Short Order Cook

During my last several years in Ann Arbor, (between 1975 and 1978), I got a job at a very popular local restaurant, “The Cottage Inn”, as a cook. I was 20 at the time, and had no professional experience in this field, but their “chef” was willing to train me and the other young men they had hired to prep food and cook “short-orders”, including burgers, sandwiches, omelets, and their featured food, pizzas. Beyond learning how to make coleslaw and cook a hamburger medium-rare without cutting it open, I learned some basic project management skills, including the concept of identifying and taking account for the “critical path” to minimize the time it would take for project completion.

Like many of the restaurants in my home town, The Cottage Inn was owned by Greek entrepreneurs, three men in this case with some sort of family connection with each other. Sam was responsible for “the front”, designing the interior look of the restaurant and supervising the bar, wait staff, bus people and hosts. Nick was responsible for the financial side of the business, including payroll, accounts payable, monitoring profit versus expenses and the rest of the bookkeeping tasks. Finally George, who I dealt with the most as a cook, ran the kitchen, including the ordering, preparation, and cooking of the food, along with supervising the cooks and dishwashers.

One of their other “cousins”, Dennis, was recruited to teach all us new recruits to prep and cook for a fairly forgiving college town clientele who came their mostly to drink beer and eat pizza. (The Cottage Inn developed local renown for their pizzas, and even today, 2000 miles away from Ann Arbor in Los Angeles, the University of Michigan alumnae events often feature Cottage Inn pizza flown in for the occasion.) So I was taught (and actually learned) how to:

* Clean and cut vegetables and meat

* Prepare an array of sandwiches, lasagna, veal dishes, etc. to be quickly thrown on the grill or in the oven later when ordered

* Cook burgers and steaks to the five standard degrees of doneness (rare, medium-rare, etc.)

* Use an omelet pan to make a good-looking omelet

* Make and manage eight pizzas cooking in a two-level pizza oven without burning any (or myself) in the process

* Sequence tasks correctly so an order (with all the food for one table) was completed as quickly as possible

* Completely clean the kitchen and properly store any remaining food at the end of the day

Regarding that second to last bullet above, the key skill was to identify which item on the order would take the longest and start working on that item first, the second-longest second, and so on. Years later when I more formally learned the skill of project management, this would be referred to as understanding “the critical path”.

Another aspect of this was learning to prepare the food as much as possible (without significantly compromising the final quality) before receiving the actual order and preparing the work environment as ergonomically as possible to minimize the time taken to finish preparation of the food once it was ordered. This included “half-cooking” spaghetti in order-sized balls that could be quickly thrown in a small square colander-like contraption in boiling water to quickly complete the cooking and delivering the noodles with meatballs and/or meat sauce. Also throwing burgers on the grill during lunch rush anticipating a certain number of hamburger orders not yet come in to the kitchen.

Also critical to a successful restaurant was the positive and forgiving collaboration of the staff. Mistakes were invariably made, orders were incomplete, pizzas were inadvertently burned and cooked food was accidentally dropped. Forbearance between wait staff and cooks facilitated recovering as quickly as possible from such situations with as little acrimony and ongoing bad feelings as possible. Going out of ones way to help a colleague recover from their problem on one day lead to them helping you with an issue on another day. I was genuinely proud of how well our “crew” worked together each day. (As a cook, I also enjoyed doing favors for and flirting with all the female wait staff which was mainly attractive and intelligent young women enrolled in the university.)

What it boils down to (as it were) is that food preparation is a project and optimal food preparation involves project management skills, including planning and collaboration. The real world know-how and instincts gained with an apron on served me well later in my life when I wore the white collar on an IT project team or as an actual project manager. These were skills I learned more organically and indelibly in a kitchen than I could in any classroom.

2 replies on “Short Order Cook”

  1. I used to eat at the Cottage Inn in A2 during the late 70’s and I am sure I enjoyed your food. My favorite dish was Chicken Marinara–bone in pieces of chicken oven baked in a marinara sauce then tossed with linguini and served in a covered metal pot at the table. I have tried to engineer the recipe all of these years and I think I am pretty close but would appreciate you sharing if you remember that recipe. Its no longer on any of the menus but it tasted amazing! Thanks!!

  2. Kim… It has been 33 years since I worked at the Cottage Inn, and I could not even begin to remember the recipe. When did you generally eat there? Lunch during the week? Weekend evenings? I started out working the lunch shift in Fall of 1975 when they reopened. But by 1976 when I was back in school at UofM I worked mainly Friday & Saturday evenings from 5pm to closing.

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