Thursday, February 18, 2010

Conducting at the Waffle House

A hundred years ago, back in my younger life, I majored in Music. One of the courses I had to take was Conducting. This was one of my favorite courses. Now most people don’t understand what a conductor does – they think he (or she) sorta’ stands in front of the orchestra and waves their arms for show. There is a bit more to it than that. In fact, the way the conductor waves his arms indicates the time-signature of the music being performed. And conducting isn’t just about arm waving. He has to cue in instrument sections, and he can do this with a raised eyebrow, or a slight nod in the direction of the performers. He has to indicate to the orchestra the degree of dynamics with the music being performed. The music score may tell the trombones to play loud – but how loud? The conductor will indicate to the trombones how loud they should play so that they balance with the remainder of the orchestra. The conductor determines how fast or slow the orchestra plays, whether notes should be played with a short punch or with a softer elongated feel, whether a section of music should be performed loud and dynamic or softer and more mellow, and….well, he conducts the orchestra. He is the one that rehearses the orchestra day in and day out so they can perform the music faultlessly. This is why a good conductor can command hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary. You have to study years to master it.

So I studied conducting, and practiced memorizing music scores and then play-conducting with recorded music. I got pretty good at doing this in front of the mirror. As our final exam, we had to conduct the university orchestra. This is pretty scary, for the orchestra will do precisely what conductor indicates. The judges didn’t even watch you. Instead they concentrate on how well the orchestra played the music – for that indicates how well it was conducted. I did pretty well. Some failed miserably….with the music descending into shambles.

So, a while back I went to eat at Waffle House.

What? This seems an abrupt transition – but really it isn’t. It all ties together. Honest.

I like the Waffle House. It is a small place with some booths and a little bar all close to the open kitchen. For such a small place, the menu is full of a variety of choices. But most people go there for breakfast – as the name Waffle House implies.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a Waffle House booth sitting and sipping my coffee while waiting for my order. The Waffle House chef is in his kitchen about ten feet from me. I noted that he had about five or six orders to cook – but he showed no nervousness, and professionally did his job. Okay – perhaps Waffle House chef is a bit too prestigious….more like Waffle House Short Order Cook.

Now I enjoy cooking. I can flip stuff one-handed in a pan, crack eggs single-handedly, and cut up stuff pretty fast without chopping my fingers off. And sometimes my food even tastes okay. So, as an aspiring cook, I tend to pay attention to other cooks – to pick up techniques and see how they handle themselves. As I sat there musing, it occurred to me that a Waffle House short order cook is a conductor in his own right.

Watch these cooks sometime. They will use the side of the spatula to tap on the stove before he starts, just like a conductor taps on the music stand with his baton to get the attention of the orchestra. Then the cook-conductor will begin his performance. There are a multitude of ingredients in handling six orders just as there are a multitude of ingredients in a conductors score. The cook-conductor deftly orchestrates the whole symphony, cuing in the hash browns at the right time so they will be cooked perfectly when he is finished, conducting the dynamics of the eggs so they are over-medium just as the customer wanted, flipping the pancakes with an abrupt staccato, keeping the bacon on a slow sizzle so that they will be perfectly crisp, adding the spice – a conductors nuance – to the performance. The cook-conductor will glance at his score of six orders to insure that each section has its part performed to perfection. His symphony has six movements, and each order is finished with a flourish cooked to perfection. And he does this without even sweating.

I almost wanted to applaud as I watched him.

Waffle House conductors should be paid more for their performance.


  1. I've done that, ok, I haven't, but I've seen it done and am envious enough to want it for my own! I love how you tie things together. Seeing things in ways the rest of us would overlook. Great post. Now I want waffles.

  2. Hey, Jerry. I read you comment on my blog, Everything Else. I have been finding this whole blog world (encompassing things like Facebook, as well) to be like a big back fence where neighbors meet. I think you are right. Too big a readership (or at least a focus on the numbers) will diminish a lot of the neighborly quality.

    As to posting pictures, if you are using the Blogger editor from the Dashboard, there is a little picture button on the bar at the top. This brings up a window with a "choose Image" button. It will let you browse your files for a suitable picture. It will let you also post a picture from the Internet, but I prefer to capture those pictures onto my computer. Sometimes people will move or change them, and then you have a broken link.

    Thanks for stopping by. I like your conductor analogy for the busy restaurant scene. You can find similar analogies elsewhere, if you look. If you get a chance, watch a blacksmith working with one or two assistants. The hammer serves as a signalling device as well as a tool.

  3. Why, I have never noticed that before. Sometimes cooking has rather seemed to me like a performance, but never have I delved so deeply or seen so lucidly as to equate the chef's art with the conductor's. And yet you've pointed out some compelling similarities: the tap of the spatula, conducting the dynamics of the eggs (loved that phrase)...

    An intriguing post, as always. And I do think short order cooks--GOOD short order cooks--are highly underrated.

    Congratulations on your own performance as well. Most impressive. I had no idea that there was that much to it.

  4. I knew there was more to conducting then waving your arms aimlessly!! Lol. But wow, I had no idea there was soo much to it. That's amazing. And go you for learning it all!

    I actually did some short-order cooking when I was younger at a deli that served breakfast. I never looked at it as conducting, but you are absolutely right- it is!! And it is very hard to teach the subtle nuances of timing so that everything comes out right. I learned from my father who loved to cook breakfast (and still does).

    I love the way you look at things.

  5. P.S. Dear sir, I just nominated you for a blogging award. Please head on over to my blog to check it out.

  6. Well, first of are a multi-talented individual. You can cook...and you can conduct?

    I played viola in the orchestra from grade K thru high school graduation. LOVED IT. Gave me an appreciation for music I'll never forget. I can pick out the viola and the cello in any piece...and close my eyes and sway to the music.

    However, I cannot cook to save my life.

    And yes, dear DID tie this piece up with a beautiful bow...and (of course) I have tremendous respect for the short-order cooks...for I become exasperated at "cooking" ONE meal.

    Now, to get back to familiar territory....", two, three, four..."

  7. I so enjoyed your post. GOM used to love to cook when our temperamental 'Chefs' stormed off or quit. He could be quite the conductor, getting all the meals ready together, with a smile and a flourish. He really was a showman when he was 'onstage'!
    My brother always had a longing to be a conductor.

  8. I must pay more attention to the Waffle House symphony next time I'm there! Charming post.