, , , ,

Painted in Waterlogue

Whatever the reason, some find themselves working behind the range – a place that is unique to most any other. “Why am I here” may be a question that line cooks ask themselves on occasion, but for the most part, it is a role that a few unique individuals tend to enjoy. Now, from the outside looking in – the position may seem to have a bit of glamour, but to those who stand at attention with a pair of tongs in hand, beads of sweat dripping from their brow, arm welts from burns, cuts from razor sharp knives, and feet throbbing with the burden of far too many hours standing upright, this is one hell of a difficult job. Yet, we do it, and for some macabre reason we seem to actually enjoy it.

Why would anyone willingly choose to endure the demands of a job that puts them in front of blazing heat, stress from the demands of timing, the mental pressure of trying to keep multiple preparations organized simultaneously, and the emotional requirement to put your work in the public eye every day?

The transition that happens from the moment a line cook arrives at work (usually early to make sure his or her mise en place is ready) till the point when those first orders start to click in and the expeditor begins to bark out the timing, is amazing. That first step into the kitchen may include a mix of dread, anxiousness, uncertainty, and even a taste of fear (how busy will we be, how will I be able to get all of my mise en place together, will every team member show up today, what is the chef’s mood) to a driven sense of purpose and focus. Those last minutes before service, the cook feels the same anxiety that a football player experiences prior to the first snap, or the skier senses just before the gun fires at the start of a race. Adrenaline is running freely now as all of these players share the same level of angst. Once those orders begin their steady flow, the cook gets into a rhythm – a pace that can turn from dread to near elation when things go right.

Keep in mind that this is the routine every day, shift after shift, week after week without change. Every day the line cook is preparing to jump off that cliff, hoping that he or she has packed the parachute properly and it opens as planned before impact.

The other aspect to this job that separate cooks from others is that along with the pace, the demands, the uncertainty, and the preparation, comes the art. Yes, line cooks are incredibly hard workers, but they are also artists who have an opportunity each and every day to paint on the plate. Knowing how to select the right seasonings and cooking methods would be similar to a painter being able to pick the perfect combination of paint colors and brush for the optimum effect. Line cooks need to understand their tools as well as a musician can sense his or her instrument. It is the line cooks responsibility to ensure that every plate enjoys the proper flavor profile and visually represents the plate design that was meticulously created by the chef. This “art” is an acquired skill of expression that separates true line cooks from assemblers. The combination of assembly demands and the need for the art to remain would be similar to asking a painter to create beautiful works under the constraint of “in the moment” timing, or a musician to compose a masterful song every day. Skill and art flow through the fingers of every proficient line cook.

So, how does this job spoil cooks for any other type of work? Here are a few reasons:

[]         Adrenaline

This is the short-term answer. Cooks love the rush of working on the line. It is hard to replicate this in many other careers except maybe professional sports.

[]         Non-Traditional Work Hours

Cooks get use to working long hours, evenings, weekends, and holidays. We reach a point where we don’t really understand people who work predictable, 9-5 jobs with weekends and holidays off.   Although it sounds nice, cooks have a difficult time transitioning to those predicable schedules.

[]         Every Day is Different

Although the menu may not change, and the prep list looks the same – every day in the kitchen brings unique challenges and opportunities. Cooks thrive on the unpredictable.

[]         Tactile Work Inspires Cooks

Almost every cook I know is a tactile learner. They thrive on being able to make something, look at their work and see the tangible results of their effort. This is the old American dream of being able to make something great.

[]         Instant Feedback is the Breakfast of Champions

There are few jobs that provide the instant feedback that comes from cooking. Return customers, empty plates returning to the kitchen, a nod and a smile from the chef after tasting a cooks work – there is little doubt how well or poorly a cook has performed every day.

[]         Team Dependence

Cooking is a team sport and as such provides an opportunity for cooks to learn how to function well in this environment. All for one and one for all is the rule in kitchens.

“The kitchen really is the castle itself. This is where we spend our happiest moments and where we find the joy of being a family.”

Mario Batali

[]         The Chance to be Creative

Every cook, every day, appeals to all of the human senses. In the mediums of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound, cooks have ample opportunities to hone their skills, refine their art, and demonstrate their creative side.

[]         The Physical Nature of the Work

Those in the trades will often site how gratifying it is to finish a day’s work physically tired. This demonstrates that they have accomplished something. Kitchen work is very physical and at the end of a shift a cook’s body tells the story. Aches and pains demonstrate just how hard a line cook works every day.

[]         Cooks Love the Chaos

If you walk into any kitchen from 30 minutes before service until the last plate goes out, you would immediately sense that this is an environment that personifies organized chaos. At some points it appears to flow as if it were an orchestral piece being directed by the chef conductor, and at the next moment it appears like a runaway train destined to disengage from the track at any moment. Cooks love this ebb and flow.

“I accept chaos. I’m just not sure it accepts me.”

Bob Dylan

[]         Work That Matters

Although cooks may not always think of their work in this manner, what they do matters to the customer. A cook provides sustenance, excitement, entertainment and reward. A great meal might very well be the most important part of a restaurant guest’s day.

[]         Transparent Work Environments

Kitchens are certainly not void of politics and some level of friction among players, but in most cases those who work in a kitchen tell it like it is. You know where you stand with your peers and that can be very refreshing.

Find another career that can offer all of the above and you might be able to convince a great line cook to jump ship and try something new. Without attention to all of these needs (yes, after working in kitchens for a while these items become needs), a cook will quickly begin to doubt a decision to leave and dream of returning to the kitchen with all of its challenges and opportunities.

“I lived my whole life in the kitchen. Not only that, but it’s the passion, it’s the love for cooking and food. It’s dictated my entire life – every aspect of it.”

Grant Achatz


Harvest America Ventures, LLC