Trying to keep up while spinning around a restaurant with a view
— Justin M. Wilson
When I was around 14, I attained my first job as a dishwasher at a restaurant in the small town I was raised. Young and full of whimsy, I remember arriving for my first shift anxious, but excited that I might be able to finally afford one of those backpacks with the speakers built in. Don’t judge me. It was a simpler time and we were all still reeling from Y2K.
My first shift went something like this. Believing I was there as a polisher of the finest Okotokian cutlery, I was asked to cut parsley for upwards of an hour. I didn’t know what food prep was and I certainly didn’t think a lowly puberty-ridden asthmatic dish boy would be involved on his first day. Still, I chopped that parsley, filled those condiments and shined up those counters like my life depended on it. It was all pretty standard until a bee flew into the kitchen and all hell broke loose.
The head chef reacted as though the Y2K conspiracies had all come true, locking himself in his bunker (the walk-in freezer) until I, the kid who’d just barely passed his second attempt at a learner’s license, subdued the black and yellow intruder, restoring order to the kitchen’s delicate balance.
For several months, this would be my part time job. I was regularly accused of showing up to work high on account of my severe hay fever and its effects on the whites of my eyes, and by the end of my insect wranglin’ days I’d seen my boss run from more arthropods than the cast of Starship Troopers.
And I never got the backpack.
For 15 years, I’d avoided returning to that sort of environment. Sure, I’d been in kitchens as a writer for this publication, but I certainly wasn’t a part of the action.
That all changed when I ascended more than 600 ft. to the Calgary Tower’s Sky 360 Restaurant and Lounge, where I was welcomed to the rotating dining area by executive chef Dustin Schafer.
Taking a brief break from his morning duties, Schafer and I sat down to talk a bit about Sky 360 operations and a few of the things he and the staff do to keep the best view in southern Alberta running smoothly.
“There are no ‘normal’ days,” says Schafer. “One thing about being a chef is that you have to be completely adaptable. You could have a day planned out and then something happens and it’s gone in seconds.”
On this particular day, things were no different. One of Sky 360’s kitchen staff had called to let Schafer know they would not make it to work due to a family emergency. Good thing they had me there; a magazine writer whose 15-year-removed kitchen experience involved an entomophobic boss and a propensity for spilling fryer oil all over the place.
Schafer let me know that his days can start as early as 6:30 a.m., or whenever his phone starts going off with calls from local food suppliers or staff, or to quell any other issues that arise when leading the culinary team at the city’s most notable skyscraper. And lead the team he does. An extremely approachable guy, Schafer says that each morning, before work in the kitchen begins, he checks in with everyone to see where they’re at.
“This is a very people-centred business where if someone is in a bad place or might have something going on, I want to know about it and do what I can to help. I really want to know how these guys are before we get going,” says Schafer.
After discussing the craziness of Stampede and a menu Schafer describes as “high-end-casual,” it’s time to head to the kitchen. Schafer asks me if I’d like some whites.
“What don’t you want to get dirty?” Schafer asks.
“I don’t really want to get anything dirty,” I stutter, suddenly very aware that the dress shirt I’m wearing is new and out for its first test-drive.
With a laugh, Schafer asks my size and returns with some kitchen whites and an apron, both of which I had a hell of a time fastening correctly. Once I was ready to head into the kitchen, I, once again, felt the 15-year-absent flood of anxious excitement — minus a desire for an amplified backpack.
I moved from station to station introducing myself to the team. It was about 10:30 a.m. with lunch service set to start in half an hour. As you might imagine, a stranger with a camera, an audio recorder and a note pad trying to converse with those hard at work was a bit awkward, yet everyone was eager to speak with me and explain their role for the day.
Pastry chef Jason was hard at work piecing together a series of vibrant desserts, while Jessie captained the entremetier station where he prepared pastas and veggies. Brad, the chef de partie, was working the grill and throughout the day put together some of the most artfully crafted burgers I’d seen in a long while.
As lunch service fast approached, Schafer took over the station left vacant by the day’s absent employee — though had the employee been present, Sky 360’s executive chef would act more as the kitchen’s director, ensuring each dish is held to the highest standard of quality and flawless presentation.
“Kitchen, we have our first table!” is shouted to the culinary team just after 11 a.m.
“First table!” echoes Brad.
These echoes became somewhat of a focal point for me throughout lunch service. They reshaped my total ignorance of the kitchen’s day-to-day into an understanding of how these individuals operate so smoothly during peak hours. The communication between stations is near perfect.
“Four and ten,” yells a server from the kitchen entrance, referring to the four patrons seated in the dining area with another 10 reservations expected to arrive within the next 15 minutes
“Four and ten!” is bounced back to her by no less than four of Schafer’s team.
These warnings come about every 15 minutes as a way for those in the kitchen to gauge whether to prepare for a rush, remain focused on station prep or move on to other necessary tasks.
“It lets us know when to stop our long projects and get focused,” says Schafer. “Especially when the number is up around 34 and 40.”
It was about 1:00 when I realized that the lunch rush had been in full swing for hours and the flow in the kitchen hadn’t been disrupted. This seamlessness was not what I remembered from my brief foray into the culinary world.
While putting the finishing touches on an order of the menu’s Lois Lake Steelhead Trout, Schafer let me know that all seafood menu items are 100 per cent Ocean Wise. Sky 360 works in partnership with the Vancouver Aquarium to educate consumers about the issues surrounding sustainable seafood. The restaurant has been this way for more than two years, fueled by Schafer’s belief that it’s the right thing to do and that it’s important to keep it this way for those who dine at Sky 360.
At about 1:30, after I’d gotten in the way twenty or so times and played a part in quite a ketchup spill, I decided to remove my whites and sit in the dining area to type my chicken scratch into a legible format. After being shown to a table, it hit me just how skilled the people running Sky 360 are. The calm nature of the kitchen certainly didn’t convey the amount of people in the dining room. The place was packed. As I typed away, often pausing to look down at Central Memorial Park, the Palomino, the Glenbow Museum, the Drum & Monkey and everything else I could recognize from my birds eye view, I’d hear order after order given in accents and dialects I couldn’t place; and the servers never missed a beat.
As the lunch rush came to a close, I redressed in my kitchen garb and headed back to Schafer and his team to thank them for having me and get in their way one last time. Now, you’d think after prepping and cooking for the last five or so hours with dinner service set to begin at 5:00, Schafer might take a little post-lunch breather. But no.
“Did you get everything you need? Do you want something to eat before you take off?” asks Schafer, still smiling and as genuine as he’d been since our morning introduction.
It was at this point my brain shot back to the burgers I’d seen Brad crafting earlier. I should mention that for the last several months, I’ve been avoiding food of the burger and fries variety, as I’d like to go somewhere hot in the coming months — and for a while there my singular muffin top had grown to a baker’s dozen. But with each burger I’d seen placed on the grill, I felt more and more of my willpower fall 600 ft. down to Ninth Ave. until I eventually forgot about my waistline altogether. So yeah, the burger happened and I regret nothing.
All in all, it was one of the more interesting days I’ve had. The realization that I am not cut out for the work that Schafer and his team do on the day-to-day will stick with me. I’m much better at ordering food than making it. Much like the smooth rotation of the restaurant itself, the team operates like clockwork — surrounded by heat and steel with smiles on their faces and pride in their menu.
With the Calgary Tower, it’s about the visual. From the outside, the building has defined Calgary for almost 50 years, and from within, there isn’t a seat in the house that doesn’t provide a breathtaking view of our great city. But now that I’ve peeked behind the curtain and seen some of what makes Sky 360 tick, for me, it’s as much about what can be seen as it is what’s hidden — an ever-evolving menu and a damn fine group of chefs operating a world class kitchen.