By Dion Nizzi
Like the lake that helps identify Sandpoint and its surroundings, our restaurants here are primarily calm and laid back, an almost zen-like dining experience. Pleasant background music, a relaxed atmosphere, easy lighting and a seemingly casual service pace usually mark the mood.
We sit. We order a spirit or two. We peruse the menu and decide what we’re gonna have and then we pass that information on to a usually reserved member of the wait staff who thanks us and then turns towards the back end. The mysterious deep of the restaurant. The kitchen.
It’s usually then that, like the lake, what you see on the calm becomes what you don’t see in the deep.
Just like the under surface of the lake, there is also a frenetic flurry of activity in the back end of restaurants. A place where schools of chefs dart through the kitchen, hustling dishwashers keep up the pace and anxious kitchen managers lead the symphony as servers pick up their orders and break the surface time and time again, delivering those meals to tables while switching right back to the tranquility of the dining area.
Stefhanie Royer, executive chef at Pend d’Orielle Winery, runs a tight crew. She has been in the business “off and on damn near 15 years” and has a kitchen staff that runs anywhere between four and six on any given night.
“We have to be working under pressure on a consistent basis,” she said. “It has to be on a high level. Ticket time, heat and adrenaline all have to be kept under control for us to work well together. All of us know how to keep each others back.”
“I like to have a lot of communication between back of house and front of house,” continued the recent Sandpoint Sampler award winner, “I’d have to say this is one of the easiest places I’ve worked at, when it comes to that. We’ll go out and have beers together and hang out on days off together to unwind. It keeps us all connected. We work well on adrenaline, but it’s an adrenaline of joy.”
It’s that kind of teamwork that holds a kitchen together. A symbiotic relationship with the front end servers just enhances the experience, even though at different times, it might get a little strained.
“The energy here is pretty neutral,” said La Rosa Chef Dustin Reichold. Dustin started in the business at 13 years old and has been cooking for 18 years. At La Rosa, he occupies a small kitchen, shared with other cooks, two on the hot side and one on the salad station. “It gets crowded, I mean, tickets start flyin’, bodies start moving. You just have to watch out for one another. It’s kind of like a dance.”
My immediate response: “How good of a dancer are you?”
And when things don’t go swimmingly, Dustin’s advice for any tight quartered kitchen crew is simple. “As long as it doesn’t get heated, you’re usually OK. As soon as it gets heated, your head’s out of the game.”
When all pistons are firing, it seems to be a breeze for these cooking crews.
When the breeze is strong, it’s great for everyone. The days pass quicker, the happiness quotient rises and everyone gets along. It’s the slow times that every restaurant inevitably goes through that make the shifts longer.
Long time Sandpoint Chef Charles Chase has seen the breeze from both sides. After 22 years in the business, the last five with the Little Olive and its newest incarnation, The Neighborhood Pub, Chase talked about those slow times.
“I like to hear that hum of the kitchen,” he said. “Now you’re on auto. You just know. You get into a groove. When you’re slow, you actually have much more opportunity to make mistakes. Your goal, especially when it’s busy is to clear that wheel.”
The pace of the kitchen can be intense, and at times, snail-like slow, but it seems Sandpoint has many fine establishments with the same goal: great food, great service.
Luckily for us here in Sandpoint, more hit the mark than miss it.
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