While television and even some books might portray the life of a line cook as exciting, edgy, competitive, and even dangerously glamorous, few really demonstrate an understanding of what it is like to walk in a line cook’s shoes. Start to finish, if a portrayal is to be realistic it must focus on one very important fact – it is damn hard work.
When the media presents views of restaurant kitchens as powder kegs with shouting, demeaning chefs attacking the innocent line cook with “deer in the headlights” looks, they do a huge disservice to the industry. Environments like that, although there may be some left, are no longer tolerated – nor should they be. When books and movies paint a picture of the freedom of creative license in kitchens that look like laboratories with dozens of cooks – each with their one detail oriented task, they present an unrealistic image that can only be replicated in a very small percentage of operations around the world. The vast majority of kitchens and cooks work with a budget strained, limited number of line cooks who are fully dedicated to their craft, incredibly hard working, multi-tasking, team oriented, and focused individuals who would never tolerate an environment such as is portrayed in the media.
This being said – what is it like to work in a busy, professional restaurant kitchen? What are the challenges, disappointments, and winning feelings that permeate most of the more than 1 million restaurants from coast to coast?
Let’s work backwards from the Ugly and the Challenging-
- BURNS WILL HAPPEN:
Open flames, cherry-red, super-heated flat tops, glowing broiler coals, convective steamers, sizzle platters for steaks, deep fryers that resist even the smallest amount of water before they spit back, and heated service plates that could easily cook an egg, are around every corner, just waiting for an unsuspecting hand, forearm, or elbow. Line cooks will always sport a baker’s dozen of welts, blisters, and lingering burn marks. It happens.
- STITCHES ARE INEVITABLE:
Some cooks may claim that they never cut themselves – they are in control. I find that hard to believe. When a cook is handling razor sharp knives every day – French knife, bird’s beak, cimetar, boning knife, or the deadly serrated bread knife, there is always the chance that an edge will find a finger or a palm. Ironically, cooks are not as afraid of cutting themselves, as they are of the embarrassment that comes from everyone else knowing that they weren’t careful. Cuts will happen and stitches are inevitable.
- FEET, KNEES, BACK, AND LEGS
Standing on your feet for 10-12 hours per day, even in a great pair of shoes with rubber mats on the floor as a buffer will eventually take a toll. The sudden pivot movements on the line are cumulatively as damaging to your knees as running up and down a mountain slope. Lifting pots and pans, bending down to pull an item from an oven, stretching to grab that hanging sauté pan, carrying 50 bags of onions over a shoulder, and pulling a strap pan from the oven loaded with two 22 pound beef rib roasts will cause immense back strain. A dog may be a man’s best friend, but a chiropractor is close second.
- THE STRESS IS REAL
Everything needs to be done now! The clock is always ticking and there is never enough time. Those first orders will tick off the printer soon enough and if the cook isn’t ready then he or she is screwed. The chef has standards and even if he or she is not inclined to yell like those on TV, it is always apparent to the cook when the chef is not happy. Customers simply don’t care about your challenges and problems – they order and they expect results – quickly. The stress is real.
- THE HEAT IS ALMOST UNBEARABLE
I don’t know of many jobs as hot as working on a busy line. Maybe installing a metal roof on a house in the middle of July would be comparable, or working in a steel plant, but there are very few that compare. If the ambient temperature on the line is over 100 degrees, standing over the char-broiler with flames leaping at the hair on your arms, or the intensity of sauté work over a flat top will likely add another 20-30 degrees of ambient heat.
- KEEPING IT ALL STRAIGHT
Unlike what you might see on TV, line cooks are never relegated to one dish. They will have multiple menu items coming from their station. Each item will likely have a different approach, certainly different ingredients, and it’s own unique plate presentation. Watch the ticket rail in a busy restaurant at 7 p.m. when there will likely be 20 plus tickets each with multiple items waiting for the cook’s touch. “Ordering, Order Fire, Pick up, Give me an All-Day” are the phrases that line cooks focus on as they try to keep multiple preparations and timings straight. If they lose it then the night will be downhill from there.
- SWEAT AS FAST AS YOU HYDRATE
That intense heat produces loads of sweat – this is your body’s method of air conditioning as it tries desperately to keep your internal organs from crashing. Dehydration can creep up until the body shuts down. The cook has a personal responsibility to hydrate constantly throughout a shift. If they don’t it can be seriously dangerous. Drink even if you don’t want to.
- A CACOPHONY OF SOUND
The only thing that a cook should focus on is the directives from teammates, the chef, or the expeditor – yet all around them is a cacophony of sound: servers barking out orders and requests, banging pots and pans, the clink of glasses and plates from the dishpit, slamming oven doors, and the sound of food in pans and on the grill. If a cook is unable to block out those sounds then their attention to the task at hand will suffer.
- GETTING KICKED IN THE ASS
It happens – at crunch time there comes a point when no one is quite sure how he or she will ever get through a service. The line starts to get behind on orders as the rail fills up, the dishwasher is faced with a never-ending stack of plates and fails to keep the line stocked, mise en place starts to come into question, service staff is on edge, spills on the floor take too long to address and the threat of falls increases dramatically, a tray of glassware hits the floor and shatters into a thousand pieces, and that table of eight that was suppose to arrive before the rush now walks through the door right at the peak of service. Yikes- the difference between calm and meltdown is in the hands of the expeditor and dining room manager. If they have it together and communicate effectively then the storm might be averted. If not, then everything will domino out of control.
- TIMING IS INSANE
“How long for table 34” is the call from a seasoned server. “Three minutes” is the response from the line. The seasoned server knows that this is unrealistic and factors that what is really meant is “I’m not sure- maybe ten minutes or so”. The novice server will take it literally and become impatient. On the other hand, when the table is ready it is plated and driven to the pass – the server needs to be there at that moment. The waiter waits for the steak, the steak never waits for the waiter.
- TOTAL DEPENDANCE ON MISE EN PLACE
You can’t say this enough – the challenge to a cook in preparation for a successful night lies with tight mise en place. There is no time or room for running out of prep. THERE IS NO TIME OR ROOM FOR RUNNING OUT OF PREP!
- CREATIVE PAINTING WITH A CATTLE PROD
Cooks are expected to be artists when it comes to plate set-up. The chef has carefully planned the design and he or she expects that execution will be perfect regardless of how busy the restaurant is. Painting on the plate is something that takes patience and finesse – yet; on a busy line the expectation is art with the cattle prod of time. “Make it beautiful but get it up in the pass.”
- THE DYNAMIC OF TEAM
Unlike the portrayal of line work on shows like Hell’s Kitchen where team members are critical of each other, unwilling to help those in need, and always looking to undermine the weakest player, in professional kitchens it MUST BE all about working as a cohesive unit. The beauty of working on the line is the thrill of working together with a team that has each other’s back.
- THE DANCE
When it works, it flows. Seeing that line work well – mise en place is tight, communication is focused, confidence is high, expeditor/cook relationships are on point, front and back of the house are respectful of each other, the door is managed well out front, and plate presentations are on point is comparable to experiencing an orchestra execute a perfect piece of music. It is the dance that gets cooks excited about their work.
- THE WINS ARE EVIDENT, THE LOSS IS SHARED
Back to the team – when the environment of working together is fostered then just like in professional sports, the unit that works together wins or loses together. There is no finger pointing – all for one and one for all.
- CONSTANT IMPROVEMENT
Every day that a line cook finishes a shift he or she can point to something new that he or she has learned, or a current skill that has improved, or a tool of organization that has been enhanced. Cooks continually get better at their craft and can feel it like in very few other professions.
You can never truly understand what it is like to be a professional line cook until you have done it. The media has no idea how to portray this profession as it is, maybe because they feel that conflict is more interesting to viewers. Conflict doesn’t work in the kitchen and if it does exist then decent cooks will quickly look for a new venue.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training
*All hail the line cook!
If you are interested in stories of the kitchen, then you will want to order your copy of “The Event That Changed Everything” today. Click on the amazon link below to order yours: