Back of the house
Meet the workers feeding Tulsa’s restaurant scene
Glory Wells (left) takes inventory, seasons vegetables, grills catfish, washes dishes and wipes down tables at Wanda J’s Next Generation.
SEPTEMBER DAWN BOTTOMS
Glory Wells juggles many jobs in the kitchen at Wanda J’s Next Generation. She takes inventory, seasons vegetables, grills catfish, washes dishes and wipes down tables. Simultaneously, Wells studies logic games and reading comprehension tips in her Law School Admissions Test practice book. She brings the book into the kitchen with her every day.
“I’m applying to law school,” Wells said. “I’m speaking it into fruition.”
Wells operates Wanda J’s with her four sisters. They each work 50 hours a week at the restaurant while enrolled in a full schedule of college classes.
Wells and her sisters learned the ins and outs of the business while working at their grandmother’s restaurant, Evelyn’s Soul Food. Wells was eight years old when she got her first summer job at the restaurant. She learned the importance of teamwork and flexibility in the kitchen early on.
“I’ve bussed tables and washed dishes for many, many years,” Wells said. “We’re small, so we each do a little bit of everything here.”
Lee Brown, dishwasher at Duet, also emphasized the importance of cooperation in the kitchen. Brown spends his shifts cleaning pots, pans, plates and utensils. He has worked in the restaurant industry since 1984 and started dishwashing at Duet when they opened in August 2018. Over the years, he learned that every worker, from the head chef to the busboy, serves an integral role in the operation of a restaurtant.
“We’re a team,” Brown said. “We all rely on each other in some way.”
At Prairie Fire Pie, if one of the line cooks forgets to refill toppings or clean their station, the entire restaurant suffers. Yancey Friend, pizza cook, has worked in 13 restaurants over his 30-year career. He attended culinary school for three months, but dropped out due to the program’s high cost. Soon after, he applied to his first restaurant gig and began learning on the job instead of in a classroom.
Like Wells, Friend has worked various positions in the kitchen including washing dishes and frying burgers. Despite working some dull, repetitive kitchen jobs, Friend knows his success stems from his well-rounded knowledge and variety of experiences.
“Nobody wants to do all the tedious stuff like sweeping the oven and working the wood,” Friend said. “But you have to learn it all.”
Practice, practice, practice
Line cooks must master every station in the pizza kitchen. They spend several weeks practicing and perfecting each technique. Once they learn how to make the dough, they can move on to manning the oven. Eventually, they learn every aspect of operating the kitchen. Though Friend emphasizes discipline and practice, he also knows the test of a truly successful kitchen staff is how they preform under pressure.
“A lot of restaurants run on chaos,” Friend said. “Its sort of an instinct.”
Wells also attributes her kitchen skills to long hours of practice. She cooked every menu item at Wanda J’s over and over until she memorized the cook times for each dish. The team at Wanda J’s does not use recipes, so Wells relies solely on her memory to get the job done. She now knows when to start frying okra and sautéing vegetables so the customers receive their food in a timely manner. All the while, she maintains a clean kitchen and dining room.
“We’re human and we make mistakes,” Wells said. “But when you make a mistake in the back, you can lose a customer.”
Brown always keeps the customer experience in mind throughout his seven-hour shifts at Duet. Friday nights are the most hectic, and he stays on his feet to quickly turn over clean cups, plates and silverware. His only break comes during the five minutes it takes him to wheel the trash out to the back of the restaurant or use the restroom. He knows his team and the patrons will suffer if he is away from the kitchen for too long.
“It’s important customers don’t have spots on their plates or lipstick stains on their glasses,” Brown said. “It’s all about satisfying the customer.”
Until September, Brown worked two kitchen jobs with long hours. He washed dishes at both Amelia’s and Duet and took naps in the back room at Magic City Books between shifts.
Friend sometimes works 12-hour shifts at Prairie Fire Pie. On busy days, he begins prepping meals at noon and doesn’t leave the kitchen until midnight. He stays until every customer is finished eating, and puts in extra time to clean, re-stock ingredients and share tips with new hires. If he leaves the kitchen and a rush of customers floods the restaurant, he would feel guilty for deserting his team.
According to Wells, working at the back of the house means making sacrifices. While servers can usually find coverage when they get sick or need to attend family events, cooks don’t have the same luxury. They are often the only employees who know the recipes and therefore must show up to every shift.
“It requires a lot of loyalty,” Wells said. “You can’t cut corners or slack off.”
Wells will work overtime during the holidays. Loyal customers order their entire Thanksgiving dinners from Wanda J’s. Wells’ family will stay up all night the Tuesday before the holiday basting turkeys and mashing potatoes. On Wednesday, they will organize orders and make sure every customer has a full Thanksgiving spread.
Catering holidays and parties contributes to Wanda J’s family-oriented environment. Wells cultivates a personal connection with her customers. She makes a point to remember their orders and ask about their lives beyond the walls of the restaurant.
“We’re all family here,” Wells said. “And we try to treat everybody else like family too.”
Even though Friend doesn’t work with his brothers and sisters, he sees his coworkers as family. He feels a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood with line cooks and the wait staff. Because cooking requires so much collaboration, co-workers get to know each other well. They make jokes as they knead dough and chop vegetables, and always ensure their colleagues find work when a restaurant closes.
“A lot of us misfits find our way working in a kitchen,” Friend said. “When I was a kid, I was lost until someone took time with me in the kitchen.”
Brown said it’s easier to get up and come to work if you enjoy spending time with your team. By taking care of his job at the back of the house, he takes care of his co-workers at the front of the house. Everyone at Duet does their part so the customers can return home happy after experiencing a night of good food and great live entertainment.
Wells experiences a feeling of euphoria when customers enjoy her food. As she prepares to take her LSAT at the end of November, she does not see her law career as an end to her career in the kitchen. She hopes to use the money she makes as an attorney to grow her family’s restaurant group. She will also use her knowledge to advise the legal side of the business, including contract and intellectual property issues. Though she may not play as much of a hands-on role in her restaurants in the future, Wells will support her family’s effort to bring home-style cooking to their community for years to come.
“I want to be able to bless everyone,” Wells said. “I can do that as an attorney and with my restaurants. I think it’s a win-win.”