End of an Era

Last week, the New York Stock Exchange celebrated its first fully electronic day -- about a decade late. "Working on the trading floor used to be a test of physical endurance," said Lisa Chow, reporting on the changes for WNYC. We all know the image, right? A floor crowded with traders wearing atrociously colored jackets, jumping around and shouting out their buy-and-sell orders; masses of paper mounded on the floor at the end of a trading day; Gordon Gekko with his slicked-back lizard hair.

Well, all that has gone the way of pistol duels and New Coke. What's now in place at the NYSE is what the good people of Wall Street are calling a "paperless exchange" -- a hybrid system in which all trades are done by computer, with men and women hunched over terminals in the eerie quiet that now dominates what was once one of the loudest places on earth.

Frankly, I couldn't care less about the New York Stock Exchange. Most of my money is tied up in beer and car repairs, my meager savings still tucked under my mattress where I put them when everyone was afraid Y2K was going to cause all the ATMs to come alive and start eating bank customers. But hearing the story of the new, efficient and effective NYSE got me thinking about kitchens (because what doesn't?) and how they, too, are being irreversibly changed by the robot race.

Not too long ago, every line in every kitchen ran on paper. Booze, too, but mostly paper. A server would take an order by writing it down on a pad, then tear the check from the order book, separate the check from the carbon-copy dupe, and hang one or the other on the wheel -- the big, spoked, spinny thing that was once the center of every line cook's universe.

Paper checks gave both the wheelman and the cooks a sense of security -- of knowing that everything required was written down somewhere, and that if anything got fucked up, there would be documented proof that it was the server's fault and not theirs. They also inspired a good portion of the cook slang that's still in use today, since a large part of the wheelman's job was communicating everything that was written on a check quickly and accurately to several people at the same time under conditions that were less than ideal.

I loved being a wheelman back when there was such a thing. But most of the wheels are gone now, and all of the dupes have been replaced by the POS (Point of Sale) system installed in almost every restaurant in the country. The POS is that terminal you always see servers poking at these days, a touch-screen computer that takes their orders and spits out a computer-printed ticket in the kitchen.

With the POS, there's still a lot of action on the slide, since someone still has to take the ticket from the printer, read it and bark out drops and fire orders for all the cooks standing around sharpening their knives and divvying up the latest delivery from the weed guy. But now all that's changing again. The hot new thing is the Kitchen Display System, or KDS, a version of which has long been used by the fast-food industry but is now popping up at regular restaurants as well. The KDS is a computer monitor that hangs over every cook's post and tells him...well, everything. It gives orders, organizes them by time of entry, breaks them down by station and consolidates them by type. It tracks how long an order has been hanging, how long each item took to make it to the rail and how long each item ought to have taken, then squeals to the management when cooks are slacking. Most horrifying -- to me, anyway -- is that it makes a wheelman, an expeditor, a chef who can hang and call checks totally obsolete. No one needs talk anymore.

The language of cooks, chefs and servers -- rough and indecipherable as it might have seemed to civilians -- was a unique and beautiful thing. As you stood on the line under fire, it sounded like poetry (although of a fairly obscene and guttural variety). And now it's going away.

Like the newly paperless and computerized NYSE, I'm sure that a KDS kitchen is a quiet, calm and efficient place. I'm sure there are fewer mistakes and far less chaos. But the language of that chaos was what I loved best about working the line: the machine-gun chatter of the printer, the shouting, pleading, cursing and multi-ethnic patois that was my native tongue for many years. And I know I'm not the only one.

Captive audience: Over drinks at the Wynkoop Brewing Co. last week, I heard that Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy in Longmont had a new source for goat milk: the prison in Cañon City. So I put in a call to Haystack's Michele Wells, who confirmed the rumor. "Yes!" she said, sounding genuinely excited. "We are doing that! We call it prison milk. Oh, wait. Maybe I shouldn't have said that."

Haystack has been using the prison milk since last summer, and the cheesemakers ain't just buying a coupla pints, they're buying every drop of the super-high-fat La Manch-Nubian-Kenah goat milk they can get their hands on.

As it turns out, the Colorado Department of Corrections runs the largest goat dairy in the state at the East Cañon Prison Complex, right next to the tilapia fish farm and the cage-free chicken-egg operation, not far from the organic gardens, close by the vineyards that provide the grapes for the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey, and just down the way from the dairy-cow spread and the apple orchards -- all of which are staffed by inmates, all of which are producing product either for profit or to feed the prison population.

"The quality has been good," Wells adds. "And there's a waiting list of people who want to work with the goats. It's gotta be better than sitting around in a cell or something, right?"

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan