What it’s like to work on Christmas

Chef Prontelli says he'll serve about 1,000 people on Christmas. Credit: Patina Restaurant Group
Chef Prontelli says he’ll serve about 1,000 people on Christmas.
Credit: Patina Restaurant Group

While you’re relaxing at home on Christmas Day (or with a glass of bubbly in hand while a waiter takes your order), it’s easy to forget that for folks in the service industry, Christmas isn’t a vacation day. In fact, for many restaurants, it’s one of the busiest days of the year.

Antonio Prontelli is the executive chef at Rock Center Cafe (20 W. 50th St., 212-332-7620). With its close proximity to the Rockefeller Christmas tree and skating rink, plus Radio City Music Hall, the restaurant’s business booms this time of year. We checked in with Chef Prontelli to get a play-by-play of the nonstop holiday madness he’ll be facing this year.

4:30 a.m. – It’s Christmas morning and I wake up at my brother’s house where I arrived late last night after work to celebrate Christmas Eve. I get up and wake my kids and nieces to unwrap presents — they are a little grumpy at this early hour but it’s my chance to spend Christmas with them and open gifts. I have a strong cup of coffee and I’m out the door.

6:00 a.m. — The drive from Putnam Valley to the city takes about an hour and I arrive at Rock Center Café at 6 a.m. I spend the morning collecting the mise en place (ingredients set-up) we prepared the night before, bringing everything from the downstairs storage up into the kitchen. Then I make a huge pot of coffee for myself and get everything staged and set for when my cooks come in.

8:00 a.m. – The AM cooks arrive. We have four hot line cooks, three on dessert, three in production, two in the butcher shop and three in the bake shop. The team sets up their stations and I give the assignments for the first shift. Christmas Day is a prix-fixe menu but choices are abundant — everything from home-made pappardelle pasta to seafood stew and petit filet mignon. A rack of pork has been smoked for two hours — it’s being slow cooked in the kitchen and smells delicious. We slice and sear it before serving it with a roasted cauliflower and fig jus.

10:00 a.m. – I meet with the entire staff; we discuss any VIPs coming in and I go over the details of the menu, letting them know what is gluten-free, what we can do to accommodate guests, and what we can’t do.

11:00 a.m. – Doors open and the organized chaos begins! The doors do not close until the last customer has left at around 1 a.m. Service goes straight through.

2:30 p.m. – The PM shift arrives: four hot line cooks and three cold come in. They have about an hour and a half to replenish the stations, get up to speed on assignments and prep for their shift.

At this point, we will have done anywhere from 450-550 covers. Every seat in the house is full and the restaurant is buzzing. The restaurant is in holiday swing, and it’s hard not to be in the Christmas spirit with the windows looking out over The Rink and Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. I wave to one of the regular skaters who is showing off as a less coordinated skater inches past the window.

3:00 p.m. – There is a slight lull and this is when you feel tired and your legs start to give. I sneak away to the bottom floor where my pal and pastry chef, Michael Gabriel, is hard at work. The smell of chocolate greets me on the stairs. We joke around for a bit and I steal peanut butter and Nutella-stuffed truffles when he turns his back. He finally catches me as I try to cram a few more in my mouth and throws me out of his bakeshop. I run up the stairs, chugging a few energy drinks and a few more espressos. I’m ready for the next round.

4:00 p.m. – My AM staff go home and the PM staff take over. Off we go again, throughout the entire shift the door never closes. One cook steps off, another moves in to take their place.

9:00 p.m. – I’m still at work running around and serving Christmas dinners. As long as I’m moving, I’m good. This is my 11th Christmas at Rock Center Café and it’s an adrenaline rush from start to finish. However, once I stop, I crash. I look over at the guest enjoying a Hot Bourbon Toddy and envy them for a moment as I sip on my 17th cup of coffee.
By the end of the night, we will have served anywhere from 1,000-1,100 people, and have sold 450 portions of filet mignon, 150 pounds of shrimp and about 300 cheesecakes.

1:00 a.m. – The last customer finishes up, and I head out the door. I drive home, pulling over to take a quick power nap. I arrive home at 2:30 a.m. and plop down next to the Christmas tree where I enjoy a nightcap before hitting the sack. Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.


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