Many people reflect back on the 1950’s as a unique time in American history when the concept of the role of youth was being seriously questioned. James Dean personified the challenges of a younger generation in the cult classic 1955 movie: “Rebel Without a Cause” as he portrayed a troubled young man who upon moving to a new town builds a cadre of friends and enemies while he tries to find his place in the world. Dean became an iconic figure who was at times introverted and in the right environment morphed into an extrovert with energy and magnetism.
The line cook for decades and probably even more apparent today (due to the incredible media attention that cooks receive) has been that stand out individual, like Dean, who is looking to find his or her place and who, in the right environment (the kitchen) quickly moves from either a troubled or introverted past to a high energy, efficient, passionate, supportive extrovert – a person of significance in that moment who is able to “make things happen” and create something that is, in many ways – art.
Line cooks, from my experience are more often than not, individuals who carry their own demons whether they be intra-personal or inter-personal. They oftentimes (not always) lack a level of confidence outside of the kitchen but find the opportunity to use their hands, hearts and minds in the kitchen environment so invigorating that they literally change into a different person. It is the kitchen that becomes the foundation of their character.
These “rebels”, like James Dean, carry the scars of their transition. These scars become a badge of honor, their signal to others that they are part of something special, something different, and something that only those in the “biz” can really understand. The kitchen is a club, a gang without the violence, a legion of hard-nosed and seasoned warriors who every day “prepare for battle” with every intent of winning. During their time in the kitchen they will cut themselves with sharp knives, burn their hands and arms with the touch of a super hot sauté pan, the splatter of oil from the deep fryer, or the steam emanating from a bain marie. Cooks will grab serving plates so hot that they would cause pain to a mortal human being but are handled by line cooks with a smile. Heat over a flat top is so intense that it actually causes heat burn on their face to rival the most intense July sunburn on the beach. Line cooks will pick up 50-pound bags of onions, 100-pound pots full of stock and strap pans with two full rib roasts without blinking an eye. Every day a line cook might be on his or her feet for 10-12 hours straight without sitting down, moving with speed and precision in 120 degree heat and humidity at 100%. By the end of a shift they have been put through the ringer and look like they were beat up and left to suffer – yet, they remain energized, oftentimes with a smile on their face based on the accomplishment of finishing another service successfully. They are, after all – adrenaline junkies and the kitchen provides them with a most intense adrenaline rush.
After consuming many consecutive cups of espresso or energy drinks to keep them on their toes and multiple glasses of water or Gatorade for hydration, the end of the shift is not the end of the night. You simply cannot turn off that adrenaline when the work is done. A few drinks after work with the crew, a late night dinner at home with a Netflix movie and maybe, just maybe they can fall asleep by 2 or 3 a.m. In a few hours they will start the process all over again. A sluggish, sometimes despondent line cook will get that boost of energy and purpose once again when they walk through that kitchen door.
Like James Dean, this kitchen energy only fuels their occasional confusion over purpose, their role in life. They find their real comfort in the dynamic of the kitchen. Their co-workers (once they have been accepted by the team) are family, some of the most important people in their lives. These rebels are incredibly loyal, supportive and defensive about others who they work with and even those who work in other restaurants. If you belong to the club, then you will understand.
Sometimes, line cooks may seem a little rough around the edges and sometimes people outside of the kitchen might not understand them. More often than not, those who know them outside of work might find their kitchen persona to be dramatically different than the one they know. These are the kitchen warriors, the strength in a restaurant that can create something beautiful, delicious and unique because they are for that period of time in a kitchen – rebels with a cause. It is the rush that energizes them, but it is the food that unites them and gives them a unique purpose.
Cooks are some of the most interesting, complex, honest, hard working, confusing, tough and sensitive, artistic, crusty and wonderful people that I know. It is this “characteristic package” that makes a line cook a great line cook – the heart and soul of a professional kitchen.
Yes, I know that some will say that this is changing because hundreds of culinary schools are now churning out a different breed of proud professionals. My answer is “great”, I wish them well but they should understand that the superhuman skills necessary to be truly effective as a line cook come from the complexity of the person within. There is little difference between the creative qualities of artists or musicians who are able to find their voice through the complexities of their own personalities, the challenges of their lives, and the obstacles that they face and conquer and those of line cooks.
Line cooks may be rebels seeking a cause, but once they find the kitchen that provides them with the fuel they need, these rebels come into their own and rise to the occasion.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training