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Charleston Wine + Food chefs train at Waffle House in advance of fest's Smackdown

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It's 1:35 p.m. on an unseasonably warm Wednesday in January. A handful of aproned employees are finishing up the first shift of the day at the Waffle House in West Ashley, mopping floors, refilling salt shakers, running the dishwasher for the upteempth time. There are still customers trickling in, dashing out — Waffle House never closes, even in inclement weather. Well, until the lights go out.

Two grinning, slightly bewildered folks look out of place — aprons and all — in front of the grill. There's Kia Damon, culinary director of biannual indie magazine Cherry Bombe and Joe Nierstedt, the chef behind Johns Island's KinFolk. Charleston-area Waffle House operator Brandon Rogers calmly talks the top chefs through the eight ways to make eggs as employees deftly work the grill around them:

"Mark chicken and eggs triple scramble over light, wheat!" "Pull two orders bacon, drop three hashbrowns scattered, diced, chunked!"

At Waffle House, there are no printed tickets, no finicky computer systems or grumbling line cooks quibbling over nonsenical mods. There's the Waffle House way: pull, drop, mark. It's a vocabulary that employees live by, even if they question the tried-and-true wisdom at first.

"We've had grill operators come in and say to the server, 'No, don't call the ticket just hand it to me,'" says Rogers. "And they'll say, 'Line them up,' and tickets are lined up on the board and they're looking down at them — it's the slowest way to do it."

Damon cheers as she masters flipping the over-medium egg in the oiled aluminum pan. "Boom!" Rogers looks over at Nierstedt's progress — he's broken the yolk. "So yeah that would be more medium well..." The chefs are only here for an hour, and they have a take-home manual outlining the WH way. But most new employees train for six-to-eight weeks before they even have a quarter of it down, notes Rogers. Trial by scattered and smothered fire indeed.

As you may know, many Waffle House diners visit in the late hours, vision blurred and speech slurred, hoping for a hot meal served fast. They may not notice the intricate dance playing out feet from their spot at the counter. Rogers offers the chefs a Cliff's Notes version of this complex marking: If you memorize the marks, you know exactly what to cook. In theory.

"Instead of looking at a ticket you're looking at a plate," analogizes Rogers. The largest vertical plate serves as a compass of sorts — a jelly packet on the bottom signifies scrambled eggs. An over light egg is marked to the left side of the plate, over medium in the middle, over well on the right side. If the packet is vertical it means eggs, horizontal means omelettes. Mustard packet is three eggs. "M for mustard, M means more," offers one of the employees, as Damon and Nierstedt stare, slack-jawed.

The chefs will compete in Wine + Food's sold-out Waffle House Smackdown, a beloved tradition the fest is bringing back in honor of their 15th anniversary. The newbies will face off against two Smackdown vets, working the line for the chance to battle in the final showdown. Will they have to scramble eggs, fry bacon, chop the cheesesteak? Rogers has trained Smackdown chefs before, and he offers as many tips as he can. "They'll definitely call sandwiches, that is one egg over well, one egg is a 'single.' An order of eggs is two eggs, triple is three eggs."

It's a lot to take in, but the employees at 2229 Savannah Hwy. don't blink.

There's Russell, the manager at the temporarily closed location just over the bridge on Savannah Highway (don't worry, Rogers says renovations should wrap up in March). He's helping out while they complete the remdoel. "He's seen it all," says Rogers. "He's been at Waffle House since the '96 Olympics in Atlanta. Every restaurant has folks who have been here eight, 12, 15 years, which is kind of how we do it."

There are servers and grill operators who are cross-trained — some servers will take it upon themselves to take an order, make the order, and deliver the order to their table. "A lot of folks think they'll get better tips that way," says Rogers. And then there are servers like Mary, who has just clocked in for the day's second shift. "You'll never see me doing that," Mary promises. Rogers laughs, "She won't even make a grilled cheese!"

At Waffle House there is no smoke and mirrors, no hidden kitchens or front of house drama. There's just a server, a notepad, an open kitchen, a grill master prepped and ready. An order called out with confidence. Pull, drop, mark.

Waffle House Smackdown takes place 8:30-10:30 a.m. Sat. March 7 in the Culinary Village. Visit the Ticket Exchange to find tickets to the sold out event.

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