Slate • Feb. 15, 2012
Nearly three years ago, Tracie McMillan left New York to go undercover within the American food system. McMillan had grown weary of lectures about local food that dismissed the importance of price to working-class people. At the same time, she knew from her work as a poverty reporter that poor families cared about the quality of their food, too. McMillan hoped to get a ground-level view of how Americans actually make decisions about their meals, especially when money and time are scarce.
After working in farm fields in California and a Wal-Mart produce section outside Detroit, McMillan returned to New York in the hopes of landing a kitchen post at one of the city’s 23 Applebee’s restaurants. Though she couldn’t find any openings in food-prep, McMillan fared well during her interviews with managers in one New York location and was offered a position as an expediter.
Expediting, I am told at orientation, is the hardest job in the restaurant. The primary responsibility of an “expo” is to coordinate the flow of food from line to floor. To paraphrase Bernardo, the frenetic bear of a general manager who runs my orientation session, everything I do keeps the restaurant moving. If I don’t do my job right then the orders won’t look right, and people won’t come back, and servers’ tips will be lower, and the restaurant won’t make as much money, and then they can’t afford to pay an expediter, which will mean the servers will have to expo their food themselves, which is never a good idea since it tends to result in the orders not looking right … and the downward spiral into chaos and bankruptcy begins all over again. I am the first domino in line; if I fall, we all go down.
When I come back the next morning, at 10:00, I don’t start off in the kitchen. Instead, the kitchen manager, Freddie hands me a cup of coffee and a flip book full of presentation diagrams for every item on the menu and tells me to start memorizing: Do hot wings get a ramekin of ranch dressing or bleu cheese? Do they get a big ramekin or a small one? Which sandwiches get a side of coleslaw? Which dishes get sent out with wet naps? Which plates get lemons or limes? Tartar sauce? Cocktail sauce? Honey mustard? Sour cream? Mexi-ranch? There are 151 different dishes on the menu and nearly half require some degree of dressing by the expediter. I spend several hours hunched over a table in the back of the dining room, my hair pulled up under an Applebee’s cap, scribbling notes to help myself memorize. And then, around noon, as lunch begins, Freddie puts me on the line.
The kitchen is big, a span of ruddy tile, white walls and stainless steel wrapped around its heart: the line. I’d guess that the kitchen is just under half of the dining room’s size, a third of it dedicated to the line. The rest, explains Freddie, is for storage and prep, where everything gets portioned out: bags of French onion soup defrosted, sacks of Monterey cheese divvied up for the line, bags of Alfredo sauce mixed with pre-shredded cheese, packs of Cargill ground beef defrosted and formed into patties. Little of what he explains to me sounds like cooking, but the line is all business nonetheless. Three cooks whirl in the slice of space between sizzling cook tops and a long width of steel shelving, open on both sides and divided into three sections: the window. We stand on the other side, facing the cooks the pass, a long low counter. A short, well-muscled man stands at its border, glancing up at a computer screen affixed to the top shelf, a tiny printer bolted underneath it. Fluorescent lights burn bright overhead.
Tony, this is Tracie, says Freddie. You’re going to train her on expo, all right?
Yessirrr, says Tony.
He steps up, closer to the counter, and explains the line. The cooks put the food in the window, we dress it. Food moves down the pass from left to right, so ramekins are on the left of the pass, and then there’s the expo line, a series of small refrigerated bins built into the pass, with all the sauces and garnishes tucked in place.
When food comes up you put the correct ramekin of sauce or slaw or whatever it is that goes with it, and send it out. Any questions?
What do you want me to do?
Before he can answer, the printer chortles and spits out a piece of paper. Tony tears it off, looks up at the computer screen and presses a button, making the screen rearrange.
What did you just do? I ask.
To the screen?
Oh, I bumped the ticket.
What do you mean?
Tony gives me a look equal parts teacher and irritated boss. It’s not on the screen anymore, he says, already pulling plates out of the window and calling for sauces. I scoop them out and hand them to him. A server walks past, sees the plate and barely pauses as he grabs them. The plates go out.
I soon realize that the computer is the nervous system of the restaurant, the circuitry that receives information, routes it through the brain, and enables the body to do something with it all. The cooks here never see paper tickets; instead, each station has its own computer screen. An order comes in and each dish crops up on the respective cook’s screen—they don’t know what else was ordered at the table. Simultaneously, the complete order, every dish and every last substitution of mashed potatoes for fries, eighty-six that onion on the Firepit burger and all the rest, is listed on mine. Appetizers are supposed to be ready in seven minutes, entrees in fourteen, and each order has a time clock counting down next to it. When a cook finishes a dish, he hits a button—“bumps” it—and, on my screen, it turns green. If an order is running over its allotted time, it gets highlighted in angry, blinking red.
Around 4:00, with the kitchen still slow, a young black woman named Claudette replaces Tony. She ties on an apron and sidles up alongside me, humming with energy, and starts barking at the cooks immediately in English I don’t yet fully understand: Where’s that Cowboy? How long on that sweet and spicy for fifty-three? Is there an Orange Chick Bowl coming? Can I get a five-ounce? She tells me to get ranch for the barbeque wings, blue cheese for the hot ones, and a scoop of sour cream on top of those nachos, thanks. During the lulls, she breaks into Haitian Creole with Geoff, the dark-skinned cook on mids, swinging between coy laughter and sass. She bumps tickets with abandon, clears the screen as fast as it fills up, and bosses me around without being a bitch. I like her immediately.
She turns to me. You ever work in a kitchen before?
In college, a little. But that was ten, twelve years ago.
She stares at me. How old are you?
Thirty-three. Why, how old are you?
You look … a lot less than thirty-three.
How old are you? I ask.
You’re just a baby, I tease and she shoots me a look of disdain in return.
I ain’t no baby. I got a baby, she says, and turns back to the line.
We go on like this for a few hours and then another manager, Matt, tells me to take my break a little before 6. They might send me home as early as 7 or 8, he says, but I might as well get some food; since I’m in training I can order off the whole menu for free.
I put my order in for a Shrimp Island—skewers of grilled shrimp on a bed of rice seasoned with cilantro and citrus.