Sometimes, as a chef, I would watch and marvel at the skills and symmetry of motion that professional line cooks exhibit. These essential kitchen employees are the foundation of a great restaurant – it is their competence that allows a chef to shine. The confidence, economy of motion, and physical poetry of the cooks on a line are similar in nature to the function of a seasoned orchestra. The chef or the conductor keeps the tempo and establishes the culture of either team, but it is the fluid motion of the cook and the musician that brings the work to life. The following points are a reflection on the attributes of first-rate line cooks and may serve as a map for aspiring cooks and chefs to note.
Be religious about the foundations
There are certainly countless styles of cooking, but one fact remains clear among those who find a home on the range – the foundations of solid cooking are essential parts of their toolkit. The foundational cooking methods, the cut of the knife, and the way that flavours are coaxed to the surface come from long traditions of cooking established by generations of cooks, chefs, and even family traditions. A cook without the foundations to build on will always be at a disadvantage.
It's all in the details
The best cooks know that everything is important when it comes to cooking. The ingredient source, the maturity of vegetables, time, temperature, the precision of knife cuts, the cooking surface, the plate, and the placement of every component blend to create a dish worthy of a cook’s signature.
Mise en places rules
When asked, all line cooks will clearly state that the key to success on a restaurant line is the quality of his or her “mise.” Organisation, item placement (the map), and the amount and precision of ingredient preparation set the stage for a successful or a disastrous night. Mise en place is to a cook what terroir is to a good wine – essential.
The complexity of tasks, the speed with which a cook must work and process information, the single-minded focus on what is in front of him or her cannot be over-estimated. When the line is spinning at full speed it will be this focus that allows calm in the middle of the storm to rule to day.
Be a team player
No single player on a kitchen line is more important than another. Every line cook knows that his or her success is also determined by how well the individual to the right or left is performing. The team must fire on all cylinders and function as a cohesive unit. This means that every cook must be aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and be prepared to complement each other when necessary.
Build your palate
Whether it is an off night with soft business volume or Saturday night when the dining room is bursting at the seams, the line cook must be in charge of the consistent execution of flavor profiles. Every dish that leaves the kitchen must meet the flavour expectations of the chef and the perceptions of the guest. To this end line cooks must develop fine tuned palates that are able to recognize the small adjustments that must be made in seasoning and process to accommodate variances in ingredient maturity and initial quality. A line cook’s “taste buds” are trained over a long period of time to be in tune with his or her knowledge of how a dish must taste. A cook without well-educated taste buds and responsive olfactory senses will always be at a disadvantage.
Stay in the zone
Once the doors open and tickets start flying off the point of sale printer the line cook must be totally in the game. There can be no distractions that take a cook’s focus away from the ticket, the pan, and the fire. In an ideal world the pace will gradually build to a crescendo over the first hour of service, but sometimes a line does not have that luxury. Once the starting flag is dropped every cook must be at a full trot from that point on.
Stay in shape
Cooking in a busy kitchen is a mental, emotional, and by all means – physical job. The best line cooks know that it is as important to take care of their body, as it is the mise en place at their station. Physical fitness, watching what they eat, and always staying hydrated are the rules of the game.
Protect your natural tools
So, what will sideline even the best cooks? Watching the pattern in many kitchens, I have found that the most common physical problems that cooks have are with hands, feet and back. Dry towels on the line, conditioning the brain to be aware of potential dangers, using knives properly, wearing supportive shoes, and bending with their knees when they pick up heavy items in the kitchen are habits that will keep line cooks fresh and free of unnecessary pain and discomfort. This is something that chefs must insist on and emphasise daily.
Listen to the conductor
Unless you have experienced kitchen line work you cannot fathom the challenges that cooks face. In the heat of service it can be very easy to lose sight of the items listed in this article. When a cook is lost the line will begin to crumble. It is for this reason that even the best line cooks must learn to listen to the conductor – the expeditor. Whether the role is filled by the chef, sous chef, or another competent team leader, the person who facilitates the communications between the front and back of the house is the voice of reason that can bring a cook “in the weeds,” back to focus.
Every plate is important
When the kitchen is crazy busy it would be easy to let the details slide. The best cooks understand that every guest has expectations and is spending the same hard earned money on those plates that come off the kitchen pass. That extra second or two that is required to make the dish right is an important responsibility. The best cooks know that every dish that leaves the kitchen carries the signature of the team and the restaurant.
Remember Murphy's law
As well prepared as a cook might be, time proves that Murphy’s Law is always ready to rear up its ugly head. “If something can go wrong, it will” is the reality check that must always be in the back of every line cook’s mind. Great line teams have the experience to pull out of sudden doom situations and invest heavily in walking through scenarios that will help them plan for the unexpected.
Be your own worst critic
Certainly cooks understand that the chef is likely to critique their work and ultimately making sure that the chef’s vision is met is essential to staying employed, yet the best cooks are typically harder on themselves than the chef ever will be. Professional cooks are never fully satisfied with their work – they look at every dish and ask themselves “How can I make it better next time.” This is the way it should be. Cooks know that they will make mistakes; sometimes those mistakes are so small that the guest will never know, but the cook will. Great cooks acknowledge their mistakes, learn from them, and grow. These are the cooks that have the ability to build their brand and grow into a chef who will set the culinary world on fire.