Many have written about the make-up of line cooks– what makes them tick? What is evident is that the best cooks are complicated characters, yet fairly easy to generalize. Having worked with a wide array of individuals filling the ranks of cooks I feel comfortable making some generalizations. This does not attempt to look at the many other individual character traits of each unique cook, but rather looks at the common denominators.
Standing on the line with the intense heat of a cooking battery behind them, tongs in hand, bib apron tied, pans lined up and hot, flames licking from the grates of a char-grill, and eyes zeroed in on the tickets clipped to the dupe rail – all line cooks seem to share in these common denominators.
WHEN THE DINING ROOM BEGINS TO FILL – LOOK INTO THE EYES OF THE COOK. THIS IS WHAT YOU WILL LIKELY SEE:
Tall, short, young or old, male or female, large or small – all line cooks have a physical strength, out of necessity, that allows them to meet the demands of the job. Cooking is a sport with all of the demands of any other physical job. Lifting, bending, reaching, stretching, being limber on their feet, and having the grip of an arm wrestler are all traits of the cook that are absolutely necessary and universally present.
 MENTAL ACUITY:
Being “sharp as a tack” is a phrase made for the line cook. There is a multitude of tasks and processes to keep at the forefront of a look’s mind. The brain is constantly assessing, categorizing, reviewing, and making decisions based on the ability to keep everything in order. Problem solving happens countless times during a shift as a line cook moves through the demands placed on his or her ability to “think”. You can see it in a cook’s eyes, in his or her deliberate motions, and how well the hands respond to the decisions of the brain.
 EMOTIONS IN CHECK:
Yes, line cooks may have reputation of being crusty, but in essence they are all driven by emotions. When it comes to those moments when a cook is faced with an onslaught of orders and the need to make those instantaneous decisions – he or she must be all business – the emotions are pushed aside, but remain only dormant until the end of a shift. Anger, despair, love, hate, fear, anxiety, and pity are all just a few inches below the surface. This pushing aside of emotions is not very healthy, but necessary in the moment.
Cooks don’t often forget those things that bring emotions to the surface, but they are able to bounce back and allow the need for efficiency and quality work to take the lead. Resilience is a tool in every cook’s bag of tricks that can be turned on in an instant when the situation demands that they get back on their feet. This resilience, however, does dissipate in short order and can weigh heavy on a cook’s psyche.
 A PERSON CRAVING VALIDATION:
Cooks are extremely proud people. If they view the job of cooking as a calling, then just like anyone else, they thrive on the validation of their skills by others. Whether it be the chef, owner, or guest the line cook secretly craves acknowledgement that they have done a good job. Above all else it is the nod of approval from their peers that trumps reigns supreme. Of course, cooks like to see clean plates come back from the dining room, and they certainly appreciate a pat on the back from the chef, but a “thumbs up” from a peer allows the cook to feel validated.
 NERVOUS CONFIDENCE:
When the doors to the restaurant open and those tickets start clicking off the POS, every line cook must feel ready, they must be ready, their mise must be tight, their mental state must be on high alert, and their connection with the team surrounding them must be electric. On the surface this is the image that they want to portray, that they must portray; but underneath there is always that understanding that it won’t take much for things to go south. It is this understanding that oftentimes drives a cook to push for the right amount of prep and do what needs to be done to be “on his or her game”.
 OBSESSIVENESS ABOUT DETAILS:
In the kitchen, especially on the line, everything is a detail that jockey’s for position as a priority. Watch line cook’s during that final 30-minutes before service to understand how they sweat the details. “Are my pans hot with handles pointing in a specific direction, are side towels folded just so, is the pinch pot of salt and pepper built from the correct proportions, are oil and wine bottles filled, is there enough chiffonade of parsley, have I hydrated enough, did I monte au beurre the sauces in the bain – everything is critical to a successful service.
 READY FOR BATTLE:
Look back to those eyes, to the concentration, to the nerves on edge, the bounce in their step, the relentless wiping down of a station, and the pacing within their triangle of space – these cooks are ready, chomping at the bit, anxious to get on with it, but most importantly in a position to exceed even their own expectations. The battle is near and the troops are prepared for action.
Line cooks are the Gentle Giants of the kitchen. This is the crew that makes or breaks a kitchen, that defines how well received a chef’s menu will be and how successful a restaurant can become. This is how line cooks rolls in the kitchen. Not dissimilar to a professional football team – when the kitchen line is on their game you can feel it in the air, the chef can sense greatness in the making, and the customer knows that they are about to experience something memorable.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training