Tenets of Line Cooking
By Anthony Nicaj
My first kitchen job was at a University of Texas themed Steakhouse in downtown Austin. I was hired on as a prep. cook which involved showing up early with the pastry chef and taking care of the more mundane and time-consuming tasks: stocks, peeling potatoes, de-veining shrimp, etc.
After three months, management decided to see how I would fare on the saute station for dinner service on the slower nights. I remember during the rush of dinner service I would feel in control of the pans on my range of eight burners, of the tickets on my rail, and then something would get burnt, or I would misread or mistime something. I would become unfocused and overwhelmed to the point where my coworkers would yell and swarm my station until everything was taken care of. This was before I knew how to laugh at myself in these situations, at the seeming impossibility of preparing so many dishes in so little time and space.
I wanted to get better. I needed to get better. I hated sucking but what didn't help was the guy that was supposed to be training me. And the other guy next to me on the line just cooked steaks. He had cooked steaks there for over five years. He showed up to his station with the kind of casualness you would employ walking into your library's book club meeting. I would marvel some nights when there were easily 20+ tickets on his rail, which usually translated to many more steaks with many different degrees of doneness. I would watch him poke at the steaks when they were close. He would poke all of them, lick his finger, and then wipe his hand on his side towel or apron. He licked his fingers between all kinds of pokes, which might be the naughtiest sentence I've ever written. He was friendly, rode his bike everywhere, and the only thing I can remember him contributing to my cooking was: "How did you get the fish to stick that hard to the pan? Did you even use pan spray!?"
It's a painful thing, going down in the flames of a kitchen service. Here you are, sweating for minimum wage in front of your peers and guests (if there's an open kitchen) and you are flailing and it seems like every other move you make results in a setback. The goal is to never get to this point, if it requires the help of somebody else to get you out of the hole, then so be it. When you are your own boss in the cooking world and you are accountable alone for your actions and the services you provide, the chances for failure increase dramatically. That is why, in exchange for a little more job security, less pay, and scheduling regularity, restaurants are always on the prowl for "line-cooks". The line is the last stage of assembly before the food is sent to "the pass" where the chef approves the dish before being sold.
The often sadistic practice in the culinary field known as "line-cooking" is a skill, as much as a sense of awareness. All restaurants have different flows, speeds, and intensities of services, but you can almost always take away something from one restaurant to help you in another.
I write this because when I started cooking, I often wondered if anybody out there had taken the time to share what they had learned to make this game easier, or more efficient, or less painful. I write this to share what I have learned and what I've passed onto my co-workers either passively or intentionally. The same tenets here apply to the barista, as well as to any skilled chef.
1. Sanitation Bucket
Besides your uniform and tools, this should be the first thing you bring to your station everyday, especially if you share your station with someone else. Wipe your station down with your sanitizer solution before you start. The cleaner you work, the faster and better you'll be. Keep clean towels on hand and if your restaurant limits your usage of towels, talk to management about your station and convince them of your need. They are inexpensive and invaluable tools of the line-cook. I got into the practice early on of keeping two neatly folded towels on me in between my apron straps and my waist so that I always had something clean and dry with which to grab hot things with as well wipe the occasional smear or crumbs off a surface. Learning to value the cleanliness of your side towels as well as the efficiency of their folded state will help you in the long run.
2. Know Your Mise En Place and Know Your Backups
And that's pronounced (Mees-En-Plahs)...It's one thing to have everything in its place, including tools and whatever you'll be plating on, but it is essential that you know where to go once you come close to running out of something. I consider it poor form of myself if I have to run off the line to get more product from another fridge besides the one on my station. Even worse is running out of something and then having to prepare it from its raw state in the middle of a busy service. Any downtime on the line should either be used to clean or to refill your mise. Half of cooking is cleaning. There is no bigger let down to your team, to yourself, and most importantly, to your guest when you have to 86 an item. Sometimes there are valid excuses, but it should never happen because you didn't have the foresight to count your portions. "Line cooking is trench warfare," was an important perspective I learned from one of the best chefs I know. Running out of ammo=Metaphoric death.
3. Order of Operations
Consider the order of steps necessary to serve every component of a dish at its peak freshness/temperature/doneness. You have to really think about your product and how to treat it and then you have to figure out the most efficient way to handle the "pickup" and do it the same exact way almost every single time. In the restaurant world, a "pickup" is the process in which one undertakes to fully compose a dish prior to being sold.
It helps to keep your tools in the same spot every time which cuts down on your flailing and needless pivoting. It's amazing how far you can elevate a simple meal once everything is cooked properly and on time. Consider meat and potatoes and the infinite ways this simple dish can go wrong or be stupendous. Once you consider the order of operations enough times with enough prep. lists, it becomes sort of second nature. Over time you learn your own dance moves and flow and give any modifications the acknowledgement and attention they deserve.
4. Dry Hands
Have you ever tried to season something with wet hands? You end up with what I call "salt bombs," little clumps of seasoning that detract more than enhance. For this reason, I always keep a clean sanitation towel folded on my station so that I can pat my fingertips clean and then dry on my side towel before I need to season something. I've seen many a chef utilize their aprons for this task, but I think that's a nasty habit. In the corporate kitchen world, they require sanitation towels to live in their prerequisite buckets, but in establishments where this isn't a concern, I say take full advantage of the idiosyncrasy.
5. Plate Wipes
I had a boss once who would lovingly humiliate you prior to service in front of the whole kitchen if you didn't have plate wipes ready on your station. These are just little pieces of damp paper towels or tri-folds that you use one time to clean a dish before sending to the pass. Even if the boss-chef wipes the plate himself before sending it out, you should be proud enough of your product to clean any fingerprints or sauce work. An interesting side note on this topic: if the dish you are working on will truly suffer from a few extra seconds (improperly tempered ice cream, for example) you might have to use your best judgement and skip the wipe.
6. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
No matter how good a line cook may be, at a certain point in his or her career, they will become so weeded that they have no choice but to accept the help of his or her teammates. One of the worst things for me to experience in a kitchen is watching cooks sit back while their teammates drown in a barrage of orders. It's one thing if the only teammate that can help at the moment is brand new and doesn't know what to do, but if a line cook is calm and collected enough, they can take the time to show the appropriate steps for another to succeed. If service starts and you only have one humble task to finish but simply cannot with incoming orders, reach out to the prep. cook in the back who should be happy to help you out. Better to be resourceful than stubborn and come off as unprepared.
The biggest mistakes on the line usually involve either inappropriately 86'ing something (without giving due warning) or forgetting to "fire" a ticket/meal item. Although many restaurants use a ticket system to coordinate their expediting, I believe a very valuable practice to be one of saying to yourself, either verbally or internally how many of a certain item you have fired/need to fire. Most commands or requests should be verbally repeated so that both parties or multiple parties may be privy to the information exchanged. If you can keep these tasks arranged in your mind straight-forwardly enough during the chaos of it all, you'll cut down on precious time lost through staring wide-eyed at your printed place markers. Another bad scenario, you're out of a certain product, you're swamped in tickets, and two of them just slipped from your ticket rail into the trash without you realizing.
8. Timers Are Your Friend
There have been many a painful moment in the kitchen from not using this underappreciated tool. Do yourself and everyone else a favor and purchase an actual timer so you're not using the device you play with while you're on the toilet to time your soft-boiled. Although the timer doesn’t really work for high volume line-cooking, use it for anything important that you don’t trust yourself with remembering. Plain and simple. I enjoy and highly recommend the ThermoWorks TimeStick for this task. Just don't leave it behind at the catering job site like I did!
9. Cook Beautiful
I heard those two words used once in a poem, or maybe a piece similar to this one, but I liked how they didn't exactly make sense next to each other. In my mind, these two words have something to do with finding your flow, with using proper timing and techniques to treat your products with as much care as necessary to ensure your guest will be provided with the best plate possible. When you come close to creating a dish that you feel is very personally gratifying and unique to your sensitivities/values, I think a chef comes closer to that ideal we all strive for.
Last year, I ate at a restaurant that serves New Orlean's style cuisine in Portland and is open until obscene hours of the morning. That being said, it may have been the second or third dirtiest kitchen I've ever seen. You may be wondering how I came to stomach the experience but I'll very honestly say I was pretty wasted and my friend had a rich friend that insisted on paying for me. We were halfway through the meal when I saw these ding dongs slinging pans on my way to the restroom. I wonder if this small crew would feel proud to invite their friends and family into that kitchen to see how they worked. I also like how they wore long lanyards that usually attach to keys or wallets. Some kind of interesting little fashion statement they had.
Thanks to the media and the sensational garbage that has reached so many eyes, people often think about Gordon Ramsay's rage when they think about what life inside the kitchen must be like. Or they've got the "Chef's Table" glaze over their deceived eyes. Don't get me wrong, I love and admire Gordon's cuisine, but he behaves the way he does because these shows are created to encourage that kind of behavior, because that's what sells. That is to say, place an accomplished and empowered perfectionist in a position of authority and televise him as he attempts to herd blind cats (or direct supremely nervous and often inexperienced cooks) to carry out some semblance of a dinner service.
The original gangster French chefs yelled obscenities, broke down their kitchen help with a drill-Sargent like severity. Restaurants have only been around for about two hundred years and it started in France so I guess they felt priviledged about it..."Chefs" will still hurl screaming hot pans at cooks who make mistakes because this is how they learned to cope. And they may never learn that this doesn't work and it doesn't help anything. What it is really good at is increasing the employee turnover rate, but you know, it's just business.
I wish I was a better line cook but I am happy to admit my shortcomings which means I have room for improvement/learning. There are certain restaurants that I would love to give my all, but I would prefer more financial stability before going down that road again. There's so much to learn in the restaurant setting and having a hunger for the cuisine makes it especially alluring. In the mean time, I will be cooking my own menus at private parties and I will be using all of the aforementioned to help me execute my services. Mistakes and oversights will always slip through the cracks but it's learning to prevent these mistakes from happening again that will make you better, faster, stronger than anything else on this list.
In memory of the late Anthony Bourdain: "Here's to the cooks."