A Day in the Life of a Line Cook

By Michael Simpson

Staff Writer 

Timers beep frantically, there’s a clamor of voices all speaking to me at once; “where’s the mushroom burger for table 12?”  “Can I get more fries than this guys?  I want to get a tip you know…”  “The guy at table six says that you overcooked his steak-again!”  “c’mon guys, this order has been waiting for that side salad for 15 minutes already!”  I have been at work for twenty minutes.  7 hours to go.  So far I’ve only burned my hands once on a hot pan handle (why the whole thing is made of steel, I don’t know), and narrowly missed a spattering of hot grease from some calamari coming out of the deep fryer.

I’ve been lucky so far.  The restaurant gods will get me later on tonight I’m sure, however.  Maybe I’ll slice my fingers open frantically trying to prep some lettuce because we ran out during the dinner rush, or maybe a dollop of hot tomato linguini sauce will bubble and pop in front of my face as I pile the pasta onto a plate.  We’ll see… There are an infinite number of ways for a line cook to injure himself in the course of a regular night’s work.  Sometimes they’re creative, sometimes just plain avoidable.  Rated as one of the most stressful jobs available (right up there with air traffic controller and doctor according to some), Line cooks are the often overlooked and underappreciated backbone of any restaurant.  If they do their job right, they’ll never hear a word of thanks.  Screw up an order, and never hear the end of it from front of house staff for the rest of the night.  In most restaurants, the turnover for line cooks is very high.  Much like nomads in the desert, line cooks will rarely work at one restaurant for more than 8 months to a year.  Anyone past that time will be regarded as an “old man” on the roster. Often in major cities, one cook leaving will spark an entire exodus, where the staff will follow their “hero” to work at another franchise (except for the opportunist who see this as a chance to get better hours and milk the manage of the kitchen for a raise now that he’s short staffed and out of options) In small towns, the life expectancy of line cooks is usually much better however, as restaurant managers and owners tend to be more accommodating to their staff.  Good line cooks are hard to find.  It’s a fine balance between producing

 

perfect meals in less than 8 minutes, avoiding all unnecessary food waste, and doing it allwithout becoming a primadonna who alienates all the waiters and waitresses.  A few years ago, line cooks wages started at 6 bucks an hour.  You began in the dish pit, cleaning off every plate in the restaurant dozens of times over in a single night.  After handling scalding hot dishes for six hours at a time, a beginner cook should have developed the necessary calluses on their hands to withstand deep fryer oil, superheated pan handles, volatile bubbling pasta sauces, and sharp things like knives, and pointy attitudes from waitresses waiting for their food.  In most cases, kitchens are organized into stations broken down into areas of cooking like “fryers”, “Pans” “Grill/Griddle” and “Salads”.  Beginners start off at the Deep Fryer Station, where it’s hard to screw up orders by cooking it the wrong way.  All you have to do is hit the button marked “wings” and the basket lowers itself into the scalding hot oil for an appropriate amount of time (usually 7-8 minutes).  At the end, the timer beeps, and the basket raises itself.  Put them babies in hot sauce, plate ‘em with some celery and dip, and presto! Hot wings.  Parsley garnish is optional.  Pan-Fry cooks are usually where the “artists” wind up.  You must be able to magically make that stir fry dish you forgot to cook ten minutes ago appear in two minutes.  The veggies must be crisp and hot through, but not overcooked.  Always check the chicken portion to make sure it’s not raw in the middle, and when you plate it, pile it as high as you can. As they say, presentation is 80 percent of the meal.  Always wipe your plate rim before sending food out, and remember to garnish the dish with something nice.  Usually parsley of some finely chopped leafy thing like basil ( in pasta dishes) or cilantro (stir fry dishes).  Garnish is required in most restaurants for pan cooked items.  Now do that fifty times in a row, and make it look identical each time…while working the deep fryers. Once you move up to Grill/Griddle, you’re making the big bucks.  Since cooks start around 8 dollars an hour now, you should have wrangled at least 10 dollars an hour out of your kitchen manager to justify the misery of slaving over that hot piece of metal.  Steaks are big ticket items.  You have to be able to tell the doneness of a steak just by poking it with your tongs (a cooks second set of hands), and be right at least 90 percent of the time.  People can make your life miserable over that piece of meat, because after all the sky will in

fact fall if it’s underdone, over done,or done right but not seasoned properly.  Cook seventeen steaks at once, with eighteen burgers, and you’re earning your ten bucks…while cooking three pasta dishes, and making four orders of hot wings.  (Who’s making the salads?  YOU ARE!!)  In most kitchens, there is a fine film on the floor of the kitchen.  It’s like pam, but not in a spray bottle.  It just accumulates from little drops of oil, grease, food stuff.  A good cook is like a fine figure skater, gliding smoothly across the floor to the cooler, back to flip the pasta, across to shut off the deep fryer beeper, then back to the grill to rotate the steak ¼ turn for the perfect grill marks.  Drats, forgot about that dang salad!  If you know your shoes, you know that Rockports offer the perfect balance between grip and glide, while still providing a good insole for your feet, which will be killing you at the end of your shift.  In addition to being able to multitask, cooks have to know the rules about food safety.  There are food safe courses a cook must know before being allowed to prep in some kitchens, and for the ones that don’t train their cooks on how to properly handle food, I wouldn’t eat there. Food temperatures, cooler temperatures, cooking temperatures, bacterial growth temperatures, everything can be traced back to temperatures in cooking safety.  Product rotation schedules have to be followed so that no one is served spoiled meat, or sauce.  One case of food poisoning can kill a restaurants’ business completely.  Ask an American if they’d eat at a Jack in the Box after e-coli killed four people in the 1993 in the United States in the Seattle area.  Doubt they’d go for it, even if you paid for the meal yourself.  Despite this, Jack in the Box has since rebounded, but it took millions of dollars.  Luckily for us here in Vegreville, the line cooks do a wonderful job of making great food quickly.  Despite the cuts, the burns, the gripes from the odd customer, the restaurant machine rolls on.  Next time you eat a meal at a local dining establishment, if it was delicious, make sure you ask your waitress/waiter to thank the cook.  They need all the thanks they can get.  **Reporters note:  After spending years as a short order cook, I would like to express my gratitude to those who continue to make their living by working one of the most stressful and thankless jobs out there.  Keep it up gang, and for heaven’s sake, who’s supposed to be making that salad!?