I vividly remember flying out of Buffalo, New York in 1971 for Army Basic Training at Fort Jackson. It was, ironically, my first time on a plane and considering that this was at the peak of the Vietnam War, I was doubly nervous. It had been my second year in college when in the first…
Yes, I have talked about the importance of dishwashers before and I stand by my statement that they are the most important people in your kitchen. Just think about the state of your operation any time that the dishwasher doesn’t show up. How often do you (chef, cook, manager, owner, server, bartender) think about the…
It’s quite fascinating to think about the level of interest that people have with the life of a professional cook or chef and what it is like to work in the kitchen. If you perform a quick Google search “Books on life in the kitchen” you will see that there are over 220 million resources…
I may be a showing a bit of bias, but I do believe that there are many lessons that anyone can learn from observing the daily activities and mindset of a typical restaurant line cook. These seasoned disciples of the range, maniac adrenaline junkies, talented players in the kitchen orchestra and salty dogs sailing pans across the flat top range are models to be followed through life. Here are some examples of the line cook curriculum for an organized life:
 BE PREPARED:
In life, as in the kitchen – those who anticipate, run through potential scenarios, methodically build the skills and aptitudes necessary for success are the ones who do, in fact, succeed.
 EVERYTHING HAS A PLACE AND EVERYTHING SHOULD BE IN ITS PLACE:
In a foodservice operation we refer to this as “mise en place”. It is a focus on all of the minute details that go into the make up of a plate of food and establishing the precise location for those details (ingredients) so that they can be imbedded in memory. This can also apply to playing a musical instrument, flying an airplane, driving a car or functioning effectively in an office cubicle.
 DO NOT REARRANGE ANOTHER PERSONS FURNITURE:
Once a line cook has determined the precise set-up of his or her station and has designed a process by which he or she cooks and assembles plates – any disruption to the “plan” will result in chaos. If another cook steps into a line cooks domain he or she must respect the established mise en place. This is why many line cooks do not appreciate it when the chef steps in thinking that he or she is helping out. As in the previous statement about mise en place, this need for organizational respect applies to all other trades or professional work environments.
 CLEAN AS YOU GO:
Maintaining a clean kitchen is only difficult when line cooks do not stay on top of cleaning constantly – even when they are busy. This trait, maybe above all others, is applicable in any person’s everyday life.
 IF YOU CAN LEAN, YOU CAN CLEAN:
Line cooks realize that they are never paid to stand around. There is always something to clean in a kitchen. Once again, it is easy to see how this lesson can be applied elsewhere.
 DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU:
What goes around comes around. If you ignore the needs of others, fail to jump in when someone else is having a difficult time, choose to constantly focus on yourself, then you (line cooks in this case) will eventually face a time when your needs will be ignored by others. If you are disrespectful, insubordinate or condescending – then you should be prepared for payback. This is not exclusive to kitchen life.
 LISTEN MORE, TALK LESS:
On the line it becomes essential to keep the communication focused and relevant. “Yes, chef” says it all. To divert attention to trivial chatter is to disrupt the concentration and problem solving abilities of those who are under the gun.. Line cooks cannot afford distractions.
 STAY FOCUSED:
Once that first ticket arrives in the kitchen, all attention must be on the process that a line cook has prepared him or herself for. Nothing else is important during the time of service. Apply this, as you desire to anything and everything. Focus is critical in life.
 BEND YOUR KNESS BEFORE YOU LIFT:
Macho and smart do not always coexist. Smart people lift with their knees, not their backs. An interesting statistic points to a reality that the majority of all workmen’s compensation claims are for back injuries.
 ON TIME IS 15 MINUTES EARLY:
Everyone needs those 15 minutes to make sure that they are properly dressed, groomed and mentally focused to start work. Restaurants do not pay people for this adjustment time, nor should any other employer.
 STAY HYDRATED:
You body does not warn you of hydration needs until it is often too late – especially in a kitchen where cooks may be working with ambient temperatures well over 100 degrees, staying hydrated is essential. Line cooks (most of them) also realize that the best source of hydration is water.
 WE ARE ALL DISHWASHERS IN GOD’S EYES:
No one in a kitchen is above doing what dishwashers do day in and day out. You have a minute – jump in and help the dishwasher. Apply this to any position, in any business: help those who help you – we are all equal in life.
 PLAN AHEAD:
No excuses. Better planning = fewer problems, happier employees and better results.
 DON’T RUN OUT OF MISE EN PLACE:
The kiss of death on a kitchen line. Run out of mise en place and it is all down hill from there.
 MAKE SURE THE PAN IS HOT:
In life, always follow the steps that you know are important to success. Do not compromise or take short cuts when you know that the results will not be acceptable. On the line a hot pan will allow that fish to slide smoothly during sauté or the meat to properly caramelize and add wonderful color and flavor to the dish.
 A DULL KNIFE IS MORE DANGEROUS THAN A SHARP ONE:
Respect your tools! A sharp knife will slice cleanly and effortlessly through a product. If it is dull you will need to apply more pressure, the product may slip from a solid position on the cutting board and find one of your fingers as a target. Additionally, that dull knife will bruise the food unnecessarily.
 WATER AND OIL DON’T MIX:
Many of the kitchen injuries on the line are burns. Hot oil will push water away and spit in all directions. Whether it is in a sauté pan or friolater – cooks need to pay attention to and respect this rule. In cold cooking we also realize that many liquids and oil will not stay in suspension without the addition of an emulsifying agent to bind the liquid and the oil.
 THE NOSE DOESN’T LIE:
Fish that smells fishy is not fresh, meat that smells off – usually is, vegetables that have the offensive odor of rot cannot be brought back to life. There are far more olfactory senses that taste buds – respect what your nose is telling you.
 SNEAKERS ARE NOT SHOES – PROTECT YOUR FEET:
Your feet are the most important part of your body if you are a line cook. Sneakers may seem comfortable but they do not provide enough support or protection in a kitchen. Pick the right shoes for the job.
 WET TOWEL/DRY TOWEL – DON’T MIX THEM UP:
Wet towels (in a sanitizing solution) are for cleaning, not for holding hot pans. Enough said.
My friend Chef Michel LeBorgne held this close to his heart as the mantra for all cooks. Know where the flavor is, adjust it and taste again before it winds up on a guests plate.
 IF YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO DO IT RIGHT, WHEN WILL YOU FIND THE TIME TO DO IT OVER:
Before it leaves the kitchen it must be right. Plan and take the time to do it right the first time. There is no room for beta testing with your restaurant guests or for that matter with any product that consumers choose to purchase. The customer is no longer as forgiving as they may have been in the past – they are not interested in downloading “fixes” simply to allow the manufacturer the privilege of getting it out to market quicker.
The next time you are looking for worldly advice, check in with your favorite restaurant and watch how line cooks treat their jobs, their responsibilities and their peers.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
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