Many jobs are physically demanding and others push a persons ability to think clearly and problem solve. Some jobs can be emotionally draining while others are adrenaline driven and allow workers to ride high and weather the storms of stress. Line work in a kitchen is a combination of all of the above.
If you haven’t lived it – understanding the feelings that line cooks experience every day or night is difficult to imagine. The environment, the nature of the work, the pressure coming from all directions, and the internal need to express oneself through food come together like a perfect storm – every day. So, here is an attempt at describing what it is like for those who only see the finished product.
Kitchens rarely sleep. There may be a short respite from midnight to 3 a.m., but even that is violated as the night cleaner is putting the finishing touches on floors and dealing with trash and recyclables after dinner service. If the operation has a strong bread and pastry program then the morning baker will likely arrive somewhere between 2 and 4 a.m. Breads and laminated dough for Danish and puff pastries take time to proof and relax before passing into pre-heated ovens, so the baker arrives ready to hit the ground running. First things first – brew a pot of strong coffee and change into the traditional uniform of the kitchen, fire up the ovens, and move any dough that was retarded in coolers to the proof box. While the dough grows from the work of active yeast, the baker is beginning the prep of dough for tomorrow – it’s only 3:15 a.m. and the kitchen is already beginning to hum.
This regiment continues as the lonely (grateful for this) baker moves from these products to cookies, cakes, mousse and Bavarian, poached fruits, sweat sauces, candied nuts, and a variety of ice creams. His or her pace is only broken slightly when the breakfast cook arrives around 5 a.m.
As was the case with the baker, there is little time for the breakfast cook to chat, there is bacon and sausage to be finished, eggs to be cracked, breakfast sauces to be made, pancake and waffle batters readied, butter clarified, and home fries to caramelize on the griddle. Breakfast service begins at 6:30 and everything must be ready for the fast pace of the breakfast shift.
The temperature and humidity in the kitchen are beginning to rise by 6 a.m. from the work of ovens and the dish machine filling from the arrival of the morning dishwasher. The exhaust fan works hard, but can never keep up with the build up of heat from ranges, griddles, and ovens and the air moisture that comes with the turf. The kitchen smells great at this point – a mixture of pastry, bread, bacon, butter, and coffee – this is what keeps everyone’s spirits high. Service staff arrive by 6 a.m. and the dining room is buzzing with activity as they prep table butters, refill salt and pepper, adjust tables, make enough coffee to start, run oranges for fresh juice, and touch up carpets with a quick vacuum.
Back in the kitchen – any effect of personal deodorant is long dissipated as the mean temperature reaches 100 degrees and even higher for the cook standing over the range and griddle. Sweat rolls down the back of cooks, feet begin to ache even with the rubber mats on floors designed to help with fatigue. The orders begin to trickle into the kitchen around 6:40 as early risers pour into the dining room. By 7:00 the dining room is nearly full – game on!
Breakfast, unlike other meals is very fast paced. The time between placing orders and pick up is measured in short minutes. The breakfast cook is amazing to watch. Organization, confidence, speed, and cool temperament are the most critical criteria for this position. A good breakfast cook can handle 100 breakfasts or more on his or her own. When things start to back up a bit – the baker or dishwasher jump in to garnish plates and refill bacon and sausage pans. By 8:30, the dining room is nearly empty and the breakfast cook begins to prep for tomorrows’ onslaught.
While this was taking place, the first prep cook arrived around 7:30 and the chef a few minutes behind him. Now the kitchen will really begin to kick into gear. Orders from vendors will begin arriving shortly, the daunting prep list is hanging on the prep cook’s clipboard, breads are being pulled out of ovens in the bakeshop and items for the evening dessert menu are coming together. The chef grabbed a cup of coffee and is now checking in with all of the kitchen players, reviewing function sheets for today and tomorrow, looking at the calendar for any meetings, and walking through coolers and storerooms to visually inventory what products need to be worked into tonight’s features. The phone is ringing off the hook with requests from the sales office, salesmen looking for any fresh orders, and the occasional employee calling out sick. The pace is becoming frantic.
Temperatures in the kitchen continue to rise and although everyone seems to have that “deer in the headlights” look on their face, there is relative calm because they have all been here before, they know what to do. Stocks are working, adding additional heat and humidity to the kitchen, but also that wonderful, deep aroma of roasted bones and caramelized vegetables. Deliveries are backing up as produce, meats, fresh fish, and dairy arrive at the back door. Everything must be checked, in some cases weighed, product rotated in coolers and storerooms, and boxes broken up for recycling. A bag of onions weighs 50 pounds, each 109 rib weighs in at around 22 pounds (2 to a case), number 10 cans are 6 to a case and can tip the scales at more than 30 pounds, and whole fish arrive packed in pounds of crushed ice. The physical nature of the job never ends.
Fortunately, for this kitchen – a ‘la carte lunch is not served – breakfast, dinner, and special functions take up the entire day. In reviewing the function sheets for the day, the chef notes that there are only small group events scheduled – a few coffee hours with pastries, a group luncheon for 25, and a birthday dinner for 20. Tomorrow is the day of reckoning with a breakfast and lunch function for 75 and a wine dinner in the evening (7 courses) for 30 guests. The chef will take care of the wine dinner prep, but he scheduled another prep cook to arrive at 10 to help get things in order.
By noon, all of the deliveries for the day are taken care of, new orders are placed, breakfast is long over and the line is fresh for the evening crew, all baking is done and the morning baker is walking out the back door – done for the day. The bakeshop will become the garde manger and dessert station for the evening. Prep is coming along nicely and coolers are filling up with speed racks holding function and station prep. At 1:30, the evening line cook pirates begin arriving and take over the kitchen in due course. The space has managed to cool down a bit from the early shift, but that will soon change as line cooks fire up flat tops, char-grills, and fryers.
The prep cooks are beat. Soaked in sweat, aching feet, shoulders and arms, and a few blisters to boot – they clean their station and relinquish the kitchen to the evening crew.
The energy is very high right now as cooks set their stations, begin their routine of mise en place that includes cutting steaks, filleting fish, finishing sauces, trimming and blanching vegetables, mincing herbs and preparing garnishes. The evening menu is much more refined and complicated, requiring the same organizational skills of the breakfast cook, but at a level of detail that is quite complicated. The 20 or so items on the evening menu each come with multiple components, sometimes multiple sauces and garnishes, specific plates for each, and numerous cooking methods that utilize the entire line. Unlike the single breakfast master, the evening line will include anywhere from 3-6 cooks, each with specific responsibilities. The added challenge of timing each preparation that involves multiple cooks’ makes the orchestration of the evening shift very complicated. This orchestration is the responsibility of the chef, sous chef, or expeditor. In many cases, the chef who arrived at 7:30 this morning may still be directing this process at 9 or 10 that evening.
As the 5:30 witching hour when service begins gets closer, the pace and stress level in the kitchen rises. Temperatures on the line are now closer to 120 degrees and higher as they lean over flat tops and grills. Fresh cut fries are being blanched in oil that spits at the line cook when the water of the potato hits 375 degree oil, sauté pans are lined up on the back of the flat top so that they are hot when needed, ovens are cranked up all the way, the grates on the char grill glow a cherry red, and the bain marie adds even more humidity to the room.
Chef coats are soaked even before the first orders arrive, some cooks already boast a few finger nicks from razor sharp knives, and heat calluses have heat calluses as cooks grab hot pan handles on the line.
When orders arrive, cooks need to be totally focused. Each line position may have dozens of orders working simultaneously – each with their own preparation steps and timing. The noise in the kitchen is a cacophony of communication from servers, dishes clanging in the dishpit, expeditor dialogue between stations, and the sound of cooking taking place. To a novice walking through those kitchen doors this would seem to be a cross between an industrial setting and the chaos of a family feud. The chef has the important job of keeping the machine working at a high level of efficiency, keeping cooks calm and focused, maintaining a civil dialogue with dining room staff, and making sure that every dish is exceptional regardless of how busy the restaurant might be. Tonight, the kitchen and dining room might prepare and serve a few hundred diners and even more dishes considering the multiple courses ordered.
As 9 o’clock arrives, things start to slow down. The dupe rail is left with less than a dozen tables, and line cooks begin to breakdown whatever part of their station they can. Uniforms are soaked and ready for the laundry bag, feet are throbbing, and the heat hangs on as cooks continue to hydrate with water and Gatorade. Unless a cook takes care of hydration he or she might even pass out during service. Fingers are accented with bandages, burn ointment is out from the first aid kit, and the rubber mats that helped to save feet and backs during service are now slick with oil and food remnants that decided to leave sauté pans as line cooks flipped items during the process of finishing a dish.
By 10 p.m., the last orders are leaving the kitchen and cooks move into full breakdown, making their prep lists for tomorrow and notes for the prep crew, the floor mats are rolled up and tied and prepped for washing, the dishwasher is backed up with final plates from the dining room and the onslaught of 6th pans from the line, and service staff are bringing in the last wave of dirty tablecloths, napkins, glassware, and flatware that need attention. At 11:30 the balance of the crew, having changed into civilian clothes, are headed out the door for a beer or two at the local watering hole. The dishwasher(s) remain to tighten the kitchen up and turn off the lights. It’s 12:30 in the morning and the kitchen goes to sleep – at least for a couple hours.
A day in the life of a cook.
“Walk a mile in my shoes, see what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel, THEN maybe you’ll understand why I do what I do.”
-from a Native American Proverb – “Walk a mile in my moccasins…”
***PICTURE: Chef’s Tim Hardiman and Tim McQuinn at Tailor and the Cook in Utica, New York.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER – Thank your restaurant staff –they are incredible!
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