Trinna Schramm has never cooked in a restaurant kitchen, nor has she ever aspired to. But how you enjoy your dining experience at Alinea--the best restaurant in the country according to Gourmet's most recent list--depends heavily on her. As Grant Achatz's unglamorously titled "expediter," she does a job that at most other restaurants falls to the chef or sous-chef, coordinating the kitchen and dining room staffs to make sure your meal is perfectly paced.
The job is harder than it looks. Alinea seats 70 people at 20 tables; meals consist of either a 12-course tasting menu or a 24-course "tour," and can last up to four hours. Schramm orchestrates the presentation of every dish in every course. From her post at the head of the hot station just inside the kitchen's entrance, she collects orders and calls out instructions to the team of about 20 cooks and seven runners, who pick up the plated courses and deliver them to the dining room.
When an order comes in, she marks down the time she receives it, takes note of any dietary restrictions, and shouts, for instance: "Order in, two tour, one person no pork." The appropriate cook acknowledges the order verbally and then plates the first course, currently a sour cream and smoked steelhead trout roe croquette. Schramm will then call to the runner something like "Two croquettes coming up for table 24"; and he'll respond, "Thank you, 24." If there's a restriction, she'll state it--"No roe, P-1," for example--and he'll repeat it. P-1 indicates the position of the diner; it is one of many terms the staff must use to avoid mix-ups among the dozen or so people who wait on a single table. Schramm also alerts the cooks to what's "on deck," so they can start setting it up; this extra prep time is crucial at Alinea, where dishes may have as many as 20 elements. After receiving a "clear call" from the dining room, she'll let the cooks know to "fire" the next course.
Schramm says the call-and-response system is essential: The food is plated at six different "passes" along an aisle created by two long stainless-steel tables where the cooks have their mise en place; most restaurant kitchens have one or two passes. And on busy nights runners are getting courses for seven or eight tables at a time.
Almost nothing is conventional in Alinea's kitchen. Achatz has redefined everything from the cooking stations (fish may come from the meat station and vice versa, for instance) to the service pieces (his dramatic pedestals and steel bows and juniper-scented pillows) to the roles of his staff. Because his complicated multicourse menus require greater coordination with the servers, when he was planning Alinea he wanted an expediter with front-of-the-house experience.
Schramm, 32, came into Achatz's orbit as a food runner. She'd waitressed at a Big Boy during high school in Sandusky, Michigan, and at coffee shops, delis, and a couple of upscale spots while a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She left school and moved around a bit, but returned to Ann Arbor, where in 2000 she earned an associate's degree in photography at a community college and found administrative work at the university. In August 2001 she decided to join some college friends in Chicago and seek the security of a "regular job." Customer-service work at a printing company fit the bill--until they switched her to the afternoon shift. She left and ended up at Chez Joel on Taylor Street, where she says she enjoyed waitressing but couldn't earn enough to make a living.
For several months she tried to land a job at Trio, where Achatz was executive chef; she says she was attracted by its good reputation. She was finally hired in February 2003. "That was my introduction to team service, and Grant was doing food like no one else," she recalls. "Most of all, it was the first time I was proud of working in a restaurant, because Henry Adaniya, the owner, inspired me to think of it as a career."
It was Adaniya who introduced her to expediting work. His longtime expediter, a former busser, left a few months after she started, and he wanted someone else who'd put in time in a dining room. Schramm became the liaison between the service staff and Achatz, who continued to give orders to the cooks himself. Over time, Schramm took it upon herself to do whatever she noticed needed doing--and she could do--in the kitchen, like keeping the service ware in order, allowing Achatz more time to concentrate on the plating of the courses. "Grant trained me, but not in a direct verbal way," Schramm says. "I'm very intuitive and could see how high his standards were, so I did what needed to be done."
The trust he developed in her set the stage for her expanded role in his kitchen at Alinea, where she's trained a dining-room staffer as a second expediter so she can work some shifts as a front waiter to keep in touch with the customers.
Achatz, who says he taught Schramm the job so he "wouldn't be chained" to it, appreciates her efficiency. "She's like a computer mainframe: everything funnels in, and she pushes out the commands for the restaurant to run smoothly," he says. "She combines the self-confidence and capacity to process a lot of information rapidly, communicate quickly and efficiently, make split-second decisions, and assimilate an enormous amount of stress, including the pressure of me looking over her shoulder and holding her to a higher standard. You might say I built the perfect expediting robot." --Anne Spiselman
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.