By Scott Mechura EBS food columnist
For years, and long before I was a leader, when I would tell someone what I did for a living—that I was a line cook—it was inevitably met with the same response: “oh.” This “oh” was accompanied by a humdrum look and even sometimes an exit strategy to physically remove themselves from the conversation. Or, at the very least, a subject change.
It was as if I didn’t have what can be offensively referred to as a “real job.”
For those who may not know, a line cook is the person in a kitchen who works on well, a line. The “line” in this case is the aisle of kitchen equipment where people are responsible for a certain dish or menu item that gets cooked each time someone places an order. Each line cook is assigned to a station.
Over the years, and as I have been able to move into positions of management, and then leadership, I’ve had many conversations with fellow chefs about how a line cook is not only a real job, but it is a real trade that comes with all the challenges of a mason, carpenter, electrician, roofer, lineman, roughneck or any other position in which you work with your brain, use your whole body, endure outside elements, and are very aware that at the end of the shift, you have put in a hard days work.
This seems like a simple enough job to do. After all, many people love to cook. It’s fun, it’s relaxing, you enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail, put on your favorite playlist and have some friends over. What could be so hard?
On your feet. You are on your feet for hours on end with barely a moment to sit. There’s an old joke that there are no chairs in a kitchen. You are constantly moving, which involves turning, bending, squatting and many other movements, sometimes in unison and hundreds of times during a shift.
It’s hot. Many people work outside in the hot sun, or in the frigid cold of winter. This can be even harder when you bounce back and forth from hot to cold, which is common in a kitchen. I’ve seen kitchen lines in Texas reach over 120 degrees and still maintain humidity. I don’t care where you’re from—that’s a hot work environment.
It’s back breaking at times. Whether you are working the line in a Cheesecake Factory, private club, or a fine dining establishment in Midtown Manhattan, many things are universal. You stand on your feet all day, you lift up to 50 pounds at a time throughout the day, you twist, you turn, you squat, and you bend over to reach and pick up things too many times to count.
It’s a physical toll. Over time, many seasoned line cooks and chefs who have put in years of hard work suffer from carpal tunnel, fallen arches, varicose veins, back, neck and knee problems, and long lasting mental stress issues.
Line cooking is mostly mental. Many people unfamiliar with the position will tell you they would make a good line cook because they love to cook at home. Nothing could be further from reality. I jokingly respond that I am capable of changing the oil in my vehicle, but that doesn’t mean I would be a successful mechanic. A line cook works primarily in a reactive, as opposed to proactive, state of mind. A ticket comes in off of a printer and each line cook must quickly decipher the shorthand lingo on the ticket, recognize which items they are responsible for, prioritize them, them prioritize that ticket with, at times, several additional tickets in a long line. On top of that, the clock is always ticking as the customer is waiting for their meal.
You work with your hands. I know, as if other occupations or tradesmen don’t. But from a variety of kitchen tools requiring dexterity and hand to eye coordination, to the constant repetition of hand work, like plating, where your goals are to simultaneously be neat, clean and refined, to doing everything you can to be efficient and minimize your steps.
You have to be present. If a tile layer or electrician doesn’t show up, his work simply gets delayed to another day. But in a restaurant, the doors still open, the guests still come, and the workload doesn’t change. This means if you aren’t there, the rest of your team must pick up your workload as well as their own tasks. As a diner, you never know if the kitchen is missing a team member and there is a shorthanded crew picking up the tasks in the kitchen.
When all of these things are happening, when everyone is on point and synchronized, it is truly a thing of beauty.