It has been said that you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover – yet we do. This may never be more truthful than when you observe a crew of line cooks ready for battle. Well seasoned, hardened through time in the trenches, often tattooed with expression of their beliefs or accepted lot in life, full of pride and confidence (at least on the surface), and ready – always ready for that onslaught of relentless tickets once the restaurant doors open – this is the image of a typical line cook.
The best ones, the ones who have hung their hat on the line for many years, have been through it all. There are impossible shifts when demand exceeds supply, when Murphy’s Law applies (if something can go wrong it will), when they are down a cook, the hood fan is not working to capacity and ambient temperatures rise to well over 120 degrees; when their hands are throbbing from those impossible finger cuts that won’t stop bleeding, and there are blisters on top of their blisters with no possibility of healing in the near future. This is very common in kitchens – it is the life of a line cook.
“Yes, we can be hard at times, but we are very sensitive underneath. We can receive 99 rave reviews, but it is the one unhappy guest who keeps us up at night. This is the way we are. Food and a person’s reaction to how we prepare it means everything. It is more than our job, it is our life.”
On the surface, line cooks are oftentimes viewed as that crusty pirate without a care in the world, unwilling to listen to others, moving to the beat of his or her own drum, and full of swagger from an inflated ego. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. This is the persona that allows a cook to get through a shift – a shift that is filled with impossible deadlines, random critique from anyone and everyone, ripe with a desire to be creative and make great food, and complete with a stress level that is compounded by the often unpredictable nature of business volume and customer needs. Being crusty is a defense mechanism, and method used to disguise the angst, fear, uncertainty, and insecurity that comes from working in this environment day in and day out.
The chef may also seem to be an impossible, over-confident tyrant who takes pleasure in being in control and pushing line cooks beyond their limit. In fact, the best chefs are protectors of kitchen balance, guides through the jungle of a busy night, advocates for each cooks reputation, craftsmen protecting the integrity of the food that carries his or her name, and psychologists who walk the fine line of prodding cooks to be their best and pushing them over the edge. Even the occasional raised voice, when managed correctly, is a trigger that helps line cooks through the most difficult and impossible situations. Every night brings a new challenge and the chef, like a seasoned coach, is the voice that will carry everyone through the most perfect storm.
To understand these self-proclaimed pirates, we need to look below the surface. It is important to peel away the layers of crust to find the real person inside, discover what makes them tick, and learn how to work with these unique individuals. Just like an onion, there are many layers to a cook that need to be peeled back. Once you do, this is what you will likely find:
 A CARING INDIVIDUAL
Nearly every line cook that I have had the pleasure to work with is a person who cares about others and is more than willing to help those around him or her. A line cook will easily give more than he or she has if a person is in need. Beyond the crust, this is the line cook that I know.
 AN ARTIST LOOKING FOR AN OUTLET
People become cooks for many reasons – sometimes because that is what was available to them, but more often than not it is because this career provides them with an outlet for personal expression. At the end of any shift they have something to show for their work. It might just be mise en place for another shift, or it could be a beautifully presented, full-flavored dish that they were able to execute as planned. For certain individuals, it is this avenue for making something, for creating physical value that floats their boat.
 AN INCREDIBLY SHARP TACTICIAN
Make no mistake – being a successful line cook is a combination of cooking talent, math, science, problem solving, and most importantly – game theory type planning. Every day is a chess match – trying to anticipate what guests will order, how orders will pace, and what potential curve balls might be thrown their way. Without the ability to tactically plan out a shift strategy – the line cook will be lost.
 A DEDICATED CRAFTSPERSON
It riles me to see how some restaurants advertise for line cook positions. Far too often, cooks are viewed as replaceable pawns on the chess board who are simply technicians following a list of procedural steps. Of course, this attitude is evident in the lack of quality or consistency in the food they serve. Professional line cooks are highly skilled craftspeople who apply all of the aforementioned skills including a well developed palate and the ability to make adjustments in food preparation to achieve an expected goal when variables come into play. Line cooks are competent professionals and should be treated as such.
 AN INDIVIDUAL LOOKING TO BELONG
On the sensitive side, once those layers are peeled back, you will find that line cooks have a real desire to be part of a team, a team with a common goal of creating exceptional food and practicing well developed skills in the process. Line cooks gain real satisfaction from working with others who share their passion.
 A PERSON IN COMPETITION WITH HIM OR HERSELF
Great line cooks do not seek to compete with teammates, but rather only see the need to compete with themselves. If they need to improve, then their ability to do so will be the most important task at hand. If they did a great job tonight, then they will seek out ways to be even better tomorrow. Self-criticism is that constant driver that pushes a line cook further and further.
 A SELF CRITICAL ARTISAN
There is little need for a chef or even a guest to point out a mistake that a cook made. Trust me, when a great line cook makes a mistake, he or she is a self-proclaimed worst critic. These mistakes eat away at them until the cook figures out a way to improve.
 AN INTROVERT IN AN EXTROVERT’S SKIN
Crusty, bold, vocal, and sometimes antagonistic – this is the exterior view of that line cook. He or she may seem to be the life of the party and a person of extreme confidence. Underneath it all, many line cooks are great actors – deep inside they lack self-confidence, are shy, and unable to maintain that “life of the party” facade.
 A PERSON WHO CRAVES ORGANIZATION
The term mise en place doesn’t only apply to a cook’s workstation. Cooks respond well to order on the job because it allows them to function, survive, and even thrive. Line cooks tend to seek out environments that create the need and opportunity to organize their daily routine.
 A PERSON WITH A DESIRE TO BE LED
Some line cooks aspire to that position of chef, but the majority are great followers by nature. Even when they complain about it, the comfort of leadership allows the line cook to exhibit his or her best traits.
 A RELENTLESS PRODUCTION MACHINE
From the restaurants’ perspective, it is the line cook that allows the operation to be successful. Knowing that whatever is thrown at them, line cooks will rise to the occasion, allowing the restaurant ownership to concentrate on building the business and attracting more and more happy customers. Line cooks are the engines that allow the restaurant to move forward.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training
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