I find it so interesting that the concept of “line cook” is an immersion in contradiction. When I look a bit deeper into the persona of individuals who choose this career path, I am a bit confused. The typical person who fills these shoes is a true dichotomy poster child:
“A division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.”
This creature called “line cook” is a clear representative of opposing thoughts and actions – evident through his or her work. The line cook is tough as nails, yet gentle as an artist. He or she is committed to structure but desiring of every opportunity to color outside the lines. This unique person is able to follow precise directions while at the same time always thinking about how he or she might break the rules. The line cook is an enigma, a person who is difficult to categorize – yet easy to shape and mold.
“A person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand.”
When I watch a line cook in action and try to analyze what makes he or she tick, I am always amazed at how different the person can be in any given moment. I watch as a cook work to ignore the hellish conditions under which the work is done: the incredible heat, scorching flames, sweat rolling down every cook’s back,12-hour shifts, constant movement, lifting and reaching, sharp knives waiting to cut a finger; the constant whir of exhaust fans, clanging of pots and pans, ticking of the POS printer, and the piercing bark of orders from the expeditor – the work is hard. While all of this is going on alongside the pressure of timing and exactness of process – this same hard-nosed, crusted, and sometimes wounded individual is able to take a few extra seconds to gingerly place a delicate cluster of herbs atop a plate to sign his or her effort.
As those flames threaten to sear eyebrows and scorching hot pan handles beckon the cook to grab them with bare hands, while knees ache and feet throb from disregard, and all the while that every pain is pushed aside in exchange for executing the process of cooking under pressure – the cook takes that extra moment to polish the edge of a plate and make sure that every dish is just right. This is a different kind of person – one who is on a mission and the mission always comes first.
When I look into the eyes of a line cook, I see a person who is oftentimes troubled with what is happening outside of work, but fully focused on this job, a job that provides a sense of purpose, pride in accomplishment, and a release from everything that is happening outside of a shift. I see a person who is at home in the structure of the kitchen – a place where there is an environment of dichotomy – needed structure with lots of room to improvise. It is very much like being a member of a jazz or jam band where everything begins with structure, but improvisation is always possible when the individual is comfortable and competent enough to do so.
When I talk with line cooks, I am always impressed to find someone who comes across as rough and tumble, aloof and independent, hard core and sometimes angry at the world, yet able to talk fluently about a beautiful fish flown in from Florida; the impact of recognized chefs, past and present, who he or she admires; or how to develop a nuance of flavor in a dish whose ingredients are out of season.
I know line cooks who work together as a solid unit yet are so different in background. They may be from different countries, of different races or polar opposites when it comes to belief structures, unique in their educational backgrounds and political views – yet once that dining room is open and the orders start to flow – they are one. They may disagree whole-heartedly on music, sports, art, and literature; they may be avid readers or someone who never picks up a book; and they may care or care less about what is happening in the world outside the kitchen – yet they can relish the opportunity to talk with great admiration about a plate of food that they share. These line cooks – they are unique individuals.
At the end of a 12-hour shift, after sharing a post service drink at the local watering hole, each one of these line cooks may go his or her separate way – back to a different life, different socio-economic conditions, a life with family or a life alone, and be that other person…until tomorrow when a new kitchen shift begins. It is in the kitchen where cooks are whole, where they can open their minds and souls to something important and reveal the person they want to be. This is where opportunities exist, where each cook has a chance to strive for something a little bit lofty, a place where they can build their skills and show them off, feel the joy of competence and spread their wings, sign their plates, and know that they are good at the craft of cooking. This is where that dichotomy is ever-present.
These line cooks inspire me, confuse me, strengthen my passion, and give me hope. These are the people of the kitchen who are complex and easy at the same time – they are the heart and soul of a restaurant, filled with intrigue and bursting with promise. These are the people that I have had the pleasure to work with and study and never fully understand.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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