It takes many years for a good cook to become a great cook, to become a chef. There is an enormous amount of experience that leads to the ability to lead a kitchen, to create a vision and set the tone for consistently excellent performance. Aside from a strong understanding of foundational cooking technique, the chef must have accumulated an understanding of purchasing, menu planning, human resource management, inventory management, cost control, artistic presentations of food, sanitation and safety, public relations, wine, as well as communication and brand building. Yes, this position is a culmination of a lifetime of skill and aptitude development, however, chefs must never lose sight of the role that line cooks play in the daily successful operation of a kitchen.
Line cooks are the lifeblood of any professional kitchen operation. It is, after all, the line cook who has the responsibility to prepare, develop flavors and consistently execute the menu under what outsiders would consider – inhumane conditions. The chef may be in the driver’s seat, but the line cook is the engine. A driver without a well running engine would not get too far.
I am currently finishing another terrific, accurate book on “a day in the life of a kitchen” that truly depicts the intensity, challenges and incredible skill that a line cook must possess. In this portrayal (Sous Chef, by: Michael Gibney); the author, while living the role of the second in command pays true homage to the line cooks who make his success possible. From experience there are a few realities that drive me to acknowledge the significance of the young, upwardly mobile and sometimes satisfied to stay where they are, pirates of the line.
1. Let’s face it being a line cook is more often than not a younger person’s sport. The physical demands of working the line are only surpassed by the mental acuity that is required as line cooks attempt to keep track of multiple a’ la minute preparations, timings, plating’s and interconnections with other cooks on the line. In my last position as a chef I knew that I could work as hard and longer than most of the cooks in the restaurant (I paid for it with aches and pains that rarely went away), but the older I got the harder it was to process the rapid fire mental activity that is the routine of a line cook. Bending over hundreds of times, 120 degree heat, burns, cuts, clanging of pans, and the speed with which a line cook must act and react is way too challenging for most over the age of 40.
2. Each station on the line is a private entrepreneurship. The set-up, calculated mise en place, position of each ingredient from sliced garlic to clarified butter, from minced shallots to pour bottles of white wine and olive oil and from tongs (a line cooks most important tool) to neatly folded side towels is uniquely that cooks. True, the chef may initially train a cook how to set-up a station, but once they have grown into the position they will inevitably treat that area as if it were their own business. This “seasoning” as a line cook is absolutely critical for the efficient operation of a kitchen and once it is set, it needs to be that way – always.
3. Although a good portion of the pre-work for the line may be done by an earlier prep shift (stocks, mother sauces [where they are still relevant], peeled shallots and garlic, braised meats, fabrication of steaks and chops, filleting of fish, trimming and blanching of vegetables, etc.), it is the line cook who must know how to cook as completely as he or she knows how to breathe. He or she must know how to cook a perfect steak, when to turn a fish on the plancha, the right time to add a splash of wine, how to season items in a pan by holding that salt and pepper above the dish and allowing it to evenly forecast, how much time is left in the cooking process so that the plating of a table’s order can be orchestrated and most importantly; how to taste (a great line cook MUST have a well define palate). The line cook needs to have an eye for plate presentation even though the layout may have originated from the chef and must know how important it is to take a few extra seconds to show the finesse to place each item at its perfect spot on the plate. Maintaining the discipline for all of this to take place is hard to imagine.
4. The chef will undoubtedly know how all of this is done and he or she probably taught the cook early on how to manage these steps, but most chefs, once they reach that position would find it very difficult to step in and do the job as well as a line cook.
5. Finally, the line cook, as I pointed out in a previous article (Life Lessons from a Line Cook) https://harvestamericacues.com/2014/04/11/life-lessons-from-a-line-cook/ must be a consummate communicator and in most cases “listener”. The chef, on a busy night sets the cadence for the line and is the sole voice in the kitchen. Service staff will use the chef/expeditor as the portal for communication with cooks, but line personnel know that it is that voice that they must tune into. When a directive or question is posed, the line cook must zero in on the command, acknowledge it and then network with other stations as they execute the directive. Sometimes this networking is handled with simple eye contact and a nod, other times it will be succinct words like “fire, plate, garnish, sauce, hot, pick-up, hold, etc.”. All of this takes time to develop, but once it is there, the line can hum on all cylinders like each station entrepreneur is electrically connected to each other station and the chef/expeditor. This invaluable relationship is magical and goes way beyond the importance of the chef as an individual.
The dining room may be full of people who have heard of, know about, met or would like to meet – the chef. They may, in fact, have come to the restaurant to try the “chef’s food”, but rarely do they truly understand that the chef was probably never involved in the actual cooking of the dish. The chef is in the limelight and he or she has earned that position through many years of extremely hard work, but the chef could never function without the efforts of the team of line cooks who stay behind those swinging doors. The chef knows this all too well and although he or she may not thank the line enough until there is a gap in staffing, this knowledge that they are where they are because of the dedication and seasoned entrepreneurial spirit of the hourly paid line cook is always present in a chef’s subconscious.
It may seem that I spend an inordinate amount of time talking about cooks, even more than chefs, it is because having experienced a return to a great and reasonably busy chefs position in the later part of my career I learned very quickly how much I depended on these crucial members of the team.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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