Behind The Scenes With Short-Order Cooks

short order cook, breakfast, kitchen, restaurant
A short order cook at Lou Mitchell's restaurant in Chicago.

Being a short-order cook is like working backstage at a live concert or at Mission Control during a space launch. Yet the short-order cook often goes unnoticed when people eat at their favorite breakfast spot.

Lou Mitchell's in Chicago has been a popular place for breakfast since 1923. The short-order cooks who work there are typical of the people who serve as the backbone of breakfast places across the country — they're foreign-born, they speak little English and they are extremely fast.

"Everyone knows to make an omelette you have to break a few eggs. Try 3,000 of them. That's what these guys do every Sunday," Helene Thanas, whose family owns the restaurant, told Sunday Morning correspondent Cynthia Bowers.

Thanas said she would put her cooks up against any chef in the world.

"The turnaround is about 35 to 40 minutes," she said. "It is short period of time to bake, cook, change, powder, serve and send them on their way. It is a lot to do in a short time."

Thanas said that she looks for a cook who is self-motivated and a team player.

"It's like a dance in there, like a tango in there," she said. "It is a ballet — but in fast forward."

And like a world-class ballet, their roles are carefully choreographed. Narcisco Cervantes does waffles and pancakes. All 17 varieties of omelettes are on Gilberto Villalobos' plate. Martine Anaya is the "guy in the hole," or the lead dancer, who cooks eggs other than omelettes. For many, over easy can be hard to do — but not for Anaya, who has 25 years on the job.

"Lots of practice," he said. "If you do this every day, six years, it will be easy for you."

Alfonzo Valencia is the expeditor. He takes orders, gives orders and prepares orders.

On a busy Sunday, Villalobos said he makes about 500 omelettes. The crew handles dozens of orders at a time. They are all prepared from memory.

These longtime short-order cooks fit the national profile: They're foreign born — these men all hail from Mexico. They barely speak English. None went to culinary school — they learned everything on the job. They earn slightly more than the average of less than $10 an hour. And their speed and accuracy has earned them the respect of Lou Mitchell's patrons.

"I can not imagine working back there," one customer said. "I do not envy that."

"We were commenting how crazy is to work in the kitchen non-stop," another said. "I would not enjoy it."

No one has a better taste for what short-order cooks do than waitresses like Donna Fenton. She says she writes things down, but they don't. Fenton, who says she is over 75, also says she has worked in fancy restaurants and didn't enjoy it.

"And I will be working 20 years more," she said. "Each time my doctor asks if I am still working, I say 'yes' and he says 'great.'"

It continues to be great for her health, her tips and the diners who pack the place as if today's breakfast is their last meal ... as long as the short-order cooks keep filling all those tall orders.

"Good breakfast. Good breakfast," Anaya said. "I like to do this. We can do it. We can do it."

Visit Lou Mitchell's restaurant at:

565 W Jackson Blvd
Chicago, IL 60661
(312) 939-3111