Girls start at the counter. Women handle the buffet. Cooks are always male. Mid-float is usually the youngest girl, while closing cook/night clean-up is a man in his forties. The opening cook can be in high school but he has to have proven himself trustworthy. He empties the previous day's buffet leftovers into the dumpster. It takes somebody strong to lift all that fermented food to shoulder height. Only two of the cooks can do it.
Night clean-up empties the oil, cleans the pressure fryers, cleans the fallen fries, nuggets and chicken patties from behind the double fryer, cleans the grease trap, twists up wet towels tight and lines them at the tile edge dividing the kitchen and dining area, then sprays down the grease-caked brown kitchen tile with boiling water from the black hose. The water has to soak, then gets pushed with a squeegee back to a drain under the warming cabinets. Curdled grease like cottage cheese collects on the grate and has to be cleared probably five times with one of the long metal spoons. There's a lot of down time while the oil strainer cleans each pressure fryer. Loud music. This all happens around two in the morning.
Girls can be scheduled on dishes but unless they're older they always find a way to trade the boy on counter with that skin-withering duty. The only good thing about dishes is the spray hose, which can soak anybody in the kitchen from a distance.
If the mid-float's any good, they help the cook with the extra crispy, which has to be emptied into a metal rotator with three gallons of tap water and a pouch of marinade concentrate. The chicken goes in frozen and for a while sounds like rocks sliding inside the tumbler. After thirty minutes the marinade's done and has to be scooped out, spread on flat sheets and put back in the cooler near the door. That's policy. Most cooks just leave it in the tumbler until they need crispy down. They pull it out a piece at a time and toss the raw chicken across the kitchen into the wide flour bin. From there, it's tossed into the open fryer for extra crispy only. Closing cooks don't toss chicken because they have to clean up the white flour trails and all the oil splashed against the wall and back behind the fryer, where it congeals into white lard.
The original flavor has a separate sifting bed. It doesn't have to be marinated, but the breading requires several ready-sized packets of egg white, browning and the special seasoning that actually reads "Secret Herbs and Spices" as its ingredients. The plastic bag of frozen chicken parts is dumped directly into the sifting bed, where it's lifted and rolled by hand to ensure even coating. Ribs and thighs usually have bone splinters sticking out that cut. The breading stings and leaves pink spots over wounds all up and down hands and forearms. Cooks are always covered in flour.
The breaded pieces are placed in order on the round butterfly opening fryer racks. Each level on the rack is a complete chicken: wings, thighs, ribs, drumsticks and breast. The rack folds closed and drops into the drum-like pressure fryer. The lid seals the boiling oil inside. The timer buttons are almost all worn white. Fourteen minutes per drop. Each drop fills one whole rack in the warming cabinet. There are twenty racks in the cabinet.
A good cook knows how to balance chicken count with the time of day and day of the week. Overcooking could leave a whole cabinet of chicken to debone for use in the pot pie on the buffet. Deboning is ass: the chicken's still hot and the oil burns. Cooking too little, then taking the pressure fryers down to clean opens up vulnerability to a large order right before closing, wiping everything out and meaning more chicken has to go down. Now the cook's screwed and'll be cleaning with the night shift until two in the morning.
There are only four breasts per fourteen minute drop. A twenty piece all-breast can wipe out a whole cabinet.
Another job is rotisserie prep. Whole ready-marinated chickens have to be trussed with string -- tie the drumsticks together, flip and truss the wings -- then skewered four chickens per on five metal spears that rotate in a glass case. If the chickens are just a little raw, when raised, offering-like, to pull onto the spears, they'll leak icy blood down forearms into the armpits. This sucks. The customers haven't figured out rotisserie yet and so far most of it has to be deboned -- though it's easier to debone because its skin comes right off, unlike original, which sticks when cold. Front counter girls who are good manage to give most of it away to friends at the drive-thru or to homeless people.
Anybody can make coleslaw, but it takes some training and most of the counter girls get the cooks to do it, complaining it dries their skin, cracks their nails, etc. Whole cabbages, onions and carrots are fed into the big metal processor, which spits the ground slaw into a big white tub. Once the plastic tub is half full of vegetable meal, a pillow-sized pouch of slaw mix is cut open and dumped on top. The mix and vegetables both come straight from the cooler, and don't seem cold until the preparer has pulled on forearm-length plastic gloves and started digging to the elbow in the mixture, pulling up, scraping the corners, ensuring vegetable and mayonnaise-sauce are well-blended. Nothing's worse than dry vegetables or a spoon full of greasy white slaw sauce. But the process chills to the bone. The gloves tear through and the cold sauce seeps into the skin. Some cooks have to take breaks during the mixing. Counter girls use ice cream scoops to measure the finished slaw into styrofoam cuplets.
Anybody can make biscuits, too. The biscuits come frozen in boxes, hard as hockey pucks. Flick some flour on a baking tray, line up the biscuits five by fifteen, brush on some liquid butter and throw them in the convection oven for twelve minutes.
All cooking times vary: pressure fryer, fries, patties, nuggets, potato wedges, extra crispy, wings, rotisserie, biscuits.
All alarms are unique:
Beep! Beep! Beep!
B-beep! B-beep! B-Beep!
Bawp! Bawp! Bawp!
Everyone knows immediately what's up. People shout: "Biscuits up! Get the fries! My wings!" and it becomes the responsibility of the nearest person to stop the alarm and pull the finished food from the oil. This isn't part of the training.
The chicken is packed in brightly colored cardstock boxes with a square of wax paper, napkin/spork packet, butter, honey, and cuplets of coleslaw and mashed potatoes and gravy. It's important the chicken go on the warming trays in the proper order so it can be grabbed with long metal tongs and packed quickly, subconsciously, while talking to the drive-thru and listening to the short divorced shift manager whose four year-old has rubella and uses you as surrogate male interaction whenever you work together.
It's important you don't read too much into the way Stacy likes to leave flour handprints on your ass, starting early in the shift and pointing out "Her territory" to other employees throughout the remaining eight hours. It's important that you sell Gerber jars full of your drug-free urine to Bruce the paroled fry cook for five dollars a piece, weekly, and buy his boombox for twenty dollars when he offers. It's important you listen to Henry talk about Chiapas and Marcos and listen to Rage Against the Machine in his Datsun B210 on breaks. It's important that when Liz, who has acne but seems to like you, asks you to sit in her car with her after closing that you do, because she's twenty-three and has a fair idea of what she's doing.
When a girl says she was married, when she says
her husband beat her, and her eyes are moving up and down your face in
a way that could be calm or frantic, that seems to teeter on the edge,
if you were equipped to recognize it, all you can do is nod.
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