Anatomy of an Order
The service of one meal, from cocktail to digestif, is an event that's both chaotic and highly synchronized. On a Friday night, we took our stopwatch to new steakhouse KO Prime and, later, with the help of chef de cuisine Jamie Bissonnette, reconstructed the highlights to get a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.
7:20 p.m. Due to an outfit crisis and our toddler's displeasure about being left behind with a sitter, my wife and I arrive 20 minutes late for our reservation. "I like to give a 15-to-20 minute window, but we always try to work with guests if they call," says chef Jamie Bissonnette. Thankfully, we did, and the hostess seats us right away.
7:23 Our server, Jose, introduces himself and asks what type of water we'd like. On a Friday night, five waiters together take care of 22 tables.
7:24 One of two "server assistants" fills our water glasses. The two assistants, or SAs, team up with two food runners and focus on the entire restaurant.
7:30 Jose takes our drink order: for my wife, Alex, a blackberry apple julep; for me, a tequila concoction called "La Verdad." Jose punches the drinks into a computer, where they are transmitted to a service bartender.
7:37 Jose brings the drinks and takes our food orders: the beet salad and Atlantic halibut with ginger, clams, and chorizo for Alex; for me, a green salad and filet mignon with chimichurri sauce, medium rare. We also order sides of mixed mushrooms, cipollina onions, and frites. And, as a first course, a half-dozen oysters. Alex orders champagne with her salad; I nurse my tequila.
7:38 Jose punches our order into the computer, which prints out a ticket in the kitchen, where it's immediately picked up by Bissonnette. He shucks the oysters himself, asking an SA to prepare a plate with ice and mignonette. Meanwhile, he calls the salad order to the salad station. Bissonnette counts on 35 to 40 minutes between the time an order is placed and the time entrees go out. On an average night at KO Prime, in the Nine Zero Hotel, he juggles about 20 different entrees every half-hour. On a busy Saturday, he can get slammed with as many as 35 at a time.
7:45 One SA brings our oysters, which we scarf in four minutes flat. The other SA (we'll call her SA2) promptly picks up our empty plates. For each course, SAs wait until everyone has finished eating before they clear the table; they aim to pick up the empty plates less than five minutes after the last bite is eaten. In the kitchen, the grill cook seasons my filet and puts it on the grill.
7:57 Jose brings Alex's champagne. Bissonnette likes to have the drinks arrive a couple of minutes before the corresponding course.
7:58 A food runner brings our salads. Shortly, my steak will be taken off the grill to rest and let the juices redistribute. While the steak sits, the fish cook will season Alex's halibut and put it into a saute pan to cook.
8:08 Around this time, Jose punches in a "fire ticket" to alert Bissonnette to start coordinating the meal. The server does this for each of his tables about five to eight minutes before the entrees should be served. Bissonnette orders his souschef Jason Wharff to "go plates" - put the plates in the oven to warm at 350 degrees.
8:11 Jose clears our salad plates. Bissonnette shouts "Pull plates!" One of the cooks plates the mushrooms, while the garde-manger (who works primarily with cold food) prepares the onions and frites, and the grill and fish cooks plate our entrees.
8:13 Go time. Bissonnette rings a bell, and, in a finely orchestrated ballet, SA2 brings our entrees while a food runner slides our sides onto the table behind them. Jose takes our order for wine.
8:16 Jose returns to tell me that the malbec I ordered to go with my steak is not available - only the first mistake he's made. "That's unfortunate. He should know beforehand when we don't have things," says Bissonnette, who equips each waiter with a printed list at the beginning of the night.
8:30 As we work our way through our entrees and sides - all of which are delicious - general manager Ashley Garcia stops by to ask how everything is. She does this at every table. "Some people will say fine and look away," says Bissonnette. "Others will say this sauce is really good and I'll write a recipe on a card. Others will say they hated something and I'll grab my oyster knife and commit hara-kiri."
8:44 SA2 comes by to ask us if we are finished or "still working" on our meals. Bissonnette encourages this type of communication. "There may be a plate that's completely empty except parsley and cilantro from the garnish, and someone will say, 'I'm not done,' he says.
8:52 Jose takes our dessert order: for Alex, a frozen mint mousse with a liquid chocolate center, and for me, a caramelized chocolate bread pudding with pistachio ice cream. Also, a port for her and a Scotch for me.
8:53 Jose punches in our drink orders while the pastry chef prepares our desserts, which must be timed perfectly so the warm chocolate center doesn't turn the mousse Alex ordered to mush, and my bread pudding doesn't melt my ice cream. You can rewarm a steak, says Bissonnette. "You can't re-scoop ice cream."
9:00 Jose brings our after-dinner drinks at the same time SA2 brings our desserts, which have been executed flawlessly.
9:12 Thirsty from the Scotch, I mention to Alex that my water glass hasn't been filled in a while.
9:13 As if reading my mind, SA1 fills my glass. Ideally, says Bissonnette, it would be filled whenever it's three-quarters empty.
9:16 Jose asks us how we are doing, and we ask for the check.
9:27 The check arrives after a longer-than- expected lag. "Eleven minutes seems to be a long time," agrees Bissonnette. "I'd probably want it to be seven minutes or less."
9:30 Making up for the wait, our server is back quickly to take my credit card, then again with the receipt. All in all, we've been here a little longer than the two hours the restaurant expects for an average mealtime.
9:35 As we leave, the restaurant is just heating up, and the choreography we've witnessed is being repeated at 21 other tables. We give our ticket to the valet, who already has our car waiting across the street. How he does that is another story.