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The new order: Take it as it comes

I have never been one to go overboard on making special requests when dining out.

Sure, I might ask for my honey mustard dressing on the side or a burger with no onions. But I once had a friend try to order pecan-crusted chicken without the pecans. Another friend makes certain all her meals are free of cilantro.

After spending Monday night working in the kitchen at the Valrico Beef O' Bradys, I'm going to be encouraging my friends to avoid special requests all together.

I know, when you spend good money on a meal you want it just right, but to get an understanding of what a special order does to a kitchen staff, start your car and then jam a bent coat hanger in between the fan belt and the transmission.

The idea of my working in a restaurant kitchen was born from a charitable effort. The Valrico Beef O' Bradys, a corporate training store for the sports pub chain, gives local schools a portion of the money spent by school supporters dining at the restaurant on a designated night.

For Valrico Elementary, the school my two sons attend, manager Cormac McCarthy thought it would be an added treat to have me work in the kitchen while principal Judith Kennedy served as a hostess.

Of course, my wife, knowing that I once scalded myself trying to boil water, laughed at the notion of me managing 375-degree fryers.

It was a Monday night, I reasoned, so business would be slow. But I should have realized that no one rallies parents and teachers like Mrs. Kennedy.

When I arrived at 5:30, the kitchen was so busy they didn't have time to show me how to do anything. Great, I'll just observe.

But Cormac finally broke free, got me an apron and showed me how to prepare the famed wings. A few seconds later, I would hear for the first time the three words I would grow weary of: "Ernest, I need "

Boy, Cormac needed a lot. Twenty mild, 25 medium, 50 hot. On and on and on. The typical call was, "30 wings, mild, walking in." After a while, I wanted the wings to walk somewhere else.

Joining me on chicken wing detail was Rodney Love, who is preparing to operate his own Beef O' Bradys in the Panhandle town of Bluewater Bay. We fell behind early but were just about to catch up when someone asked for 30 wings, drumettes only, extra crispy, no sauce.

Can you say train wreck?

Actually, the turnaround time on that order was not that bad, but it was a little slower than Beef's 12-minute standard. Blame the new guy, Cormac joked. At least I think he was joking.

After Rodney and I finally caught up by prepping 800 wings in 90 minutes, I went out in the restaurant and got a feel for being a server. That's no picnic either, as Rebecca Jones showed me. She is training to open a Beef's in Little Rock, Ark., with her husband Tim, a former Major League Baseball player.

New owners get six weeks training in every aspect of the operation. They will never be in the position of asking their employees to do something they haven't done themselves.

Rebecca Jones explained: "I can say to my people, you may think tonight is busy, but it's nothing compared to that Monday at the corporate store in Valrico."

By 9 p.m., the crowd had thinned and Mrs. Kennedy finally had stopped wiping off tables and seating people. I ordered a burger with cheese and mushrooms, but nothing out of the ordinary.

I didn't have the heart to ask for anything special.

That's all I'm saying.

_ Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or