It happens in every professional kitchen, to some degree, every day – And folks, truth be told, it happens exactly the same way in our home kitchens, too. Classically, it’s known as being dans le merde – You might not know the term, but I guarantee you know the feeling. You’re in the shit.
Anyone who’s worked in a professional kitchen knows the term. My first professional kitchen training was French, then a Basque kitchen, then another French outfit. ‘On est dans la merde,’ was a thing I heard early on, and quickly came to understand – If you want the proper pronunciation, it’s onnay don la maird – It means, we are in the shit, and in it deep. It’s a colorful phrase, indeed. The Americanized version is ‘in the weeds’, but it means the same thing, and it’s rarely good – I’ll explain my choice of rarely over never down the line a spell.
What in the shit or the weeds means is simple – It’s the Murphy’s Law of cooking – What can go wrong, will go wrong, and usually at the most inopportune moment. It makes sense, frankly. While some advocate that the phenomenon is more prevalent and has greater negative repercussions in a fine dining outfit, I personally think that’s hooey. Let’s face it, we’ve all been to a fast food chain when they’re in the weeds, and frankly, I have zero doubt that staff and patrons there feel it every bit as acutely as they would at The French Laundry. It sucks, bad, and sometimes it can be damn near impossible to get out of quickly or cleanly. Yet most of the time, that’s not true, thank the gods.
Before we explore the what, a moment to discuss the term – Where does in the shit/weeds come from – The etymology isn’t crystal clear. Some posit that it stems from a sports analogy, hitting a golf ball into the rough, or getting tangled in seaweed during a swim. Mark Liberman, a Professor of Linguistics at Yale, suggests it refers to getting off the beaten path, and that strikes me as closer to the mark, (no pun intended). It’s hard to say how old this chunk of kitchen lexicon is. A search for the origins or first use of the term as kitchen slang yields almost nothing of value, it’s an arcane term that apparently hasn’t been explored well. My earliest finding for it is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. The inference therein is that the term was common among kitchen staff then, so it likely has its roots back a spell from Orwell’s time.
What being dans le merde means is, overwhelmed. In a restaurant, it means that something has swamped a station or stations, and they can’t keep up. When everything, literally everything, must be precisely timed and finely coordinated, that’s all it takes to bring about disaster. And if the orders keep piling up after it’s happened, it’ll take that much longer to get out of.
What I do nowadays in the cafe during peak periods is expedite – I’m standing on the front of house side of the pass, the high counter where completed plates are placed by the kitchen staff when they’re ready to go. I give everything one more check, confirm each element of the plate with my QC, and then hand the plate on to a server. But in reality, I’m watching the clock, and all the stations. My QC, (literally Quality Control – The most important person in that kitchen), the one who has final say on what comes out to me, has control of her line, but her back is to it most of the time, whereas I’m facing the various stations – She can feel what’s shaking, because she’s really good, but I can see it – The expressions on faces, the sudden slow down in assembly steps as somebody gets bogged down, the lack of plates at a given station, where there should be several. As such, a great deal of what I actually do is orchestrate things to keep us from being dans le merde. It’s a constant, demanding dance, and I love it.
Now we reach the point of asking, so what? Why would we be interested in exploring a term that describes catastrophic failure? The answer, my friends, is simple – Search your hearts and memories, and you’ll find plenty of examples of this happening to you, in your own kitchen. Sure, we’re not Le Bernardin, but the fact is that, on a Tuesday night, after a long, hard day at work, when you’ve got to have dinner on the table for your family in X minutes, and the shit hits the fan, it matters a great deal. It has happened, and as sure as hitting a deer while driving eastern Washington, it will happen again, and therein lies the crux of the matter – When it does, what will you do? The sitcom and cartoon answer is, order pizza, and sometimes that works, but the fact remains that most of the time that’s not an option, so, just as I do at work, we at home must act to save the day.
Craig Thornton is the wildly creative LA Chef and founder of Wolvesmouth, what he describes as, “a communal dinner party, kind of like the old-world salon.” A dinner party that just happens to be one of the most sought after dinner reservations in that town. In an interview a while back, he said something that speaks perfectly to why understanding and studying being dans le merde is important – “Cooking is creating a big fucking problem and learning how to solve it.” Truer words were never spoken. No matter how accomplished you are, no matter how broad your repertoire, Murphy says that things will go wrong when you can least afford it. Made Yorkshire pudding a thousand times? You’ll fuck it up on Christmas Eve, with the whole fam damily in attendance. Think about it – Cooking is chemistry, math, history, memory, ambition, imagination, all done with a cornucopia of methods and processes almost guaranteed to make all that fail at some point. It’s a given, and as such, we need to recognize and acknowledge failure – Bow to the gods of chaos, and then smile back at ’em. Failure is, quite literally, a vital part of the cooking process. As with most things in life, it’s not what happens to us, but what we do about it when things don’t exactly go swimmingly that tests our mettle.
So, what’s the take away, S’il vous plaît? The answer depends on the disaster. Fortunately, this being the 21st century, answers are but a click away, if you don’t already know one. When a disaster hits your kitchen, it’s time to go into triage mode. Whatever the crisis, when it happens, you need to do what we do at work. Stop for a moment. When you’re in the shit, it feels like you’ve just got to forge on, a la the Winston Churchill quote, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Fact is, that’s usually not a good idea when everything is going to shit.
Disaster requires a moment of observation first and foremost – What went wrong? We may or may not be able to answer that question, but you need to take the time to observe and assess. Thats literally what I do at work – “Gang, stop – Let’s figure this out – Do we need to move people around, do we need more hands, what’s the deal? Let’s figure it out and fix it.” That’s why up there in that second paragraph I said being dans le merde isn’t always bad – If you’re barreling down the wrong path and something critical brings you to a full stop, it can be a hidden blessing – You only ruin one dish, instead of a whole meal.
Take stock of what happened – If you’re not sure what it was, grab your smart phone and google that sucker, ‘why did my Sauce separate?’ With all the resources out there, you’ll likely not only find the cause, but a wealth of possible solutions as well. For the time being, screw the sauce – What’s done is done, and a minute or two more isn’t going to do a bunch more damage. Here’s another tip – Ask for help at home. If you’re a solo cook, (as most of us at are), you’re probably not big on helpers, (I’m not, as many well know). That tendency is, in fact, the cause of many disasters – you’ve taken on a big ass menu of stuff that’s new to you for a party, and wham, things go to shit – Ask for help – Chances are good there’s a spouse, kid, hell even a neighbor you can call on in a pinch. That extra set of hands, eyes, and heart may be exactly what’s called for.
Finally, accept the circumstances. Soufflé pan cracked mid bake? May be salvageable, may not – If not, what’s your alternative? Perfect scrambled eggs are a thing of beauty – No, they’re not a soufflé, but after that disaster, who would argue with great comfort food? Burned the butter in the sauté pan? Don’t wipe it out and charge forward. Stop, get a new pan, take a sip of wine while it heats up. Take a deep breath, get rid of whatever distraction that drew your attention from where it should have been, and calmly go forth to culinary success.
If nothing else, I’ll guarantee you this – Screw something up in an epic kitchen fail, and it’s a safe bet you’ll never, ever do that again. Count your hidden blessings.