Chef Paul Sorgule, a veteran cook, who’s been around the block and now shares his decades of learning and chef wisdom on his Harvest American Ventures blog, describes what it’s like for a chef to be ‘in the zone’.
You often hear about musicians and artists getting into a ‘zone’ when they’re on stage, at one with their art. Well, chef Sorgule says it’s the same with chefs. Some nights, service just clicks and the chef is in full flow, using all his senses to create in tune with all around him.
When a chef is truly in the zone
In the zone is a phrase commonly used to describe a musician, athlete, or even a cook who experiences an “everything going right” situation, and when the person, or persons, involved are totally focused on the task at hand– but, being fully in the zone is really so much more.
When a musician is in the zone – he or she becomes one with the instrument – feeling, sensing, and intellectually connected as the instrument becomes an extension of who that person is. The audience can see and hear this phenomenon as real magic occurs. I have witnessed this with some incredible musical talent: Stanley Jordan, the incredible jazz guitar genius can close his eyes, block out all that is around him, and offer his uniquely original style of plucking with both hands and expressing through his instrument what he is feeling inside. Aurelien Pontier, a world-class French pianist finds his heart, soul, and fingers in total sync as he perfectly executes all of the nuances of a Rachmaninov piano concerto – some of the most difficult music to feel and play. And, the late Al Jareau could seem to drift off the stage while every inch of his being was engaged with scat vocal interpretations of jazz instruments. These great musicians were able to float into the zone and release more than music; they were facilitators of a musical experience.
Michael Jordan defied gravity when he was in the zone; Steve Kerr made it seem as if hitting three-point shots was inevitable; Simone Beal tumbled through the air and stuck a perfect landing as if the mat, bench, or parallel bars were simply there to accent her perfection; and Joe Montana and Jerry Rice were in such sync that no defensive player was ever able to disrupt another touchdown. These athletes were able to switch on their relationship with the zone, at will.
Every line cook and chef has experienced those nights when things go right. Timing is perfect, plates are beautiful, food is prepared as it should be, and service staff appears the moment that plates are put in the pass. To all of us who have been there – this would seem to describe a “zone” event. But that out-of-world experience that truly defines being in the zone requires much more. A cook in the zone feels the joy of a perfect palate for seasoning, the ability to hear, see, and smell when an item is perfectly done, all other line personnel are able to sense what needs to be done next without being told or asked, the plate is ready to receive an item from the grill before the line cook needs to request it, and a simple nod or cursory eye contact from the chef or expeditor is enough to signal what must be done next. Being in the zone is a total sensual experience, and intellectual connection, an emotional alignment, and a physical melding of activity that is a fluid and tight as a perfectly synchronized symphonic orchestra. The experience is rarely planned or anticipated; yet without organization, skill, planning, and confidence it will never happen.
Have you been there? The planets are aligned – those orders clicking off the POS seem to suddenly move in slow motion. Every nuance of understanding is there as the cook assimilates what the expeditor calls off, organizes those orders in his or her head, and begins the structured process of starting a sear, deglazing a pan, reducing a pan sauce, and grabbing pans that are at the ready and hot so that the process is not delayed. You taste, season, and taste and your flavor memory bank kicks into motion as adjustments are made to each pan making sure that the end result is a consistent product. Plates are meticulously assembled so that they look exactly like that picture in the cook’s mind and when the chef calls fire and pick-up, those pans are returned to the stove for finishing and assembled plates are slid into the pass where the expeditor adds an herb garnish and wipes the plates edge. It all seems so easy tonight, so natural, and so much in sync with everything and everyone. Have you been there?
Are you in the zone – really? If you are – is it good luck or something else? So, how does a cook or chef set the stage for “in the zone” experiences? Here are some essential elements:
1 SKILL MASTERY
It would be impossible to experience the scenario portrayed without having mastered those foundational skills that are part of a cook’s bag of tricks. Superior knife skills, a full understanding of all the cooking methods, flavor memory, impeccably tight mise en place, time management, and a deep understanding of each ingredient, its flavor profile and how it acts and reacts under certain conditions and in combination with other ingredients. Being in the zone is no accident.
Take a moment to observe an excellent cook’s station. It is precise, always clean, perfectly spaced, and always so even during the busiest time of service. Don’t mess with a cook’s station – it is exactly how he or she needs and wants it. The cook can point to everything in that station – blindfolded. Back-ups are ample and are labeled and easy to access. Towels are folded a certain way, every plate is checked for cleanliness, water spots, chips and cracks. Nothing is left to chance.
3 TEAM DYNAMICS
When zone work is realized it is because every member of the team knows his or her job and is equally prepared, and every member of the team also knows every other station and can step in at any time and function with the same level of efficiency and passion as the person who typically owns it. It’s all about team.
Just as best friends, brothers and sisters, spouses and significant others know what the other is thinking or about to do, so too must team members on the line have the ability to anticipate the action of others, use verbal and non-verbal communication techniques, and function, as a result, as one cohesive unit. Have you been there?
Respect and Trust are one and the same when it comes to preparing for “in the zone” work. When the magic happens it is because every member of the team is aware of strengths and weaknesses of others and respects what can be done and what needs to be done to make sure actions are seamless. Respect must be earned daily on these teams and it is easy to see that the last thing that a cook would ever do is to allow that trust to wane. Have you been there?
If you are waiting for luck to create those beautifully orchestrated service events – you will be waiting a long time. Whether it is a sports team, a band or orchestra, a military platoon, or line team in a restaurant – practice does make perfect. Every service is another opportunity to fine tune, to discuss those things that are not yet right, and practice ways to bring them there. Individuals or teams that are “in the zone” got there through meticulous practice.
Michael Jordan knew everything about the ball, the court, the game, and his competition. He understood how to approach a game. Aurelien Pontier became Rachmaninov when he sat at the piano to play one of his compositions, he understands muscle memory, how to accent a certain phrase in a piece, how high to lift his hands, and how strong or soft to lay his fingers on the keys. A great cook must understand everything about the menu, the ingredients, the cooking process, the flavor profile, the history and traditions behind the design of a dish, colors and textures, and even how to lay out a plate to emphasize its uniqueness. True understanding is behind every “in the zone” experience.
If you have truly been in the zone, then you understand the depth of satisfaction that comes from control over that experience. When you are ready then that experience can be predicted and expected. When others are able to witness this in the works then the chaos of the kitchen seems to flow like a well-orchestrated piece of music, or a perfect game. Great teams can somehow make it look easy, but in reality it is nothing more than great planning, meticulous work, loads of practice, and un-compromised levels of confidence in this process.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Prepare yourself for the ZONE