About a year or so ago, perhaps a bit longer, I was asked to by a culinary student from down state to be her mentor. The school she attends requires every student to find an experienced chef and I was asked to be hers. It's been fun for me and I'm glad I did it. She will contact me with upcoming lessons, tests, projects, for advice on how to best accomplish them and I will give her my two cents worth. We've spent a few hours in the Cooks' House kitchen preparing for final cooking tests where we dial in her recipes and plans to get everything done in the time allotted. I received an email from her the other day telling me she is now moving on to the restaurant ran by the school and will be putting her first days as an official line cook, and wanted to know if I had any advice.
Now, for those of you who have never been a line cook let me tell you that it is not an easy job. It is filled with high paced pressure that will crack most people. Line cooking is the first testing ground for young cooks. If they can't make it as a line cook, then making it as a chef is probably not in the cards. Line cooking is the great equalizer. Believe me, the chef doesn't give a crap how much shit you can talk, how much cooking theory you have stuffed in you head, how many top restaurants you can list on your resume, how popular you think you are, whose kid you are, how much money your family has, what cooking school you went to, or any thing else. What matters on a busy line, and to the chef, is how fast and how accurate you are. No one can fake this. Your success is entirely on your shoulders, and in the high stress world of the kitchen, everyone is equal. Those who make it are the ones who are the fastest and most accurate. Nothing else matters. This is one of the things I love most about cooking. I love that those with a high pedigree and those who may come from the dredges of society are equal in the kitchen. The stove is where we are tested, and the stove is fair, and the stove doesn't care who you are. The stove only knows what you do on it.
So, I gave her 7 pieces of advice which I would like to share with you. These 7 pieces of advice have one aim, that is, to make you fast and accurate as a line cook. Speed and accuracy are the two most important character traits of a great line cook.
1) Make sure your mise en place is finished before service and that you have enough to finish service. Mise en place is the ammunition of the line cook. It's everything a cook needs to make all the dishes that are her/his responsibility. It can be roughly translated as "things in place". There are few things worse than not having ones mise en place ready or running out in the middle of a rush. You want the chef to be breathing down your neck all night long and yelling your name when ever something goes wrong? Don't have your mise en place ready. We, chefs that is, know when you are not ready, and we will be on you like sharks to blood. It's also important to finish your preliminary prep at least 30 minutes prior to service. These 30 minutes allow you to clear you head and start to focus on the up coming ass kicking. It gives you a chance to wipe your entire station down and make sure you have everything organized.
2)Put everything back into its own place, every time. You need to get into the habit of putting everything back where it belongs. Why? Because line cooking is like good sex, there is a rhythm to it that when done right, goes very well. You cannot set a rhythm if you are always looking for you mise en place, your knife, your salt, your oil. This habit needs become habitual and obsessive. By not having to constantly look for you stuff not only will you get into a good rhythm but it will save you precious seconds which will, over the course of the service, can add up to minutes, and one minute is an eternity on the line. You need to get to the point where you know exactly where everything is without having to look at it. You want to be able to reach for whatever without looking and find it.
3) The above two points comprise of 80% of a dinner rush. If your mise en place is finished and complete, and you are obsessively organized, then you are 80% finished with the service before it even begins. All that is left is cooking the orders as they come in. The last 4 pieces of advice comprise the last 20% of the rush.
4) Stay focused. When we start down that dark rabbit hole of finding ourselves in the shits I will always tell my boys and girls to stay focused. "Concentrate!", I tell them. Focus!! Let you concentration slip and you will quickly find yourself in a pile of orders so deep you may not be able to dig yourself out. I have seen entire kitchens go down in a blaze of glory because of a lack of focus. When on the line with orders coming in at rapid fire, your one purpose in life is to cook, and at that moment that is all you can think about. Split your focus, and you can fold your cards because it is only a matter of time before the fire alarm rings and the chef is now jumping all over you. It takes only one slow station to sink an entire line, and believe me, you do not want to be that slow station.
5) Don't panic. Remember, no matter how bad it gets. No matter how fast the orders come in. No matter how many covers you have done and are ahead of you, there will always be a last order. You will always put out the last cover. You may feel like a washing machine was just dropped on you, but you will survive. All experienced cooks suffer from a little post traumatic stress syndrome from more than one brutal dinner service where it seemed like all life in the universe was about to end. If you panic in the middle of the shits, you are finished. I have been known to make the entire line stop cooking and wipe down the line while we are in the middle of a kitchen wide melt down, and by doing this it has helped them calm down and re-focus. If you find yourself about to panic, stop and wipe down your station. Take a few deep breaths and find your focus again.
6) Have fun. Let's face it, we, cooks that is, are not curing cancer, or bringing about world peace, or negotiating nuclear arms disarmament, or saving lives in any way. We are being paid to do a hobby, so enjoy it. If you don't like cooking, get out of the kitchen. If you don't get pumped thinking about having your ass handed to you night after night, then you are probably in the wrong business. We spend entirely to much time doing this to not enjoy it. I have know cooks who hate cooking and they are some of most miserable people I know.
7) Cook beautiful. By this I mean make your movements pretty. Cook with poetry in your steps. If someone is watching you cook are they going to enjoy the beauty of your movements? If you are moving beautiful, you are also moving efficient. If you are moving efficient, your cooking will be more efficient. If your cooking is more efficient, you will save time, and thus be faster. Young cooks often move in herky-jerky movements. They need to learn to smooth themselves out and flow with the movement of the moment.
So, this is basically what I told her. Let's hope she heeds some of it and comes out on top.