Grilled Cheese

By Mark Bell

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First a bit about our sandwiches.

We sell them once a week to help fund the Center's performing arts programs. Most of the members like to eat them, many also like to work the line on sale days. I'm able to put a lot of people to work. There are a bunch of jobs available on the line. Front of the house needs a cashier, a raffle ticket distributor, a plater, and at least one root beer float assembler. Sometimes I hire a bendy-straw kid too. Twenty minutes prior to opening, this same crew works back of the house: hot line (2 people), ice cream scooper (one or two) and pickle slicer.

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Once hired, I give every worker a very specific description of the responsibilities of their station. A minute later they're on their own. Work on most any assembly line is fast paced. The action ramps up almost immediately. But a rhythm is achieved. Soon enough you're just flying along. I clearly remember my first cooking job, working on the line at the Back Bay Hilton Hotel. It was 1986. During the World Series. The Red Sox foes (The Mets) were staying at our hotel. Endless orders. I immediately got lost in the weeds. Buried under a stack of food slips.

The executive chef stood back and said nothing. He let me work my way out of the jam. I learned important lessons that first night. Preparation, prioritizing and keeping focused. And like my executive chef I learned that once the line is rolling it’s usually best to stand back, say nothing and let the workers do their jobs.

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Each spot on any line requires a different type of skill and level of engagement. Like Henry Ford, I believe a good spot exists on the line for everyone. Especially beginners. Week to month workers can advance through the line, mastering different stations, staying ahead of jams. My workers don’t always get the job they want. They work anyway. I draft workers on occasion. Not everyone feels comfortable boldly asking for employment. The draftees usually join in, curious to take part in this popular weekly enterprise. Everyone flying along together.

After the Hilton I went west to cook at Beverly Hills Hotel for two years and then Boston Harbor Hotel for six more. Between preparing thousands of meals I learned the ropes of sanitation inspections, mise en place, “clean as you go”, sharp knives and how to dance in the kitchen. The Center’s weekly grilled cheese line operates using the same principles I employed while working in numerous professional food and beverage outlets.

“Can I work? …Please?” I like to hear the kids say those words. I hear them every week. Kids like the taste of a real-world work experience. Please excuse me now. Gotta draft two more kids to run the raffle drawing. And another to make a poster for next week's grilled cheese day.