Something is going to go wrong. Maybe many things. Maybe everything. To work in a restaurant’s kitchen is to be reminded of this nightly, and to feel your nerves dangling on the precipice where frayed can quickly give way to sheer madness.
Every dinner service is a juggle and a dance at Majordomo, David Chang’s restaurant in Chinatown, where, as executive chef, I run the kitchen. Part of that is making sure our recipes—the egg with smoked salmon roe, the mushroom crispy rice with yuzu, the smoked short ribs with banchan sides—reach diners with the intended magic. But maybe an even bigger part, sometimes more challenging than cooking, is having a personal recipe to stay sane as the chaos mounts.
Find something that brings you calm and focus so you don’t walk into the restaurant on edge. Is it yoga? Wind-sprints? Binging on nature documentaries? Doesn’t matter so long as you show up centered. A year and a half ago I started meditating in the mornings, right when I wake up, to create a clean slate that I can go back to when things inevitably get dirty.
1. Using a keen eye, scan the kitchen for where things might go astray. Try every sauce, sample a dish or two, talk to your cooks. Everything and everyone in order? Or does someone’s station look like a yard sale? Get all that chopped and seasoned before the doors open.
2. Start the night off at medium-high: a pace that’s not too fast, not too slow, something that can be continually stirred without boiling over. This is your stock for the evening. Sprinkle in a dash of luck to prevent people from camping out at tables for too long.
3. Now you’re in the thick of it. Tickets are stacking up, everything is a blur, and the inevitable curveballs start coming. Does someone have to leave early? Is the freezer actually just seeing it more clearly because he is present.
4. Meanwhile, as noodles boil and deep fryers sputter, drizzle in a reminder that there are more important things than what you’re doing right this second. For me, that’s my wife, my son and daughter. Let that simmer for three to five seconds. Okay, now check on those noodles.
5. Be careful not to curdle at the end of the night. People can get sloppy here. In their minds, they’re already cleaning up, breaking down, going home. Prevent this by combining some pats on the back with some kind words, whisking to emulsify into a strong finish.
6. As the last diners leave and things cool, carefully slice out the fact that tomorrow it all starts over again by pouring yourself a glass of wine. Take a sip. Take a few.