I remember when I first encountered the jazz influenced improvisational music of Eric Clapton as a member of Cream. Many of my age were in awe of the speed and almost frenzy nature of this adrenaline infused music that started with structure and then blasted away in a hundred different directions. No one really knew where Clapton, Bruce, and Baker were headed with a song (they likely didn’t even know themselves) and we all sensed at times like they were heading to the edge of the cliff. The band was feeling the rush of energy that comes from a level of synchronicity, a baseline of real skill, and the energy created by the audience and the environment in which they played.
Every accomplished young line cook in a restaurant understands this feeling and, for a period of time, thrives on the rush of the push. When those orders are ticking off at lightening speed – when your mind is able to stay ahead of the game and when your hand and body motions are able to keep up – you feel super human. Each plate that carries your signature is an affirmation of your ability as a cook, your speed and agility, your mental acuity, and your control over muscle action. At the end of the shift those endorphins are running wild and you feel super human – you could conquer the world. Of course, the rush begins to fade in a short period of time – especially if you add a few drinks to calm down after punching out.
Over time – Eric Clapton began to mature, his body aged, his mind was likely not as sharp, and his need for the rush was replaced by that reflective state that allowed him to really think about the music, to reflect on its meaning, to study its history, and to enjoy true understanding that went beyond the rush. His music was different – more nuanced where each note had a purpose and a structure that was apparent. The lyrics became as important as the notes and his guitar work was deliberate and well thought out. He was able to earn a higher level of respect from fellow musicians, and eventually shed his image as an innovator while replacing that with a standard bearer’s suit of armor. In this role he became less of a showman and more a teacher.
Those young cooks who embrace and seek out the rush will eventually mature. Their need to push the envelope in search of those endorphin rushes will, at some point, be replaced with a desire to really understand cooking, to search for flavors that take time to develop, and to research the history of a dish so that real understanding can result in better cooking. They will channel this new knowledge towards a position of maturity where the big picture is far more important than the adrenaline rush. These young cooks will eventually mature into knowledge workers and chefs.
But, in the meantime – it’s all about the rush. So what is it about the rush that is so addictive?
TELL ME HOW DO YOU FEEL? A BAKER’S DOZEN:
 KNOWING THAT THE TASK AT HAND IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE
Watch line cooks when they arrive at work. Although many may try to hide the level of anticipation that is gnawing away at them – we all know that it is there. Their eyes dart around the space, they reach for their prep sheet, quickly assess ingredients, jump at setting up their work area with damp towel under a cutting board so that it doesn’t slide, sharpen their knives, tie on an apron, and start the methodical process of chopping, dicing, caramelization, finishing sauces, mincing herbs, clarifying butter, trimming proteins, lining up detailed mise en place, checking pans, folding side towels, and stacking plates to complete their stations. Will they have enough time to complete everything? Will their mise hold up to the rush? Which station will get pounded tonight? Will they be on their game?
 MENTAL ACUITY AND THE NEED TO ORGANIZE
Staying sharp, focused, totally committed to the plate, and ready for whatever comes their way – this is foremost in a cook’s mind. They know that the answer will always be organization and that mise en place work that defined their first 2-3 hours on shift. If they are prepped then the world is good – if not, then they are facing a load of uncertainty. When they are ready to play then that positive adrenaline is building up steam.
 ANXIETY AND THAT FEELING OF AHHHHHH!
Some may think that anxiety is a negative- but line cooks are able to use it to their advantage. The exhilaration of knowing that you could end up victorious or fall off the cliff is energizing and unnerving at the same time.
 THE ENERGY BOOST
If you are a runner, or exercise junkie you know how incredible it is to reach that point in your workout when those chemical endorphins kick in. It’s like punching the accelerator on your car and feeling that turbo jump into action pushing you back against the seat, and the jump of the car as it lurches forward with a new boost of energy. Cook’s feel the same thing at some point during a shift. It might happen close to opening if your mise en place is 98% done and you have to find the energy to tighten everything up, or it might not kick in until the tickets start flying off the POS, but at some point it will be there. Cook’s seek this out – this is what brings them back time and again for those 12-hour shifts.
 FEELING THE POSSIBILITY
Every cook thrives on goals. Pushing to hit those goals is a personal competition that is intoxicating. To be 100% ready at opening, to stay keenly organized throughout service, to run the busiest station, to top the number of guests served last night, to run through service without any re-fires – these are all goals that cook’s have on their active wish list every night.
 AFFIRMATION OF SKILLS
Cooks are proud of their skill set. They are in the game because they have a proven track record of sharpened abilities. The more they know how to do, the quicker their response, the more they can accomplish without sacrificing quality, the more charged they become about their status on the kitchen team.
 HANGING THE PICTURE ON THE REFRIGERATOR
Not too dissimilar to that early student experience of bringing home a classroom accomplishment to the praise and pride shown by parents – the cook inherently loves to present a beautiful plate of food in the pass for peers, servers, and eventually guests to admire. This is the fuel that every great line cook needs.
 I’VE GOT THE RYTHYM
If you could step back and simply watch a line of cooks working through a push of orders you would be reminded of the grace of classical music and the syncopation of jazz dance. This is energy and orchestrated motion.
 HIGH VOLTAGE TEAMWORK
Wow – this is so fluid – line cooks working as a seamless unit where communication is a nod or point of a finger, where chatter is minimal, but non-verbal clues result in a plate of food coming together in such a natural way, where acknowledgements are as simple as “yes chef”. This is super-charged teamwork.
 LIVING ON THE EDGE – THE THREAT OF SUDDEN DOOM
Like a daredevil skier positioned on the precipice of a steep vertical drop, every line cook knows that every moment on the line provides an opportunity to cut a perfect run or tumble with skis flying and their body buried in granular face burning snow. As scary as this seems – cooks are rarely risk averse.
 BLISS AND PRIDE
Cooks thrive on the pride of well-prepared food, of trouncing a big rush of orders, of making guests happy and of exceeding the chef’s expectations. The feelings associated with this are truly intoxicating.
 PHYSICAL STRENGTH FOLLOWED BY PHYSICAL EXHAUSTION
Like a great workout, both extremes are invigorating. That super-human rush of strength to get through a busy night and the total depletion of energy that follows are gratifying experiences.
 THE ADDICTION THAT HAUNTS YOU
The irony of all of these roller coaster feelings is that once you experience them they become the drug that brings you back for more. Cooks live for the rush, thrive on the rush, and seek it out time and again.
Know your cooks, understand their needs, feed the adrenaline, but help them to mature as technicians and artists.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training