A busy restaurant is a collection of information systems, and I don’t just mean its menus and the sign over the door.
You need a system to bring order out of chaos.
A system for doing a particular dish, for doing it consistently and plating it up the same way, plate after plate, night after night, and a system for conveying all this to the new commis chef who starts this morning.
And a system for managing tables and reservations (often just a large, fat, one-day-a-page diary).
And perhaps a set of Word templates too, with the right fonts and layout for formatting an updated menu or daily specials.
And more systems – for handling wages and taxes, rosters and timesheets and holidays, and hygiene checklists, and stuff to show the cash flow, and ever more fancy inventory management systems: the kind of sophisticated system that the CIA would be proud of, that tracks every ingredient in a dish down to its last molecule and sets the recipe quantities, subtracts food cost from selling price, calculates gross profit per plate, minimises waste and even works out the number of calories.
And, of course, you will need a system to handle customers’ orders.
It will need to keep track of the server, the table number, the dishes ordered, and any special notes for chef – sometimes using a shared code or shorthand such as “(B)”, “(P)”, “(M”) or “(C”). B, P, M, C. It’s for steaks (bleu, à point, médium, bien cuit).
If your waiting staff know their onions they’ll also have a code or convention that tells them which customer around the table should get which particular dish when you bring them all out. In the right order.
It’s just a little sheet of paper, or a quick scribble in a reservations book, but get one minor detail wrong and chaos can ensue. It’s a recipe for disaster. A bit like that butterfly fluttering its wings.
Many of these systems are increasingly digital though, from touchscreen cash registers to barcode scanners that speed up stock control, and mobile devices such as iPads to show menus or for your staff to send orders straight from the table to the kitchen or bar.
The first time I came across a Dublin restaurant using wireless PDAs was the Wagamama noodle bar in South King Street around 1998 or ’99.
The serving staff were using PalmPilots, though I’m not sure if they’d reached the stage where orders were being sent wirelessly and directly to the various cooking stations, or whether they were still being printed out as little receipts for the cooks. Either way, the Wagamama chain was well ahead of the game.
My own brief time in burning hot kitchens was back in the age of pencil, pen and paper. Everything was tangible and visible, in that good old pen-and-paper way, as the orders came in from the dining area and went through a procession of hooks or nails and shouting and throwing of things. All very lo-tech. I still have nightmares about it.
But back to these sheets. Restaurants have various names for them – tickets, dockets, order books, order pads, guest checks and check books (not to be confused with cheques, and doubly confusing because in the US the bill is also called the check).
Since Another Case in Cowtown (on page 111 as it happens) I’ve been looking out for how to use these relatively simple and innocuous paper-and-pen dockets within my Moss Reid stories. As clues, evidence, alibis, secret coded messages, instances of fraud and deception – all other suggestions are most welcome.
Some dockets are plain and simple. Others come with printed icons: a little clock for the time of order, a little table for the table number, a little server icon, and even little diagrams showing the waiting staff how to “number” each guest around tables of different shapes and sizes.
The example on this page is from an order pad produced in vast quantities by the National Checking Company, which specialises in these matters. The docket came on a recent takeaway I had from Vagya, a restaurant on the Botanic Road in Glasnevin which produces great Nepalese and Indian grub.
Incidentally the first dish listed – in neat, splendid handwriting – is the delicately flavoured Fish Amritsari, which originated as Punjabi streetfood. As they might say in crime fiction, it’s a starter to die for…