On Being A Line Cook

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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.

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Professional(izing) Home Cooks

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Fine dining, when executed well, is an art. The work is nuanced, complex, and difficult, and when I patron fine dining establishments, I take the craft very seriously. I critique each plate’s execution, the service, and every element of the meal, maintaining high standards and expectations. I know how fine dining restaurants work, because that is my work.

But whatever my fine dining standards, I do not visit my mother’s house and tell her that her salt usage is inconsistent. If my mom cooks, I eat her food, I thank her, and then I urge her to sit down and let me do the dishes. For if I am invited to someone’s home, I just eat. Food isn’t always a serious matter, to be dissected. Sometimes, the beauty in a meal lies in the way it simply brings people together. On my off days, I am probably hungry, and tired of cooking. A home-cooked meal tastes good because of the company, because of the love put into the preparation, or, perhaps simply because someone besides me made it.

However, there is a new breed of home cook, one who takes cooking very seriously. America’s culinary consciousness is growing, with the rise of cooking shows, hip cookbooks, and access to diverse ingredients and diverse cuisines. A serious home cook may never set foot in a professional kitchen, but can still devote time and energy to learning different techniques or reading about the craft. I love watching this trend, because I think that cooking at home encourages healthy eating, self care, and quality social time.

Nonetheless, as a cook, I do not always know how to navigate situations with these professionalized home cooks, with their gear and tools that rival my own restaurant’s. At a recent outdoor barbeque, hosted by the neighbor of an acquaintance, I found myself cornered by the large, enthusiastic host who had appointed himself “grillmaster”. After someone had told him I was a cook at a restaurant in town, he told me all about his techniques, his grill, and how he approaches cooking meat. He obviously devoted a lot of time to grilling at his home, and he was intent on impressing me with the particulars.

I always want to talk about food, so I gladly listened. Our conversation continued deeper and deeper, and I started to offer some of my thoughts on his seasoning techniques and the cooking temperature he had chosen. Immediately, the tone between us shifted- there was a tension in the air, and a defensiveness in his remarks. I became hyperaware of the dynamic between this young woman telling an older man how to cook meat, going against stereotypes and expectations. I changed the subject, going back to safer ground, but I kept thinking about our conversation.

In a professional kitchen, nothing I do is beyond critique. When I put food on a plate, or ingredients in a pot, the chef is peering over my shoulder, tasting spoon in hand. If my salt level isn’t right, I hear it yelled, loudly. If I try to do something differently than I was shown, I am interrogated. If I put one more piece of squash on this plate than I did on the last plate, I am reprimanded in front of everyone. And Lord help me if my sear on this steak isn’t exactly like it is supposed to be every time. Profanities and attacks on my work and character abound, and the only acceptable response is “yes, chef”.

The standards in professional kitchens are ruthless and competitive. I have developed the thickest of skins, being able to listen to criticism and then letting it go immediately. I have developed tenacity and endurance under pressure and literal heat. Those who take insults and criticism personally do not survive in professional kitchens. The work forces you to let go of ego, to let go of being right all the time, because it is impossible. A critique of your food is simply seen as feedback, not personal, because everyone in that kitchen is working toward the eternally unreachable Good Food goal.

At this grillout, while I thought I was offering gentle feedback on the food, the host saw it as personal critique. In some way, I do understand how he was taken aback- after all, I was a guest in his home. I confused a passion for cooking with the professionalism of restaurant cooks. The “restaurant quality” grill that he bought at the store does not also come with a restaurant quality executive chef ready to scream about his steaks. Home cooks may want to professionalize their cooking, but they are not looking to follow the intense, masochistic standards that define fine dining kitchens.

Home cooking is a hobby, a pastime. Why should I hold these cooks to the same standards that I am held to at work? After all, when I am the home cook, on my weekend, even I ignore some of the fine dining rules. Because on my off days, I may be drinking the same wine that I’m using to deglaze the pan, and my steak will not have a perfect sear. And I’m too busy relaxing to listen to any critique of that- can’t we just eat?