Professional Line Cook: The Honest Job Description



For those who dream of working in a kitchen and for those who find it too easy to complain in a restaurant when something goes wrong, here’s a nice look at what the average day in the life of a line cook actually looks like.

It’s produced by Paul Sorgule and goes into detail in breaking down the duties of a professional line cook, from the morning prep to the gruelling slog of service, this is the truth of what it takes to work the line.

It’s 9 a.m. and the alarm clock breaks the silence with a relentless sledgehammer ringing. The line cook takes a swipe and knocks the clock halfway across the room to bring the world back to silence. With crusty eyes, a pounding head, and aching muscles, the cook finally builds up enough strength to put one foot on the ground, and then another. Time to roll.

Before a word is uttered, before a thought is made complete, and certainly before too many steps are taken, the cook puts a pod in the Keurig and brews that first cup of coffee. This will be the first of dozens today (many of which will be half consumed and lost somewhere in the kitchen). After a few sips, and a couple ibuprofen, the cook’s eyes begin to open fully and the challenges of the day ahead begin to come into focus. After another cup, a shower, and another ibuprofen chaser, this pirate is ready for the world.

There are still a couple hours before work begins so this is the short window for a line cook to take care of some normal life tasks – laundry, pick up a few supplies for the fridge, at least think about straightening the apartment, and deciding once again to defer on that trip to the gym – “Maybe tomorrow”.

12:30 finds the line cook walking the 15 blocks to the restaurant. His shift doesn’t officially start until 2, but this cook, like many others, knows that if he doesn’t get a jump on prep the evening service will be a trip through hell. “I’ll start early (off the clock) just to put my mind at ease.”

Walking through the loading dock service door the line cook feels that usual knot in the stomach. He wonders what surprises the day will bring. Will anyone call out putting undo pressure on the rest of the line? Will all of the kitchen equipment work well? Will daily deliveries arrive on time? How many reservations are on the book? Most importantly – what will the chef’s mood be throughout the shift? It’s time to get his or her head in the game.

Every cook knows that a successful night on the line depends on how well these first few minutes go. This is the only time when there will be an opportunity to think things through and plan for the known and the unknown. The first 15 minutes in the kitchen are consumed with walking through coolers, writing revised prep lists, checking equipment, discovering reservation patterns for the night, and double-checking the schedule to see who will be part of tonight’s team.

Without a doubt, mise en place ALWAYS saves the day. To some, MISE is focused on enough prep to make it through service, but a professional line cook knows that it goes way beyond supplies. MISE refers to the organization of work, the prioritization of this pre-service prep list, setting up the station like a pilot familiarizes himself with the cockpit. Pans must be in a certain spot, back-ups labeled and positioned, side towels folded a certain way, pinch pot of salt and pepper in place, and a full mental review of the menu – even though a cook has worked with it for the past 6 weeks.

The professional line cook knows that it’s the small stuff that wins the battle. Every “i” must be dotted and “t” crossed. The cook must be able to reach for anything on his or her station without looking. Extra steps or searching for essential ingredients could mean that the system will collapse.

It’s 4:45 p.m. – staff meal is out and the line cook is cramming a few bites in while continuing to work. In a few minutes the chef will check station to ensure that everyone is ready. Just a few more minutes of chopping fresh herbs and finishing sauces with monte au beurre and this cook will be ready to roll. At 5:00 the chef will review the nights features with service staff and talk about recommended wine pairings while line cooks wipe down their stations, set-up sanitation buckets, hydrate with pitchers of ice water and pound down a few last minute espressos. Bring it on!

To some it is a look of intensity, maybe even that battle look as you might find on the face of a defensive lineman, while to others it is a look of trepidation mixed with anxiety – the proverbial “deer in the headlights” look. Every line cook experiences it, every night, in every restaurant. Sure, it might be masked with a bit of swagger, a few light-hearted jokes, the snapping of cook’s tongs, and a smile – but inside every cook is mentally running through everything that could go wrong.

As is the case with most restaurants, the night begins with a slow steady trickle of early diners, but by the time 7 p.m. arrives the dining room is full and the board is taxed with an endless stream of dupes. This is what the line cook prepared for, this is what gives him or her that buzz when adrenaline kicks in, this is what tests his or her ability to function at peak efficiency while working together as a member of the kitchen SWAT team. When the cooks are on their game this is a beautiful thing to watch – poetry in motion. This is why cooks arrive early and work with a high level of purpose and efficiency. This is the game and cooks are ready to play.

There will be times throughout service when things seem to be on the precipice – the chance of meltdown is just as great as the opportunity to succeed. Cooks may need that extra bit of confidence and push from the chef or the expeditor to get over the hump, but they know that if their mise is tight, they can work through it together.

There comes a time during service, usually right at the tail end of that push window when a line cook knows that things are going well. There is chemistry on the line and even a feeling of camaraderie with the service staff. Guests are happy, the chef is happy, and the food looks great in the pass. It is at this moment that a line cook senses that this is his or her destiny. This job is his or her purpose – what is in the cards for them. This is what he or she is really good at.

As the shift starts to wind down it is time for every cook to take stock. First – take a moment to review what went right or wrong and strategize on how to repeat that effort or make an adjustment tomorrow. Next, taking inventory means to look through mise en place and start that list for tomorrow when it starts all over again.

Putting the kitchen back in order is never left for the night cleaning crew. Line cooks scrub equipment, polish stainless steel, properly chill, label and date leftovers, and roll up floor mats for the dish crew to run through the machine at the end of their night. When the lights are flicked off the kitchen goes to rest, but does so with a sparkle that is welcoming in a few hours to the morning crew.

The clock strikes midnight as cooks change into street clothes and even though they know that going home would be the wise thing to do; they all agree to stop in at their favorite bar for a celebratory drink. Unfortunately, as is the case on most nights, when they belly up to the bar and see their coworkers do the same, one drink leads to another, and another. The feeling is always ‘ “We deserve it”. Good, bad, or indifferent, this is the social nature of the business. Some can participate and stay in control, while others quickly fall prey to the master in a bottle. This is one of the real challenges that a cook will face.

As the cook manages the stairs up to his or her apartment sometime past closing, looks in a mirror and peels off those clothes that still carry the smells of the kitchen, he or she wonders again why he or she continues to inflict this level of punishment. “There must be a better way to make a living”.

After what seems like just a few moments of blissful sleep, it is 9 a.m. and the alarm clock shouts out: “Time to start all over again.” Welcome to the routine of the line cook.