In most cases credit for a great restaurant meal goes to the chef. At least that is what most guests believe to be true. There is no question that the vision for a menu, oftentimes the recipes and plating design are a result of the chef’s experience, planning and direction, but what many guests do not realize is that the chef is probably not the person who actually prepared their meal. Unless the restaurant is a very small, mom and pop operation, the meal was probably prepared by a line cook.
There is a difference between building a menu and executing that same menu. There is even a greater difference between creating a dish and replicating it under pressure, with a hundred or so guests ordering different items simultaneously and working through a battery of service staff to deliver the message to the kitchen. Those who have never worked in a quality restaurant kitchen have absolutely no idea what goes into the facilitation of that meal they so enjoy.
The pre-preparation of a line cooks station as he/she gears up for the meal period to start involves speed, dexterity, significant planning, math, science, mental exercises, organization, and a razor sharp memory. Cooks refer to this as mise en place (everything has a place and everything is in its place). Just think of these critical steps: mincing shallots, chopping parsley, clarifying butter for sauté, slicing mushrooms, portioning center of the plate meats and seafood, softening butter for monte au beurre, julienne petite salads for garnishes, frying leeks and onion rings, marking steaks ahead in a busy restaurant, scrubbing down counters, sanitizing knives, positioning items in precise locations so that the cook can find them without even looking, burning off sauté pans so that they don’t stick, counting out plates for a stations dishes and setting them under heat lamps, folding a pile of side towels in preparation, setting up your seasoning pod, filling wine bottles and oil for cooking, heating foundational sauces for the bain marie, blanching and shocking vegetables to aid in the finishing process, and hydrating and pounding down a few espressos to get the adrenaline ready for an onslaught of tickets. This all takes place in the 2-3 hour period that cooks have to get ready for the tickets to start flying. The pace is intense.
Once service begins there will not be enough time to focus on more prep. Your mise en place MUST be ready for anything. If you run out the ship will begin to sink and that spells disaster for that cook, his/her teammates, the chef, the servers and the restaurant as a whole. It is a delicate balance that you don’t want to mess with.
Each line cook will respond in those last few minutes to the pre-tasting of ingredients by the chef and a response to the question: “Are you ready”? The answer had better be: YES CHEF! The tickets start coming in slowly at first, but by 7 p.m. the point of sale machine is ticking them off in a steady stream.
The chef (keep in mind that most chefs will admit that they would have a tough time working on the line at their age) has now moved to the role of expeditor. In this position the chef will call out orders, wait for acknowledgement from each station cook responsible for each dish, serve as a liaison between front and back of the house staff, monitor the timing of dish preparation, inspect plates before they leave the kitchen and help to keep the stress level high enough to channel the energy, but in control so that cooks don’t crash and burn (literally). Very soon “the board” is full, plates are cluttering up “the window”, the clatter of voices is deafening, pans are clattering on the range, plates are sliding down the pass, the heat has risen to an even 130 degrees on the line and hotter when they stand over a char-grill or French top, hands and arms are being burned but everyone works through it, and great line cooks start to feel the synergy of working as a team. When it is working, it is amazing to watch. When it falls apart you can feel the tension in the air.
In today’s kitchens many line cooks are interns or recent graduates from culinary schools. This is a great learning environment for them, but typically they have their eyes on bigger fish. The money they spent on a culinary education drives them to believe that they should only be satisfied when they reach the chef position in a kitchen. There are rarely thoughts of making the “line” their career.
Any chef worth his or her salt will tell you that a goal must be to find, somehow, a core kitchen staff of line cooks who love doing just that, who are great at what they do, who relish the opportunity to work in that type of environment, and who would not dream of doing anything else. So who are these people, where can they be found, and what do they want?
It is probably not wise to generalize people, however, time has demonstrated that certain types of positions attract a very distinctive profile. Great line cooks, career line cooks, are oftentimes those who are perfectly content to follow someone else’s lead. They are deeply proud individuals who find that they feel best about themselves when they can make something with their hands. The plate is their canvas and they take the set-up of each dish very seriously. Great line cooks are night dwellers who are more often than not – single and content being that way. After work they cannot turn down the adrenaline so you will likely find them seeking out some late night food at another restaurant and usually with a drink or two in their hands. They sleep late and start the cycle all over again. Great line cooks may seem rough around the edges, but are usually pretty fragile. Much of their self-worth is tied to how well they did tonight on the line. Returned meals may seem to agitate them, but they really crush their self-confidence. They don’t always seek compliments, but are content just not to have any complaints. Unless you really screw up as a manager or chef, the great line cook is usually quite loyal and only concerned about money when they have no choice but to be concerned.
Where do you find these individuals? This is a tough question, because they are few and far between and likely already working for another chef who is glad to have them. Be there to catch them when a chef does them wrong, but never try to pirate them. This is part of the chef’s code. What do they want: they want the tools to do their job, they want food they can be proud of, they want other people to stay away from their mise en place, they want a chef to listen when they have something to say (rare), they don’t want to have to deal with anything other than their station, and occasionally they want a thumbs up at the end of the night. Not too much to ask.
In the end, know this: if the restaurant you are dining in is great, if the food is consistently superb, if the steaks come out perfect – every time, if the plates are spotless and beautiful, it is the vision of the chef but the precision of the line cook who made it happen.