A chef describes “Call-Backs”


A working kitchen is a symphony of sound. 

The hiss of a steak hitting a hot pan, the scraping of a plate being dragged off the top of the stack, percussive staccato of a knife rapidly hitting a cutting board, the kerplunk! of a spoon being dropped back into a sanitizer bucket. These are sounds you’ll hear in a matter of seconds, throughout an entire service, in every kitchen everywhere.

There are however, also the sounds of the people working.  During prep time, there are usually a litany of small conversations, some about work, some not.  Some tame, some quite vulgar (some of which I’ve been part of that I’ll never repeat to anyone because they were so bad!).  Usually a lot of Spanish is being spoken, and depending on the kitchen, you could get Cantonese, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Polish, Thai or Tagalog. 

However, during meal service, there is very little casual conversation, and in my experience, the higher caliber the restaurant, the less small-talk there is in the kitchen.  The reason for this is simple: communication is of paramount importance. 

I’ll elaborate.

In a typical workplace setting, when your boss gives you assignments, it’s usually in the form of a question or a request: “Hey, I’d love it if you could get me that report by Friday, thanks.”  During a meal service, “assignments” are more like commands, and they’re handled in a fashion similar to how communication on submarines is depicted in movies.

Every time an order comes into the kitchen (always in the form of a “ticket”, usually from a ticket printer, but sometimes hand-written/delivered), someone will call out the items being ordered on that ticket for all the cooks to hear.  This person is usually the Chef, but sometimes an Expediter will be responsible for calling tickets.  The call always starts with whatever terminology the kitchen uses for announcing  a new ticket — an “indicator”, if you will.  In the past, I’ve answered to commands like “walking in,” “ordering”, “next ticket”, “proximo ticket”, “order in,” and probably some others I’ve now forgotten.  The purpose of these indicators are so that everyone knows that what follows is a new order and they need to listen up.

For the sake of brevity, often dish names will be abbreviated, and to the unfamiliar ear, it might sound like gibberish.  In some kitchens, the Chef will call the whole ticket to the entire kitchen and the entire kitchen will call back the whole order in unison.  It’s more common though, that a ticket will be called out by station so that each cook, or chef du partis (a cook in charge of a certain station, with several other cooks under him/her) can confirm each dish they are responsible for.  This confirmation is known as a “call-back”.

Here is an example of this type of interaction, with the call-back in italics:

“Order in! Raul, two beet, one torchon, six shot!”

Two beet, one torchon, six shot, yes chef!

“Shanna, one firefly, two wag bite, one uni toast, one soup!”

One firefly, two bite, one toast, one soup, yes chef!

Tex, I got two fillet, both MR, one strip, one chop, well.

Two fillet, one strip, one well chop, heard chef!

Emily, I got one mash, one truffle fry, one carrot no dairy.

Chef, for the carrot, can I just blanch and season and garnish after?

Yeah, that’s fine.

One mash, one truffle fry, one blanched carrot, yes chef!

I got a pick-up on forty two.

Heard forty two! Jessie, can we go five on two rib-way, one medium, one well done fillet SOS, and a chop?

Two ribeye one medium, one well fillet SOS and one chop. Can we do seven?

Make it happen! Seven out on forty-two, chef!

Heard, seven out on forty-two.

And so it goes: all service, every service. Call-backs like this are important because one small breakdown in communication can sink a busy service. Sound overdramatic? Well let’s change up the situation a little bit:

Let’s say in that situation of picking up table forty-two, Jessie didn’t hear the call for the fillet to be well-done (one well fillet, SOS), but nobody knows this, because she didn’t call the order back. So she cooked it the default temperature for steaks if no temp is given: medium rare. It takes at least ten minutes to take a 6 oz. fillet of beef on a grill from mid-rare to well. A skilled cook can pull strings and do little tricks to make it happen faster, but even with that, that steak is still at least six minutes out.

Now, not only is that six minutes the rest of the food for that table dies in the window/pass (and likely has to get re-plated, if not totally re-fired), but there were three other tables scheduled to be picked up after forty-two at two-minute intervals. A good expediter with a kitchen of good cooks can finagle that to happen most of the time, but service is already lacking any margin for error, and humming at breakneck pace. And if another such mistake happens during that time, the whole situation snowballs. People start rushing which leads to things getting missed, plates getting dropped, food being over/undercooked, cooks getting cut or burned, and already volatile chefs getting demonstrably livid.

However, insert a call-back into that scenario, and this is how it would go:

Heard forty two! Jessie, can we go five on two rib-way, one medium, one well done fillet SOS, and a chop?

Two ribeye one medium, one fillet SOS and one chop. Can we do seven?

You got that fillet well, right?

…shit. Yeah. I can still do seven.

Thank you. Seven out on forty two.

And Jessie has to pull some strings, but knows what she can do, and responded accordingly and truthfully, and all goes on without a hitch.

Call-outs can also be fun and a little silly, when things are a little more calm. You might hear things like,

“Brian fucking called out! What a pussy!”

Brian’s a pussy, heard chef!”

Or, “I just cleared my board (put up the last table for which a ticket was hanging), I’m gonna go take a piss.”

Heard taking a piss.

You get the idea. And it does exist as one of the several things about kitchen/restaurant culture that those who live it every day, think should be embraced by society, but alas, as would be in the kitchen, much of the world just wouldn’t be able to cut it.

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