NORTH TO ALASKA

Serving 45 people in 45 minutes

Posted July 22, 2011, at 4:20 p.m.

YUKON RIVER CAMP, Alaska — Every Wednesday and Thursday tour buses run by Holland America Line come by the cafe on their way to or from the Beaufort Sea, which means we end up making lunch for 40-50 people twice a week.

To speed up this process, we are able to get their lunch orders before their arrival. That way the kitchen can prepare all of the meals beforehand and the wait staff can set up tables. Even with all that preparation, it is still quite an ordeal.

We have eight full-time workers here: Terry, the camp coordinator; Brody, Joel and Rob, the cooks; Sundance is in charge of dishes, housekeeping and other odds and ends, and Heidi, Derek and I are the servers. We’re open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., so the first server and cook arrive at 5:30 a.m. and work until 2 p.m. (or later if we are really busy), and the second set comes in around 2 p.m. and works until 10:30 p.m. or so.

On Holland America days, things are a bit different. With so many people to take care of, we need both cooks and both servers working at peak performance, so the afternoon server works a split shift from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. or later, and then from 4 p.m. to close while Terry covers the missing hours. The cooks don’t have that luxury, and the afternoon cook, Rob, usually comes in at about 10 a.m. and works until close.

We all work on some Holland America tour days, but often Derek opens and I close on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so we’ll have all the meal tickets written up the night before, and when Derek comes in, he’ll set up the tables. We know what drinks they want, so we throw ice in the cups for water, put out lemonades and iced teas (ice to be added later) and have a peculiar cup-napkin-straw system to designate the other drinks.

We have all of the salads prepared and set to go, and the cooks — it’s almost always Joel in the morning and Rob in the afternoon — have all of the food ready, so when the bus gives us a call on the radio a few minutes before they pull into the parking lot, we spring into action. I bust out all the sodas and drinks, Derek portions out the soups then helps me with the coffees and the boys in the kitchen throw 45 burgers, fish and steaks on the grill.

By the time everyone gets off the bus and has found their place, their meals are just about ready, and we bring out tray after tray of food and serve them. They eat, they laugh, they have a good time, and as Derek and I are serving pie to those who want it, Terry gets up and tells a story about how a grizzly once broke into the restaurant and made himself at home a few winters ago.

We pre-bus a few plates, then tag-team the register as everyone lines up with their tickets before heading on their way. If we are lucky, after we clean up, everyone on our end who was involved in the melee gets a chance to collapse in the office for a few minutes, but most of the time we grind through to the next task.

P.S.: As of 10 p.m. July 18, I have killed 1,368 mosquitoes.

Catie Zielinski graduated from Bangor High School in 2007 and is a recent graduate of Cornell University. She is working this summer 120 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, at the Yukon River Camp.

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