Productivity Secrets of The Short Order Cook

by Randy Murray on December 28, 2009

My top three career choices are writer, which I’m fortunate to be doing, Zamboni driver, which I believe is every man’s second choice, and short order cook.

I’ve always believed that short order cooking is an underrated and under-appreciated job. I dare you to sit at the counter of a proper diner and watch this person exercise control and mastery of a seemingly chaotic environment, producing plates of eggs made to order in infinite variety, burgers assembled in seconds, and pancakes effortlessly flipped and stacked, and not be impressed. I see these people as skilled artists, part orchestra conductor, part painter and sculptor, part magician.

And there’s much to learn at their feet as gurus of productivity.

Here are a few techniques I’ve culled from observing these masters of their art:

  1. Preparation is everything. Although they seem to be able to produce an infinite variety of dishes, especially with eggs, they rely on a handful of basic ingredients. All of these are at hand and all are prepared in advance. Onions are chopped, cheese is shredded, salt and pepper are within easy reach.
  2. Own your space. The best short order cooks seem never to move their feet; and although everything else behind the counter may be a crush of bodies, only the cook is at the stove. Crowd into the cook’s space at your own peril.
  3. Glory in the sequence. Not everything cooks at the same rate. When an order is given, the short order cook knows when each component must be started, from toast to eggs to meat. And each order has its own individual sequence or “thread.” While new threads are started, others continue at different rates. If a thread is temporarily lost, it can be recovered instantly by simply looking at the state of the items on the grill.

How can these things apply to you and your ability to be productive amidst the chaos around you?  You may have to make a trip down to the Waffle House to observe for yourself in detail, but here are the lessons as I apply them:

  1. Preparation is everything. Begin no task without first reviewing and preparing everything you’ll need to complete the task. Gather your tools and anything you’ll need before you start the process. Anything that you don’t have when you start your task will mean you’ll have to interrupt your progress to get it, or else you’ll do a poor job through lack of preparation and thoroughness.  Each ingredient for your project could be a sub project itself, like finely chopping onions in preparation for making omelets.
  2. Own your space.  When your environment is chaotic, create a bubble of calm and control where you can work.  The chaos may just be that of your own mind, but you’ll need to establish an agreement with your co-workers and yourself that will allow you to focus on the project at hand during specific periods. The short order cook can keep up with the chatter when the orders are coming slow, but when the place is hopping, everyone knows to leave them alone or risk getting burned. While I recommend staying well short of violence, let people know when you need to focus – better yet, set daily times when you plan on focusing – and times when it’s OK to interrupt you.
  3. Glory in the sequence. As a friend of mine likes to stress, “Get the sequence right. It’s not ‘Ready, Fire, Aim.’ And it’s ‘Pillage first, then burn.’” Virtually every task you have has an ideal sequence. For tasks you perform regularly, establish a written checklist. When you can, internalize the checklist. And remember, the sequence of tasks that you do to make a great omelet is as important as the ingredients you put in it.

Virtually any task and any occupation can become an art form when approached with focus and relentless attention to details. And the opposite is true as well. If you find that what you produce in life and work does not measure up to your expectations, if you struggle to complete your tasks, consider spending some time watching and learning from those who have mastered their work. Watch them. Learn from them.

Have some Huevos Rancheros and another cup of coffee while you watch the master in action.

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