It’s pushing 10 a.m. when an evening line cook finally rolls out of bed. The July sun is starting to really show its ability to bear down with penetrating heat and the humidity is bringing those first beads of sweat to the cook’s forehead. Ah…the start of another summer day. The primary role of the morning shower is to cool off and by the time a cook pulls up on both hounds tooth pant legs that sweat has already returned.
The walk to work is filled with angst about the job ahead, mise en place yet to be built, the unknown number of reservations for tonight’s service, and most importantly the heat and humidity of the kitchen.
As much as every cook would enjoy the ability to take part in what summer means to so many others, to the cook it is all about pale skin that rarely sees the sun as a vehicle for those deep bronze or brown tans. Too much sun for may cooks means the lobster red color of a burn. Walking into the kitchen is like moving from the frying pan to the oven. The curtain of heat hits every cook as an awakening for even more intensity to come.
One would think that water would be the most important beverage in the kitchen, but to a line cook it is likely to be hot coffee. Coffee seems to equalize the personal inner and outer heat that is so prevalent in the kitchen for the duration of the 12- hour shift ahead.
Soon the cook is into a rhythm. Knives cut through everything in their way, and the staccato of chopping and dicing sounds on cutting boards become the beat of the kitchen as the team pulls together their mise. By now the flat top, chargrill and ovens are fired up to max and add rawness to the temperature in the stainless steel jungle. Once the dish machine kicks into play there will be the added intensity of humidity that soaks through uniforms, drips from the rim of kitchen hats and blurs the cooks eyes. Even the cook’s socks are wet from sweat.
The day is young and the looming anticipation of a busy night is starting to creep into everyone’s psyche. “Which station will be the most painful tonight? Who will feel the weight of an impossible number of orders? Will every cook be ready physically, mentally, and emotionally? The heat is ever-present and makes it ever more difficult to stay on task and put aside the lack of comfort. The kitchen could be a steel plant at this point – physical work in front of blast furnaces – pretty much the same as a kitchen – this is the closest thing to Dante’s Inferno that you will ever find.
Five o’clock hits soft with just a few early bird tickets coming off the printer. This is a good way to build up the energy and adrenaline levels in preparation for the first real push. Sweat is starting to roll down the cooks back, and every line cook’s skin feels like it is alive and able to detect every nuance of pain, heat, and that rush of hot adrenaline that is beginning to course through his or her system. Five-thirty: the pace is starting to pick up, a few more senior citizen deuces and the dining room is now a third full. The board shows a dozen tickets – somewhere around 30 people. This is still child’s play, but even at this pace the sauté station is filled with waiting pans and a significant number of steaks are being marked on the grill. Six fifteen and the first push has begun. The dining room is full and more waiting for the early birds to finish their coffee and open up another ten tables. All hell is about to break loose. Instead of the usual early deuces, the dining room is filling up with four tops and even a large table of ten off to the back. The bar is full with guests waiting for the next push that will happen around 7:45.
Back in the kitchen the heat has been turned up. Every sauté pan is either in use or being washed in ready for the next dish. The grill is filled with steaks and chops and the flames from the broiler are mixing with the fat drippings from meat creating four to six inches flames to leap out at the line cook in search of that last bit of hair on his arms. Some of the line cooks have complemented their skullcaps with bandanas to keep the sweat at bay. Everyone has been passing around the cornstarch to fight off chafe and shirts are now glued to everyone’s torso thanks to the rivers of back sweat that never seem to cease. There are a few hand burns to work through, some splattered hot oil from the deep fryers, and an occasional super hot pan handle that managed to find that part of a cook’s palm that wasn’t quite covered by a dry towel.
The grill guy nicked the top of his index finger with a super sharp Japanese carving knife – no time to worry about the throbbing pain – wash it, slap on some disinfectant, bandage the cut and throw on another latex glove. Maybe a stitch or cauterization is called for, but that can wait until later, or maybe never.
The expeditor is doing what he can to keep the line calm and flowing smoothly. Serving as liaison between front and back of the house – this kitchen expeditor is the peacekeeper, and grand communicator. He watches the eyes of each line cook, seeking out any sign of that “deer in the headlights look” that always precedes a meltdown. Caught early enough, a good expo can talk a cook down and bring him or her back into focus.
7:15: the calm before the storm. Suddenly everything seems all too quiet. Almost all of the tables have been served and thirty people are just finishing their coffee and waiting for credit cards to return. Once they leave, those tables will fill immediately and the push starts all over again. These are the serious diners – the ones with the highest expectations, the greatest demands, and the palates that warrant the full nine yards – appetizers, salads, entrees, dessert and lots of decent wine. There may only be another 30 or 40 guests sitting for this push, but it could result in well over 100 different plates of food. The team is seasoned now – they take this lull in the storm time to replenish depleted mise en place, tidy up stations, hydrate, and catch their breath. They look like a second line on a hockey team waiting for the coach to send them in the game. They bounce on their toes, stretch, bend their knees, click their tongs in anticipation, and wait for the printer to start ticking off another stream of orders. When it hits, it hits hard and everyone takes a breath and kicks it up a notch – this is the last real push for the night – bring it on.
By 9:30 it’s pretty much over. There are a few late night tables, mainly deuces looking for that romantic dinner, but for the most part it’s time to start consolidating and cleaning. It’s time to try and push the adrenaline down and bring your pulse back under 120. By the time it’s over, a typical line cook may have lost a couple pounds in sweat. Don’t worry though, they will add it back on in calories from after work beer, and maybe a greasy burger from Shake Shack or Five Guys.
The sun is down, but the humidity remains. The cool breeze from summer sunsets now tempers that kitchen sweat. Cook’s throw some water on their faces, finish cleaning up, change into street clothes, roll on some deodorant and drag a comb through their thinning hair. Time to unwind with friends – who by the way are the people you work with. Tomorrow is another day, but the night is still young. Cook’s will wake up again with a bit of a hangover, sore muscles, aching feet, those cuts and burns that were never properly attended to, and that skin color that never seems to deepen from the sun. Tomorrow will come quick enough.
The life of a line cook in the summer months: not their favorite season.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER AND HYDRATE
HARVEST AMERICA VENTURES, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training