Line cooks know that there is only one speed – pedal to the metal, full-speed ahead, take no prisoners along the way. It is, after all, the nature of the beast when you work in a busy kitchen. There is ALWAYS way more to do than there is time; always more demands than there is capacity; more impossible tasks than ability; and more roadblocks to the process than one could ever anticipate.
To live the life of the line cook is to know that speed is of the essence and planning can never be over emphasized. A misplaced step, a forgotten variable, or an unanticipated curve ball will result in disaster at some point during service. Murphy’s Law is the over-riding understanding in every kitchen from coast to coast.
“If anything can go wrong, it will.”
What many outside of the kitchen may not realize is that there are numerous other corollaries to the Law that are vividly apparent to cooks:
“If anything can go wrong, it will, and at the most inopportune time.”
“It will be all your fault, and everyone will know it.”
“If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the one to go wrong first.”
This is the life of a line cook. This is what looms over everyone who makes a living in a professional kitchen; this is what drives every cook to understand that “speed” and planning is essential if Murphy’s Law is to be avoided. When a cook is “in the weeds” it simply means that a lack of speed and planning has caught up to him or her. When this happens everything begins to unravel.
After years of working in kitchens, a line cook learns that it is more likely than not, the small, simple things that are forgotten – these are the things that drive the unraveling. Every detail must be addressed, dot every “i” and cross every “t”. The checklist is the cook’s bible and it must contain every detail of preparation, even beyond the ingredients used in cooking. It is a process and thinking checklist as well as one which details which vegetable cuts and sauce reductions are required. The list will even include folding of towels, personal hydration, pounding down a few espressos, and a reminder to hit the restroom before the tickets begin to fly. Nothing to chance – “If something can go wrong, it will.” Great line cooks think it through and work with determined speed.
Entering the kitchen a good hour before the shift begins, a line cook may start off at a less than frantic pace. Making sure that his or her uniform is right, knives are sharpened, equipment is in working order, reservation counts are checked, and the prep sheet is reviewed for any missing information – the line cook is getting mentally prepared. Within that first 30-minute period a game plan is developed, checklists are prioritized, personal workspace is claimed, and the starter’s flag is prepared for the beginning of the race against time. It’s 1:30 and the first orders will start clicking off the POS at 5 p.m. sharp. The most challenging and time-consuming tasks are first on the list, but making sure that all of a cook’s ingredients are in order and in place is still the best place to start. After a 10-minute walk through of coolers and storeroom the cook takes position and begins the race.
At this point, every cook looks at the next three hours as a marathon – a race that requires a methodical approach with paced speed, measured steps, and planned out sequencing. When he or she hits that “30 minutes to go mark”, the marathon turns into a sprint – a time when the methodical approach may very well be replaced by controlled panic and a pace that is a bit frightening. It is this same pace, this shot of adrenaline that will carry the cook (prepared or not) through the 4-5 hours of service that follow.
Watching the transition of a line cook from the 1:30 point to grabbing that first ticket off the printer is quite interesting. You can see the change in a cook’s eyes. The focus evolves from structure to panic, from paced enjoyment to determined control over the impossible task before him or her. It is similar to the transition that a marathon runner goes through. The real change happens somewhere around mile 18 in a marathon when a runner’s legs have turned to rubber, muscles are way too tight, sweat has been replaced by a cooling chill over the body, everything begins to hurt, and that little voice in his or her head keeps shouting – “You can do it; one step in front of the other; don’t give up.”
“When you think that you cannot go another step, that’s when you give it everything you’ve got.”
The clock ticks to 4:50 and the line cook takes a breath, steps back and runs through that checklist one more time (damn – I forgot to eat), turns his or her apron around, pounds down another espresso, wipes down his or her station, takes a deep breath and smiles – ready for the onslaught. Just like a runner ready to position his feet on the starting blocks and shaking arms and bending knees to stay limber, the line cook does the same, preparing the body for the real workout. On your mark– get set – cook!
If a line cook has done the job of preparing correctly, then a feeling of confidence drifts over him or her and the rest of the line. “Bring it on!” Confidence arrives as a result of how well the race was begun during prep time. A seasoned chef can look at the line just before the 5 o’clock time ticks and know how the service will go. It is in the eyes of the line cooks; are they ready? Is every cook confident in his or her preparation? The race is won before the starting gun is fired. The race is won if a cook’s mise en place is tight.
The energy that is displayed during service is remarkable to watch. There are very few wasted movements. A cook’s movement is measured in pivot motions – wasted steps are wasted time. There is no room for wasted time during service. Pivot steps are an example of confidence built from being ready, really ready. Like a pilot in a plane, the line cook knows where every piece of equipment, every prepared ingredient, and every wet or dry side towel is located without thinking, without even looking. It is this level of organization and detailed preparation that allows the line to really hum like a fine-tuned machine. This is a thing of beauty, a spectacle of precision that brings a smile to the chef’s face.
Cooks are moving at a controlled, but very rapid pace. Nothing has slowed down since 1:30 that afternoon when the cook first connected a French knife to a vegetable. If anything, the pace is even more intense now, the energy comes from some unknown place, a place that resembles the marathon runner’s determination to sprint to the finish. Maybe line cooks get that same type of endorphin rush that comes to a runner – a point in the race where a euphoric feeling takes control of the pain and fatigue. The only real difference is that the line cook will run this same race again tomorrow, and the day after that.
Being a line cook is a physical, mental, and emotional sport. Line cooks, in their own way, are intense athletes who’s training happens at a relentless pace as long as he or she chooses to stay the course of being a cook or chef.
As 9:00 arrives, the pace of the kitchen is beginning to wind down. Ironically, this is when more mistakes are made – when the cook’s head and body is no longer in the race. Pretty soon it will be time to clean up, take inventory of leftover ingredients, write the prep list for tomorrow, throw some water in your face, change out of cooks whites that would attract a pack of hungry cats on the way home, and cool down over a few drinks at the local bar. After all, as tired as a cook might be, he or she can’t turn off that adrenaline just yet. It takes a friendly bartender and the clinking of glasses with the friends who you just went into battle with, to settle a cook down enough to even consider sleep.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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Restaurant Consulting and Training