“WANTED – LINE COOKS”. How often have you seen this headline in the help wanted ads, on Craig’s List, or in pleading posts on Facebook? It seems that every restaurant is perpetually looking for line cooks – the beasts of burden in restaurant kitchens. Far too often, these competent workhorses are viewed as disposable players whose primary role is to follow directions, be ready, and execute the vision of the chef. In reality, the line cook is more critical to a restaurants success than operators think or understand.
It is, as I have pointed out previously, the line cook who 9 times out of 10 is responsible for preparing a guest’s meal, ensuring that the flavor profile is correct, insisting on making sure that items are prepared to the proper degree of doneness, and plated with the precision and artistry that restaurant guests have come to expect. The chef certainly provides the vision, the training, and the daily guidance, but it is rare to see the chef actually preparing dishes at the point of service. The chef depends on the skills, passion, taste buds, and confidence of the line cook to build the dishes that he or she envisions.
A perfect parallel (from my perspective) is the significant pool of incredibly talented studio musicians who are brought in to support a “center stage” artist both in live performance and recording. These highly accomplished workhorses of the music industry are the ones who execute the music envisioned by the known artist or producer, and do so with a level of excellence that is incredible to witness. These “musicians for hire” are rarely given credit (except where the union mandates on album footnotes), is unknown to the listener, and far too often viewed by the producer as line cooks are by the restaurant. “WANTED – STUDIO MUSICIANS,” sounds a lot like “WANTED – LINE COOKS”.
Some studio musicians eventually make it to the forefront after years of selling their talent to others in the limelight. Ry Cooder, Don Henley, Glen Frey, The Band, Billy Preston, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and even Hendrix were all studio musicians whose talent allowed the person out front to enjoy the admiration and accolades of the public long before their names became familiar to the masses. But, how many people know of Nicky Hopkins who played killer piano for Steve Miller, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service in the sixties? How about Gary Mallaber who made a career out of studio work playing with some of the most iconic people in the business: Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Miller, Bob Seger and Poco to name a few. Steve Cropper played sax with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and even the Blues Brothers, yet like the rest, he remained somewhat anonymous.
The same is true with thousands upon thousands of line cooks who remain in the shadows of name chefs, yet it is their skill set, their passion and dedication, that allows those chefs to bask in the success of their restaurant concepts. Every successful chef owes his or her status to the time spent on the line: honing skills, learning how to organize and time preparations, building a palate of flavors, and demonstrating how to work as a member of a team. Some make it big, while others, like their counterparts in the recording studio, are either satisfied with that position or are unable to step up to the next level. Their mastery of “how to cook” and “how to cook under the fire of service” helps to create a successful restaurant and a chef’s reputation.
This is why it riles me to see those ads for “wanted – line cooks”, as if their involvement in the whole restaurant experience is never more than a passing consideration. “Fill the empty slot vs. provide an environment for the right people to do their magic.” So many restaurants and chefs tend to schedule these cooks without consideration for their personal lives, pay them wages that fail to recognize the talent that they bring to the table, ignore their need for reasonable benefits, fail to seek their input on operational matters and menu selections, and view their contribution without understanding how important they are to business success.
When we relegate cooking to a job with interchangeable parts we lose the heart and soul of the dining experience. When we relegate music to a job with interchangeable parts we lose the magic of making great music. There is no real difference between the attitude that many restaurants have about line cooks as interchangeable parts and producers who view studio musicians as part-time employees who simply need to play the notes on a chart. Great line cooks and great studio musicians need to be treated as integral to the experience that is the music of food.
When we view cooks in this manner we denigrate the profession and open the door for many who are not serious, not committed, not passionate to step into the role of an interchangeable part. This is a self-perpetuating reality that needs serious study. I know a significant number of exceptional cooks who are clumped together with those who only seek a paycheck and give very little in return.
Great line cooks:
- Love what they do
- Respect the ingredients they work with
- Look towards cooking as an honorable profession
- Are always seeking perfection
- Are demanding of themselves
- Know that they still have a lot to learn
- Are consistently seeking perfection
- Are ready, willing and able
With this in mind, treat cooks – the ones that fit this profile – with respect. Treat these cooks as the professionals that they are and know that your success as a restaurateur or chef is dependent on their work. Think through the way that you seek the right employees – invest in them, welcome them to your organization, give them the tools to be effective in their jobs, and work hard to keep their passion and fire alive. Line cooks are the artists that bring great music to life.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training