Text: Peter Hertzmann, Photos: Alexandra Genis
Inside most restaurant kitchens is a partition that is both physical and symbolic. The pass is the division between the front of the house and the back of the house. The pass is the point where the prepared dishes are transferred from the cooking staff to the wait-staff. It is a wall that neither group is supposed to cross. It is often the point of conflict between the two groups, which often report to two separate managers. Although the rules for both groups are well established, during service when tension is high, there are often perceived infractions that insult or offend one group or the other. There may be a gatekeeper at the pass, usually the chef or an expediter, who monitors the prepared food going to the diners and the dirty dishes that are returned.
Physically, the pass can be a high shelf or simply a table. Some restaurants have a separate pass for cold dishes and another for warm dishes. The warm-dish pass will have heat lamps or some other means of keeping food warm. If the kitchen has a separate pastry kitchen, that area may have its own pass.
When a cook completes a dish and it’s ready to go to a diner, the plate is placed on the pass. The plate sits there until all the plates for the table are completed. The chef or a surrogate will inspect the dishes for uniformity and completeness. He or she will also remove any drips or other offensive marks on the dishes. Lastly, if the cook didn’t place each dish on the pass in the proper orientation, the person at the pass will rotate the dish so the server or runner will pick up the plate at the right point on its edge so the plate won’t need rotation when set in front of the diner.
Before taking a completed plate from the pass, the server or runner is supposed to check that the contents are per design and that any modifications requested by the guest are properly included. Good ones will also check for any drips that can be removed before serving the dish. The server has to also pick up the dishes from the pass in the reverse order they are being served at the table, and do so in a way that allows the server to place the dish in front of the diner in the intended orientation without having to rotate the plate. If the restaurant uses cloches to keep the food warm during transport, the orientation of the plates will often be indicated by the design of the cover, which also needs to be accounted for.
In most restaurants, the pass is out of the sight of the diners. The pass is a political divide, and the guests neither wonder or care about the politics of the kitchen. It’s both a physical and psychological divide that separates two groups in the restaurant that are often at odds. Servers complain when the cooks fail to get the food out quick enough or fail to serve it up in the right order or fail to cook it properly or perform some other slight. Cooks complain when servers fail to make special orders clear or when they fail to pick up food promptly or when they fail to deliver the dishes intact or they perform some other slight. Since the chef is standing at the pass during the most stressful times, he or she often becomes the arbiter of the night’s conflicts.
A few restaurants have eliminated, or reduced, the effect of the pass. The most straight forward method is to have all service conducted by the same people that do the cooking. This can be disruptive to kitchen efficiency, but dishes get delivered in the proper condition to the diners. The quality or constancy of the service may suffer, but in my experience, the diners don’t seem to mind.
Another method of modifying the pass that I’ve seen is to have sufficient staff so that on one day, half cooks and half serves. On another day, the roles reverse. This method forces shy cooks to interact with the diners, and no one working in the restaurant is strictly part of the waitstaff. Those particular positions no longer exist in this arrangement. The customers benefit from servers that have an intimate knowledge of the food being presented.
The third method is more limited. Each night, one or two of the cooks is assigned to serve certain dishes. The concept is to make the cooks more aware of the issues facing the waitstaff each evening. This method doesn’t eliminate other issues of the pass, but it does make the cooks more sympathetic of the servers.
Some form of the pass has probably been around since footmen delivered the output of castle and palace kitchens to those assembled in the banqueting halls. Likewise, there has probably been issues since then between those who work on each side of the pass. Until our meals are both cooked and served by robots, the issues of the pass will continue to exist.
The menu is planned
and mise en place has commenced.
The menu just changed.