A line cook “in the zone” is truly magical to watch. This falls again under the heading of “unless you have been there” you don’t really understand how true this statement is. I can remember my first time – I think I was maybe nine or ten years old, watching a breakfast cook through the window of a diner in Buffalo, New York. I was mesmerized as this one person moved so effortlessly from griddle to egg pans, from toaster to cooler – flipping eggs in pans without giving it a thought, turning pancakes at just the right moment, dropping bread in the toaster to pop up at the precise moment that the eggs were ready, and assembling plates with grace and precision as the orders kept arriving and waitresses called out a cadence of commands. It was one of the coolest things that a nine year old could ever watch. Somewhere, deep in my subconscious, I made a mental note that THIS would be a great job to have.
A few years later, I stepped up to a griddle and six-burner range as Millie, my on the job teacher, handed me a spatula and said, “let’s go!” After all of these years, watching a proficient, confident line cook at work is still one of the most magical things that I can imagine. How do they do it? How do cooks keep all of that information and timing straight as the relentless stream of orders attacks the line? How is it that every dish comes out looking the same, tasting the same, and timed perfectly? It must be magic and the cook a true magician.
“The power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”
When I was eventually able to refer to myself as the chef, I still would catch myself at times, taking a step back to really watch what was happening on the line. I knew by this time in my career, that what the line cook was doing was no longer something I was able to accomplish. The speed, efficiency, memory, and dexterity of a line cook were simply not in me anymore. I had replaced this magical energy with decision making experience, a much better understanding of food, and hopefully enough sense to hire and train the right people to step into the role of magician. Now I would orchestrate and serve as a prod when required or a calming force when things were starting to stray from a level of sanity. I still marvel at what is taking place, how damn good these line warriors are, and how proud I am to remain a part of it.
To those who have never been a part of the magic, allow me to give you a glimpse of what takes place on a typical restaurant meal period:
Beginning at 4 a.m., the restaurant baker arrives. He flicks on the lights to a sleepy kitchen that just came to rest three hours earlier as the dishwasher and porter finally called it a night after cleaning out the dish machine and mopping their way out the back door. Now the hood groans a bit as it is brought back to life, and ovens jump to attention when the burners pop and moan as their side panels temper from the heat. While the coffee machine drips that first pot of the day, the baker is already turning on the Hobart with that first batch of dough that will become this evening’s breads and rolls. It will be at least eight more hours before the line cooks arrive to prepare for evening service and the baker will be long gone by then. At 7 a.m. sharp, the daily deliveries begin to arrive. Prep cooks have barely been able to sharpen their knives when they are called to action. Checking orders for quantity and quality, they inspect whole fish ready for cleaning and filleting, produce for peak freshness, scaling out sub-primal beef and pork cuts for proper weight, and ensuring that those quality characteristics that the chef insists on are evident. Soon the work on preparing items for final cooking on the evening shift will begin. In just a few hours, the evening crew will arrive and everything must be ready for creation of their final mise en place. Although the prep cooks and baker will not be the ones to complete the cooking, adjust the seasoning, and plate the final dishes, it is their work that makes the line cook’s magic possible.
At 1 p.m. the evening crew begins to arrive. They change into their chef whites, sharpen their knives, pull down clip boards with their detailed mise en place lists, and take a few minutes to review everything with the prep staff. In just four more hours the first orders will begin ticking off the point of sale system, and they had better be ready. To a line cook, the magic is not mysterious – it is a well thought out, methodical process of making sure that mise en place is tight, everything is where it should be, all equipment is fully operational, the menu is known inside and out, their palate is well trained to identify needs in seasoning adjustment, and they know exactly how each plate must be assembled. There can be nothing on a cook’s mind, from this point on, except the task at hand. If a cook’s mind is diverted from the role that a line cook must play, then the magic will falter. Tune everything else out – the cook must push him or herself into the zone.
For the next four hours, life is a blur of mincing, precise vegetable cuts, clarifying butter, finishing sauces, arranging pans, inspecting plates, folding towels, reviewing preparations, and checking even the smallest detail off of a prep list. It would only take the smallest forgotten detail to bring the system down during the heat of service. Everyone is counting on each other – this is a true case of the team being only as strong as it’s weakest link.
As 4:30 arrives, each line cook knows that the moment of truth is upon him or her. The chef will we walking through at any moment – reviewing set-up, tasting sauces, and assessing the mental acuity of each player. There is no room for error; this is the time to be as close to perfect as possible!
When the chef calls out – “Is everyone ready”, the team responds with a resounding “Yes chef!” Not long after the 5 o’clock bell, the first orders arrive. “Ordering – 2 filets mid-rare, 3 snapper features, 2 roast chicken, pork chop medium” – “Yes chef” is the only acceptable response from each line position. This is the beginning of a four-hour marathon of relentless orders, order fires, pick up demands, and an occasional re-fire. Four hours seems like a long-time, but to a seasoned line cook it flies by.
The chef, when the whole system is humming at full throttle, steps back to marvel at the poetic efficiency of the process. Pans are moving, oven doors opening and closing, blanched and shocked vegetables are brought back to life with a touch of butter and the right seasoning, steaks and chops are marked on a grill with flames licking up their sides, and plates are meticulously assembled with the grace of an artist brushing a canvas with deliberate dabs of paint. The chef calls out the cadence in the same fashion as a conductor pointing to each section of an orchestra for their part in a fantastic piece of music. This is the magic that brings a team to a place that can only be understood if you are part of it. This is the intoxicating part of being in a well-tuned kitchen; this is why cooks love what they do.
To those outside of the “club”, watching this is pure magic. To those who do it day in and day out, this is simply how we function; it is our calling.
“To move, change, or create by or as if by magic.”
As 10 p.m. rolls around, the line is slowed down to a crawl and cleanup has begun. It will soon be time to call it a night and let the dishwasher and evening porter tidy things up. When midnight arrives, the cooks are gone and the kitchen is ready to be put to sleep once again. Tomorrow is another day of magic.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC