, it's all about "economy of movement". When you're in the zone your arms and legs seem to understand the quickest and most efficient way of making any given movement, you find yourself pirouetting and gliding rather than turning and stepping, and every physical movement your body makes is linked from the previous one so you're somehow always starting the next action as you finish the last. There's simply no space in between. While you're in the zone your entire sequence of movements becomes one long dance, and if you've rehearsed well enough with your partner you'll always know the next step before it comes.

Chefs at C24 are individually focused, but dependent on each other's every move
The Chef Waltz can only be performed by two, three or four people together, because any more would simply make it impossible to establish a manageable rhythm. Of course the more people in any one waltz the harder it becomes, so the best waltzes are always performed between a couple who've practised together before. Besides, it's a rare occasion that four people are all in the zone together at the same time, which is of course the most fundamental aspect of the Chef Waltz.

As with any good working relationship, when you work with the same person every day you start to become aware of not just their habits, but their special personal 'system' for completing the various daily tasks. Your system is your own special way in which you do things, the angle you start from, the spot where you always keep the cup of black sesame seeds, the side you always begin from, the diameter you always shred the spring onions to... it's the way in which you do things so you can mentally tick the little box in your head and say to yourself "that's taken care of", "that's done", "OK what's the next job?" When plating up a dish your system dictates that you always add the components in the same order and in the same way, because that way you won't have to think twice if something's not quite correct. It's just like setting up your section for service, every item always has to be in the same place and at the same angle, because if it's not it will totally ruin your rhythm.

In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain explains that "mis en place is the religion of all good line cooks", and in one of the most intelligent and witty observations I've ever had the pleasure of reading, he also describes how "as a cook, your station, and its condition, its state of readiness, is an extension of your nervous system - and it is profoundly upsetting if another cook or, God forbid, a waiter - disturbs your precisely and carefully laid-out system. The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm's reach, your defenses are deployed". And by God is he right. You simply have to work by instinct, you have to be able to reach out and grab any object or ingredient without thinking because you know you always keep it there.

I should add that you also need partners who dance to the same music as you. Not all chefs are cut out to waltz together beautifully - something Anthony Bourdain knows only too well.
It's all about understanding how your partner moves
When it comes to working with someone on a daily basis, understanding the way the other person works is just as important as realising your own 'system' for how you do things. And this is absolutely crucial during those busy services when you're both in the zone together, because that's exactly what the Chef Waltz is. It's about understanding that what you're doing always has a connection to what your partner's doing at the same time, because you're both bringing together separate items that take different lengths of time to finish, but need to be completed and ready to go at exactly the same moment.

Just like a good game of chess, the Chef Waltz is about anticipating each other two moves in advance, based on the fact that, for example, if he's placing the quenelle of blood peach ice cream on top of the cerviche granizado, in 0.5 seconds he'll reach out with his left arm to grab a sprig of coriander from where it always sits because he already knows that at the exact same moment I'll have approached from his right, ready with the red onion julienne to follow his quenelle. You'll know you're waltzing well when you realise you've gone the last twenty minutes without exchanging a single word with your partner. Because the truth is that during the Chef Waltz you don't need to speak. Like its ballroom equivalent, it's entirely based on non-verbal communication as you work off of each other's body language and follow your instincts to glide around each other in seemingly effortless fashion.

The kitchen is a chef's ballroom, and if every section is running smoothly during a busy service each set of partners will be waltzing in unison to the same rhythm, whether it's the Head Chef waltzing with the waiters at the pass or even the cuarto frio waltzing with the postres section. It's impossible to describe the feeling you get when you're deep in the zone and you're waltzing away on the section as if it were the most normal thing in the world. I guess it's a feeling of invincibility, a feeling of being untouchable. You're in your own little world, you've got your mojo working, everything's perfect and no one can take that away from you.
With apologies to Arnau, who never looks quite this angry!
Until someone nicks your Microplane in the middle of service leaving you standing there like a gormless Gilbert with a lime in your hand, an angry Head Chef in your face and twelve zest-less fideos that should have been on the pass four minutes ago. Oh well... you can't stay in the zone forever!


Chennette said...

Happy Dancing Trig! I loved that bit from Kitchen Confidential too, even though the closest I ever came to participating in anything like that was for dinner parties at home. Cleaning up afterwards was definitely like a well-practised waltz for our family. We had the economy of movement down, so we could go sleep!

Sarah-82 said...

Haha, only a few days ago a few friends and I were preparing for a party in my narrow long kitchen and we commented that it was exactly like doing a well choreographed dance!

James said...

That's exactly how it is.

I was thinking the other day - the (extremely rare) days when we'd take a break in the aftenoon, sometimes we'd be too relaxed when we came back for the evening service and it would break down into disaster. You need fear to enter the zone. Fear of a full check board, or fear of time running out. On quiet days I busy myself with paperwork, so that by midday I've only got a few hours MEP time - you look at the clock, 'there's no way you can do this, you've left it too late'... and you're there in the zone, and you make it happen.

They used to watch me & my demi - we could 'waltz' without talking through the whole day - we both knew each others' strengths/ weaknesses, the things the other did/ didn't like doing. It might be efficient, but it's great fun too. And if you can pass that sense of fun on, that's motivational enough to make people want to stay with you.

I think respect has a lot to do with it too. Maybe a few people have to calm their egos, and start respecting their colleagues. The banging and shouting has a place, just a very small one with a lid on, otherwise if it's all too calm all the time everyone becomes lacklustre - it feels too easy, and that would never do.....

I've just used that phrase 'chef waltz' in a radio interview by the way.....

David Hall said...

Think I'll give the chef's waltz a miss Trig - I prfer The Sex Pistols when I'm in the kitchen! Nie story though.

Hows it all going in Spain?


Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Should I ever go back into Training for a living I'd like to use this please. It explains perfectly that sometimes until you experience something you don't and wont ever fully understand it. Without banging on it explains the importance of commitment to the job in hand, team work and respect for those you work with too.

I read Clare Smyth's interview and liked the analogy to a ballet.

Anyway, Excellent post and always late, I'm only just reading Kitchen Confidential, started it at the weekend.

Trig said...

Chennette - I see you've been waltzing around the world lately. Lucky you. Let me know if you're planning to pass by my neck of the woods.

Sarah - don't try jiving while serving out the canapés. It could cause serious damage.

James - it's so good to hear from people who share that experience. Believe me, it's not always silent here. We have the odd screaming moment too. I'm teaching a couple of new stagers to waltz right now and it's interesting to be on the other end of things.

David - only a stage presenter could plate up to the accompaniment of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. Mind you, sweetbreads would be a great new experience if served Heston-style with an MP3 player loaded with "Never Mind the Bollocks". Things are going really well here, thanks.

Amanda - maybe if you take the boys to see Billy Elliot.....? Enjoy the book, I loved it.

Scott at Real Epicurean said...

Hmmn, you were right at first. I reckon you've gone mad ;)

Trig said...

Hold your judgment, Scott, until you read my piece about rose water caviar. Happy New Year.

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

I suppose I could...
and loving the book.

nicisme said...

Great post, I've always wondered why chefs made good dancers!

Trig said...

I'd like to thank everyone for making this my most read post since I started blogging in August 2006.

I like to mix it up with some serious pieces, some more trivial and some that simply try to be humorous, but it's so rewarding to write something from the heart that gets a 4-figure readership count. Once again, thank you all.

Maria said...

Nice post

Raychelle said...

Hi there,
I really enjoyed your post! I am a visual artist interested in the commonalities between the different art disciplines (culinary arts too). Found your blog by looking for images pertaining to the waltz. Best wishes in you endeavors!

Blog tools

Directory of Food/drink BlogsBritish Blog DirectoryChefs BlogsFood & Drink Blogs - Blog Catalog Blog DirectoryBloghubBlogBibThe Foodie ListBlogrankingsBest Of The WebBlogSweetBlog UniverseLink With Us - Web Directory
My ZimbioToday.comFood BuzzAdd to Technorati Favorites