This is not a scientific study based on polling a cross-section of cooks from coast to coast, but rather an observation from experience working with and managing cooks whom I have a great deal of respect for. First some data: According to the National Restaurant Association there are more than 1 million freestanding restaurants in the United States. This means that there are far more than 1 million cooks, chefs and food handlers in our country today. This positions the restaurant industry as one of the primary employers of people. Additionally, nearly 50% of the average American food dollar is spent in restaurants – line cooks are feeding America!
So, how does it feel to be a line cook in America? This is a snapshot of the positive and negatives associated with this choice of work:
ON THE POSITIVE SIDE:
 Line cooks are proud artisans, seasoned warriors of the range, masters of timing, and hardened physical workers who are able to withstand the intense heat and emotional stress of preparing food for a demanding audience.
 Line cooks are skilled craftsmen who have mastered the memorization of structured cooking technique, and who are able to multi-task seamlessly under unusually difficult conditions.
 Line cooks are always ready for battle. The knowledge that hundreds of orders will stream off the POS printer throughout a service is something that gets their adrenaline pumping. Bring it on!
 Line cooks are part of an international club – once you show your battle scars from the range, you are accepted into this club regardless of cuisine, regardless of geography. To say I am a line cook will always bring a smile to the face of others who share the same trade.
 Line cooks are innate artists who look at each plate as their canvas and part of their job to paint effective presentations of food on that canvas. To this end, most line cooks are frustrated artists who have found a profession that allows that creativity to take form.
 Most importantly, line cooks are part of a team. The person to his or her left or right is as close to family as one could find. Great line cooks take pride in the fact that each day is “All for one and one for all”.
ON THE OPPOSITE END OF THE SPECTRUM:
 Line cooks today tend to feel somewhat disenfranchised. As important as they are to the success of a restaurant – cooks oftentimes feel like interchangeable parts. Feeling part of something larger than their current assignment is something that is far too often, a distant dream. As an example – there are well over a million cooks in the U.S., but the most significant professional chefs and cooks organization – The American Culinary Federation, only boasts 18,000 members. Where do line cooks fit into the larger, positive world of food? How do they tap into the great things that are happening with American Cuisine? Even those who have had the opportunity to pursue a formal education in cooking find that they can easily become lost once on the job. A few move quickly up the ranks, but many become just as disenfranchised once they become part of the viscous cycle of low pay, crazy schedules, long hours, and backbreaking work. Add to this the challenges of paying back those student loans and their future seems to turn a bit grey.
 Line cooks are under-appreciated by the general public. All of the great press and increased interest in food is focused on the chef. In most cases, the line cook is the person responsible for executing the vision of the chef. Where is the recognition for the cook whose hand is placed firmly on the sauté pan?
 Line cooks are under paid. There is little question regarding the skill set necessary to be a solid line cook. Understanding of cooking technique, great taste buds, an eye for presentation, the ability to trouble shoot a preparation when the ingredients are not up to par, timing and speed, a great capacity for multi-tasking, and the focus on team work define today’s line cook. With all of this required seasoning, most line cooks in America are grossly under paid for their work. Additionally, benefits are non-existent leaving cooks barely able to scrape by and feel rewarded for their unique package of skills.
 Line cooks tend to feel isolated and unknown. There is a pent up desire among cooks to be more involved, to be respected for their observations and opinions, and to be able to put their signature on a menu. If this desire is left unfulfilled, then the cook feels empty and unknown to not only the guest, but to the leadership of the operation.
There is a need for change. The restaurant industry is stronger than ever, dependence on the restaurant experience has increased exponentially, the public’s fascination with the life of a cook is at a peak, and more and more restaurants open every day. While all of this positive growth is taking place, the life of a line cook has not improved. The result is an increasing challenge to find line cooks willing to work for even the best restaurants. Chefs across the country are frustrated with an inability to fill their schedules with competent individuals. It is time to change the formula and show respect for the importance of a line cook. We (the industry as a whole) need to pay them better, offer a reasonable benefit package, involve them in building the menu, listen to their concerns, and mentor them as they move forward with their careers. What we invest in a cook today is an investment in the future of the individual restaurant and the business that we have chosen.
Remember who really cooks your food. These line cooks are the infantry – the soldiers who follow directives of lieutenants and generals. Cooks are the ones on the front line fighting the daily battle for customer support and great dining experiences. Support your line cooks!
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
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