What is it about working the line in a busy restaurant that is so attractive to cooks? Why, with all of the challenges that a career in the kitchen brings are people, especially those who are younger, willing to set those challenges aside for the experience of standing in front of a battery of full-throttle ranges? The answer goes beyond the enjoyment of creating, beyond the pleasures derived from cooking, and far beyond the experience of working in a team – the answer is the adrenaline rush.
“A feeling of excitement, stimulation and enhanced physical ability produced when the body secretes large amounts of adrenaline in response to a sudden perceived or induced stress situation.”
Those who have worked in this environment in the past or who tie on an apron today know exactly what I am referring to, but to those who are scratching their heads – here is a depiction of what it is like for many line cooks.
- THE WAKE UP
It would be nice to say that cooks can separate their work from the rest of their lives, but the intensity of line work typically weighs pretty heavy on those who take on the role. Knowing the shear amount of work required to “get ready”, the unpredictability of how the night will go, and anticipation of the pressure that unfolds as tickets start spitting off the POS printer is difficult to push out of your mind. Wake-up brings with it an active mind as well as a few knots in a line cook’s stomach.
- PREP AND ANTICIPATION
The adrenaline begins to build on the way to work as a line cook wrestles mentally with what might lay ahead. Walking through the back door and changing into hounds-tooth pants and white jacket a cook begins the quick pace of station prep. Staple items were likely prepped during the early shift: stocks, clarified butter, braised items, roasts in the oven, vegetables peeled, shrimp peeled, steaks cut, etc. What is left is all of the finish and detail work: sauces, mincing herbs, blanching and shocking vegetables, seasoning pans, blanching pommes frites, picking scallops, trimming steaks, setting up station maps – details, details. The line cook likely arrived before the shift began just to stay ahead of the game. The 3-4 hours before service fly by quickly as anxiety builds. The last hour is when the adrenaline kicks in allowing the cook to pick up the pace and feel that high similar to when those endorphins kick in for distance runners.
- CLUTCH TIME
Those last few minutes before the dining room opens are filled with a mix of doubt and gratification: “Will I be ready? Yes – I’m loaded for bear and ready to rock out!” That mix of angst and being set is likely similar to what a professional football or baseball player feels just before running out on the field.
- PRE-MEAL TENSION
Those last few minutes are taken up with the chef checking stations and tasting sauces to those last minute questions from service staff during pre-meal. Line cooks that are ready can sense a bit of calm come over them while those who still have details to attend to are really on edge.
- THE GAME BEGINS
Watching a line at this point is interesting – cooks are on their toes, maybe pacing or bouncing a bit, tongs are clicking together, large amounts of water or Gatorade are being consumed, and side towels are folded and refolded. Everyone is waiting for the sound of the printer tapping out those first orders. A few minutes after the restaurant opens the orders begin to trickle in – the line is ready, on it, locked and loaded, anxious, willing and able. Everyone knows the pace will quicken soon, but that adrenaline friend is waiting just below the surface, ready to kick into full battle mode.
- THAT IMPOSSIBLE WINDOW
Typically around the 7 p.m. mark restaurants are really humming. This is prime time, the real deal, a time when all hell breaks loose and every cook knows that there is a fine line between a well-orchestrated evening and disaster. Adrenaline is a requirement now – remember – the cook has already put in a good six hours in of non-stop work. Line cooks are sweating, the expeditor is calling out orders at a frantic clip, cooks are responding back with order acknowledgement, flames are leaping from pans and lapping around steaks on the grill, sauté pans bang on the range top, oven doors open and close constantly, and plates are assembled, moved up to the pass and finished by the expeditor always looking for servers to move items out to tables. There it is – Mr. Adrenaline kicks in! Suddenly the fog seems to dissipate, the cook’s focus is pinpoint perfect, all extraneous conversation is blocked out, and the line begins to resemble the efficiency of an assembly line and the grace of an orchestra reaching the pinnacle of a piece of music. Muscles are back to peak performance, heartbeats increase, those aching feet seem to be fine at the moment, and despite the intensity of service a smile comes over the cook’s face. This is what the cook lives for – this is the action that brings a cook back every day.
- WINDING DOWN IS IMPOSSIBLE
As the witching hour passes, as the printer seems to kick into slow mode and the expeditor turns over the reins to the other side of the line – every cook feels almost more nervous than when the line was over-extended. This is actually when mistakes are made because the body and mind are still working at 7 p.m. chaos speed not willing to try and slow down. Cook’s start to fill in spare seconds with a little prep for the next day, cleaning, and self-assessment of tonight’s performance. It will likely take a good hour or so after the dining room closes before the line cooks punch, at the same time Mr. Adrenaline keeps whispering in the cook’s ear that he is not ready to pull back on the energy. This is why cooks typically continue the action at a local bar for the next couple hours to try and put the body’s gasoline to rest. They have little choice – the fire is still burning and it will take time to whimper out.
- DECOMPRESS AND A CLEAN SLATE
An hour into after work activities every line cook begins to decompress, put water on the fire, and pass the time with stories about the night’s service. For the first time today the line cook is able to stop stressing about what will come and relax just a bit. Mr. Adrenaline can be put to bed for another day. The cook knows that the work was made easier with this assistance and depends that this friend will arrive on time again tomorrow.
Finally the cook crashes to bed and maybe a few hours of sleep – tomorrow will be more of the same and with the help of adrenaline another high-energy night will be a success. As tired as the cook might be he or she continues to relish how this energy-laden window of time on the line provides a sense of satisfaction – something to seek out again, and again.
This type of cooking is as much sport as it is art, as much borderline high anxiety as it is discipline – this is the flash of excitement that pulls cooks to the kitchen line.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training