5 Life Disciplines Learned as a Line Cook

This is the beginning of my chronicles of my experiences and what I’ve learned as a line cook. I have no goal to persuade you or dissuade you from being a line cook. My arms are dashed and splattered with burn scars. A few from being a performing fire dancer, but most from being a bad-ass line cook.

An excerpt from Kitchen Confidential:
“Line cooking done well is a beautiful thing to watch. It’s a high-speed collaboration resembling, at its best, ballet or modern dance. A properly organized, fully loaded line cook, one who works clean, and has ‘moves’-meaning economy of movement, nice technique and, most important, speed-can perform his duties with Nijinsky-like grace. The job requires character-and endurance. A good line cook never shows up late, never calls in sick, and works through pain and injury. “

There are countless reasons why people don’t end up enjoying and embracing being a line cook; then there are others who wear their title as an identity. It is the most physically and mentally demanding job I’ve ever done. Having the capability and endurance to quickly prepare delicious dishes elicits a unique sense of accomplishment at the end of every busy service rush. It requires skills developed through discipline that carries over into life outside the kitchen.

1. Mise En Place

Mise En Place is French for “everything in its place” or “putting in place”. To veteran cooks it’s a revered practice, a mantra, and a way to approach life. It’s a practice of anticipating all of your own needs in completing any tasks or operations. Putting everything in its place means applying careful thought into each step, planning ahead, and enabling yourself to execute consistently without any hiccups. Placing all your supplies and tools in just the right place can make or break a craftsman’s work, especially when there are deadlines. Considering Mise en Place can also streamline daily life. For me, that means making sure I have backups of my daily hygiene supplies. I replace my keys, wallet, and daily necessities where they belong. Often times before I go to bed, I’ll fill my coffee machine with water and fresh grinds and filter so I can just press the on button for a simple brew to kick off my day.

2. Be a Good Line Buddy

As a line cook, you work alongside team members to achieve a common goal of serving great food in a timely manner. Being a line buddy means you’re on top of your responsibilities in prep and during the rush of service alongside your kitchen crew mates. Being a good line buddy means that you put in the extra effort to respond to your team member’s needs while keeping on top of your own. By recognizing your teammates’ tasks and the order of operations they go through to get their jobs done, you can quickly become a hero by doing some in-between tasks for them. Sometimes it’s about getting things done as a team. Sometimes it’s about helping out and streamlining their flow. For my girlfriend, I fill a teacup with water, set it in the microwave with a teabag just balanced over its edge so that when she gets home from work, all she has to do is tip the teabag in and press 2. In 2 minutes she’ll have a hot cup of tea ready for her to begin decompressing from a long day.

3. Clean As You Go

The chef of a restaurant walks by a cook’s station and wipes his palm over his cutting board. He holds his hand up, speckled with miscellaneous crumbs, and says, “This is what the inside of your head looks like. Wipe your station down and let’s start again.” A clean station means a clean, organized conscious and a disciplined professional. Cleaning as you go saves you time. If at an time someone were to observe you at work, you should be proud of the cleanliness of your space. A craftsman might be able to make great things in a dirty shop, but if you’re working with food, you could make someone sick.

4. Wash Your Hands

Cooking is a bigger responsibility than most consider. You have the opportunity to sprinkle delight into someone’s life but you also can potentially kill someone. By neglecting the simple task of washing your hands, you could spread an illness that could end someone’s life. It starts with the simple discipline of washing your hands properly that can make the difference of sharing joy in life or being a toxic person people should stay away from.
[[Random PSA]] Sneezing into your hands doesn’t contain the spread of aerosolized bacteria or viruses; a surprising amount of wet sickness escapes through your fingers. Sneezing into your elbow pit is better but sneezing into your shirt or a promptly disposed tissue is the best way to contain your germs. Sneeze smarter you beautiful, disgusting human.

5. Stay Humble
Cooking, by literal definition, is taking cold food and making it hot. A cook brings food to a specific temperature for a specific amount of time and serves it to people. Like drawing, the task itself is very simple. When you add complexity and finesse, it becomes an art. As a 22 year old sous-chef in a fine dining restaurant with creative freedom I felt like a superstar. My ego would get the best of me and I thought I was SO cool but ultimately, I wasn’t curing cancer. I wasn’t solving any major world problems. I wasn’t winning any awards or impressing any number of people greater than the double-digit count of diners per night. Nonetheless, a cook should be proud. To have the honor to cook for others is an honor that celebrates where humanity comes from: manipulators of the flame. The greatest prize of being a cook is the opportunity to nurture others with delicious food. The greatest responsibility is to teach what you know to those who want to learn.

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