Whether you are a product of a formal culinary education or working your way up through the school of hard knocks, it is likely that all roads leading to the position of chef will move through the line cook position. Line cooks are the backbone of the kitchen and the sought after position by all who have a future in the back of the house. Dishwasher to prep cook, breakfast cook to afternoon of evening line – these are the steppingstones, the right of passage, for a serious career cook.
To be an effective line cook, the individual must possess certain attributes and he or she must adhere to certain “rules of play” that make the job much more fluid and goal focused.
To those who are fresh off the culinary school treadmill or hard knocks folks moving from that prep position to the glory of the line – here are a few attributes and tips that will make your transition much easier.
- BE ALL IN:
If cooking is just a job, then your food will be more fuel than an expression of skill, tradition, and art. When you are all in then it becomes obvious that cooking is your chosen career – an extension of who you are.
- BE DEPENDABLE:
The most significant attribute of a professional is dependability. Start with this and you will set the stage for a lasting career. Be on time, be ready to work, be trusted to complete a task as required, in the amount of time required, and always be that team member that others can look to for support.
- BE PASSIONATE:
To be passionate about cooking requires that you are always interested in the why and how and are focused on constant improvement. You take pride in the presentation and flavor of the food that you are responsible for and would never place a dish in the pass that failed to meet those standards.
- BE AWARE:
Cooks need to be aware of what is taking place around them, what environmental factors might impact on their ability to perform, and how they might problem solve to minimize any negative impact caused by those factors.
- BE PART OF “WE”, NOT “ME”:
Solid line cooks are team players. They understand that cooking is a team sport and everything depends on the synchronized efforts of the group.
- BE ORGANIZED:
Organization is the heart of a successful kitchen – from the placement of mise en place to the stacking of plates and folding of side towels – every great line cook is an efficient machine.
LINE COOK TIPS:
- SHORT CUTS DON’T WORK:
Sure, some will point to tricks that they may have learned that speed up a process – saving time and energy, but short cuts that circumvent the time tested way that food is prepared will more often than not result in an inferior finished product. Never sacrifice quality for speed; yet at the same time always look for ways to be efficient without moving away from a process that yields the best product.
- KNOW THE METHODS:
Great cooking is all about understanding methods, not necessarily recipes. Recipes have their place, but do not factor in the variables that can pull a cook away from the goal of excellent finished dishes.
- PRACTICE TECHNIQUES:
Technique is an essential partner to methods. Techniques are where a cook can become more efficient, leading to greater speed and quantity. Knife skills and understanding how to use the tools available so that everything becomes second nature – this is efficiency.
- HEAT YOUR PANS FIRST:
Caramelization is essential in bringing out the flavor in certain dishes. Caramelization also requires that a product move freely in a pan, taking advantage of the best properties of heat. When the pan is hot enough first and technique is fully understood, then an ingredient will move freely in the pan without sticking.
- SLICE DON’T SAW:
When slicing through meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables – there is a technique that takes advantage of the knife-edge – offering a clean, even cut. Slice forward using the full length of the knife and then draw back in the same fashion. A dull knife, or improper technique will leave layers of saw marks and ruin the presentation of the food.
- KEEP AN EDGE ON YOUR KNIVES:
A cook’s knives must be sharp – bring an edge to the blade on a wet stone at the beginning of every shift and keep your steel close at hand throughout the shift to bring back that edge when needed. A dull knife at a line cook’s station is inexcusable.
- LONG SLEEVES SAVE LOADS OF PAIN:
I get it – the kitchen is hot and the tendency is to minimize clothing in an effort to ward off some of that heat. But, the kitchen is a dangerous place with super hot pans, cherry red flat tops, leaping flames from the char-grill, spitting oil from pans, and sharp knives working furiously through the demands of service. The reason for long sleeves on a chef’s coat, heavy cotton, long pants, aprons, and head brims on a chef’s toque is to protect the cook from burns and cuts.
- SALT AFTER COOKING:
Salt is certainly a common flavor enhancer and as such a well-respected seasoning in every kitchen – but salt on foods during cooking can also tend to draw moisture from the ingredient. Salt is oftentimes better used at the end of cooking to accent rather than penetrate.
- YOU CAN ALWAYS ADD MORE SEASONING, BUT YOU CAN’T TAKE IT AWAY:
Herbs and spices, especially those that impart heat, are best when added towards the end of cooking. Some spices, such as all versions of pepper, increase in potency the longer they cook with a dish. To this end, if too much is added early in the cooking process it becomes very difficult to counteract the negative impact of a spice improperly used.
- HOT FOOD HOT, COLD FOOD COLD:
The first rules of thumb in the kitchen always apply. Hot food should be maintained as such and cold food likewise. Hot food should be placed on hot plates and cold food on cold plates. Even down to coffee served in a warmed cup and salads served with a chilled fork.
- THE STEAK DOESN’T WAIT FOR THE SERVER:
The quality of cooked food will deteriorate quickly. The pass on the line is properly named since the food should quickly pass from the cook to the server. Every second that a dish sits in the pass results in a loss of product character. Timing on the kitchen line is as essential as the process of cooking.
- TAKE CARE OF YOUR FEET:
Every part of your body is impacted by the care of your feet. Proper shoes with support, white socks, floor mats, and frequent movement all result in healthier feet. When the feet are not cared for then there is an impact on legs, knees, back, and even headache pain. Never underestimate the importance of foot care over those 10-12 hour shifts.
- TAKE CARE OF YOUR HANDS:
The most important tools that you have in your kit are the ten fingers at the end of your arms. Wash them frequently, cover them when appropriate, use care when handling blades, use towels when handling hot pans, and use hand lotion at the end of a shift. Protect your most valuable kitchen tools.
- STAY ALERT:
One second is all it takes for something to go terribly wrong in the kitchen. Hot liquids, flames, sharp tools, heavy pots and pans, slippery floors, splattering oil, or a rushed employee moving around the corner without warning – so much can go wrong – stay alert!
- HYDRATE AND FUEL UP:
It is not uncommon for a line cook to lose a pound or more of water weight on a kitchen shift. Dehydration can be very dangerous – resulting in heat stroke. Cooks need to drink lots of liquids during a shift to rehydrate and maintain an even body temperature. At the same time – your body needs fuel to maintain peak efficiency, build muscle, and stay focused. A staff meal – preferably with an opportunity to sit down and properly digest it, is critical to a line cooks performance.
- NEVER RUN OUT OF MISE EN PLACE:
- DRY TOWEL, WET TOWEL:
Both are important – the dry towel for handling hot pans and stove tops and wet towels (from a bucket with sanitation solution) for cleaning. Never mix the two.
- CLEAN AS YOU GO – EVEN WHEN IT’S CRAZY BUSY:
A functional station is one that remains organized and clean – the opposite results in chaos.
- KNOW WHEN TO ASK FOR HELP:
Every line cook, on occasion, winds up “in the weeds”. Know when you are headed down that path and turn to a teammate for help before it gets out of hand.
- KNOW THE MENU – REALLY KNOW IT:
Know the ingredients, their flavor profile, know the methods of cooking used, understand the appearance desired, and know why a dish was designed a certain way. The more you know, the better the dish.
- EACH PLATE DESERVES YOUR ATTENTION:
All cooks have favorite dishes, but in a restaurant every dish must be treated as if it is your favorite.
- IF YOU DON’T HAVE THE TIME TO DO IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME – WHEN WILL YOU FIND THE TIME TO DO IT OVER:
Time always gets in the way and far too often we look for short cuts to adapt to time constraints. In the end if it is not done correctly at first then the time constraints associated with a re-fire are compounded. Do it right the first time – this is the best approach.
There are probably dozens of other tips for success that every seasoned line cook can come up with, but this is a good start. Being a line cook is a challenging, focused, skilled, and extremely important job in the kitchen – make sure you are prepared to do it justice.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
APPRECIATE YOUR LINE COOKS
Harvest America Ventures, LLC