“Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth.”
We’ve all heard the old adage…but is it true? Not necessarily.
When you’re working in a restaurant, everyone has a part to play in making each meal service a success. If you’re studying at a culinary school in order to pursue a career in the restaurant or hospitality industry, you’ll need to understand how every role in the kitchen contributes to the greater team.
One of the most essential roles is that of a line cook…so, what is a line cook?
Most people are surprised to learn that while chefs take the bulk of the credit for the meals served in a restaurant, line cooks perform most of the actual preparation. One of your first jobs after culinary school would likely be as a line cook…which is a great opportunity to learn the ropes in the restaurant industry. It’s challenging, but the experience will pay off in the long run.
Here are the core skills and qualities it takes to be a successful line cook.
1. Knowing the fundamentals and following directions.
The line cook is responsible for taking the menu set by the executive chef or chef de cuisine and making it a reality. They have to fulfill the requirements for each dish quickly, consistently and precisely – they’re answering to the Chef, and ultimately to the customers.
A thorough mastery of basic cooking skills – skills like portioning meat and vegetables, preparing emulsification or simmering grains – are all expected and required.
Line cooks usually set up at one particular station on a given night, mixing sauces or running a grill, for example. But they have to be adaptable…
Depending on the night and the restaurant, line cooks may jump between stations readying many different types of dishes, or find themselves locked into working on a single element for hours.
Leading line cook John Gullickon explained to Bon Appetit how he keeps his focus and precision when performing repetitive tasks…
“It’s fun getting into a rhythm, especially if you make it a game, like ‘How fast can I do this?’,” he said. “I get in a very fluid sort of motion, in a zone.”
2. Working efficiently.
There is never enough time in the kitchen. Customers are expecting their meal in a timely fashion and management places demands on the entire service team.
Line cooks must be exceptionally efficient in order to keep things flowing smoothly at their station. Anyone who wants to advance to a higher line will have to demonstrate an ability to handle all the demands on his or her attention while remaining in constant motion.
An efficient line cook will be moving quickly and with purpose while communicating well with others on the line. The rest of the kitchen staff need to know how your preparation is progressing to time their own tasks, and also be aware of where you are to avoid spilled food or injury.
You’re required to have the right tools and ingredients in front of you at your station – and they should be sensibly organized without wasting space or interfering with another line cook’s station.
Culinary school students learn skills that are transferrable to other careers – line cooks often report that these organizational habits become part of their daily lives when they’re off work.
3. Ambition and dedication.
Typically, a line cook works long hours and starts at a low level of pay…and entry-level restaurant jobs rarely include benefits or vacation time. The learning curve is steep in such a fast-paced environment, and blending into a tightly knit professional culture is challenging. It’s hard work to reach higher levels of prestige and income.
However, if you hope to become a sous chef, executive chef or restaurant manager, beginning as a line cook is a wise career choice.
The restaurant industry is extremely demanding…and extremely rewarding if you continue to develop your skills and expertise. According to the National Restaurant Association, 9 out of 10 restaurant managers and 8 out of 10 owners began their careers in entry-level jobs.
There are a range of career opportunities for you once you’ve studied culinary arts. If your ambition is to become a higher level chef in a restaurant – or own a restaurant – then developing these skills and seizing an opportunity to work as a line cook is a great way to launch your career.
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This article was originally published on December 4, 2015, and has since been updated.