On Being a Line Cook

When people ask what I do for a living, I don’t say that I am a chef. I usually respond, “I am a cook, in a restaurant.” Most people are quick to unintentionally correct me- “oh, a chef!” I am happy to take the implicit promotion, but in the professional cooking world, there is a distinction between chef and cook.

The comparison I use often is this: when a building is being constructed, there are people designing the building on computers, there are people calculating the exact shapes and sizes of the materials, and there are people nailing the walls together. Every person knows something about construction; all of them are building the structure. But they are not all called architects.

I, quite simply, cook the food of the restaurant, over and over. I am a line cook. I stand at my station, which is on the “line” of cooks, and I properly prepare the food listed on the menu as people sit down and order it. I am nailing the damn walls together.

“Chef” doesn’t apply to me. I am a professional in the culinary world, but I command no obedience; I have no creative control. I have a lot of knowledge about cooking, about food, about cuisine- but I have none of the chef’s glamourous freedom of taste, of vision, of execution. That is what line cooks are working toward: the chance to be at the top of the line, watching everyone else cook your food while you strut your chef self around the kitchen. But right now, I am cooking the food exactly the way that I am told to cook, because even the best chefs cannot produce their food for an entire restaurant alone.

I stand somewhere near the bottom of the kitchen hierarchy. But from my vantage point, with my hands in everything, I can see connections. I see the winding supply chains, questionable labor practices, and conflicts of interest. I hear the gossip no one thinks I know. I watch dropped plates and masterfully executed presentations. I see how women exist in male-dominated environments, and I see how men exist in male-dominated environments. I observe the explosive anger of chefs, the cynical pragmatism of cooks, and the constant drama of many people running around a tiny restaurant. I know how ingredients are sourced and cooked, and how they come back into the kitchen from your table. And I see how people interact with food, and each other, day in and day out.

This blog is an exploration of all of these things I see- from my position as a cook, from my position as a woman, and from my position spent sweating next to an oven for hours, hands calloused and itching to write.