Really cooking

I have scars on my hands and arms. Ugly, discolored scars of all shapes that dot and slash across my arms — they just won't go away. Some are from searing metal, some from knives, others from hot grease. My scars, like those of many brave others, tell stories that would have James Bond stumbling over himself just trying to keep up.

My scars are from serving up steaming food to hungry, often rude customers. We serve them from kitchens the size of football fields to kitchens barely big enough to fry a hamburger. Tons of customers in a two-hour time that flashes by like minutes.

See, scars are as good as references on a résumé when you're a cook. They show your experience, courage and commitment. Those not unwilling to bear these brands need not apply.

I've seen line cooks come and go. I've worked with good, committed cooks, bad, inexperienced ones, good cooks with bad attitudes — and people into it because they think it's cool (those types don't usually last long). In some kitchens, it's tough to survive. Bad combinations of people and resources had me walking out of one joint in a fury — but it built character. (Plus, I came home from that with some hilarious new foul words to share with my friends.)

One of the first line jobs I had was under a ferociously angry chef. He was an idiosyncratic man with no patience, a memory shorter than a goldfish, and an even shorter temper. He was, however, a food dictionary. There wasn't anything this man didn't know about food or hungry customers. What I gained from the experience was what we call in the industry "thick skin": the ability to put up with all sorts of bullshit without losing your cool under tremendous pressure. And that is something that managers and chefs prize in line cooks.

You can actually see yourself mature on a line — at least as a cook. When I started, I barely knew how to cook macaroni and cheese, let alone a medium-rare strip steak. My contributions to the kitchen began with salads and bread. Later I became a sauté cook, then a lead sauté cook — the more entrées you are responsible for, the more input and skill is needed. Later, I worked alone cooking for many hungry bar customers. That was tough work, but felt like an accomplishment.

Being on a line is more fun, though, because it's like being on a team. You rely on everyone around you; you're all on the same team.

But if you're a "team," then "the rush" is the "game." For those that haven't worked in a restaurant (or if you're oblivious to anything but your party when you dine out), the rush is when your customers come in demanding service — clean spoons, napkins, water with no ice — all at the same damn time, and then wonder why they can't get decent service. That's what it's like in the "front of the house."

In the kitchen, we experience the rush through the sound of tickets printing and by reading blue and red ink. Oh, the never-ending sound of printing tickets! Sometimes the tickets print with such fury that you're changing rolls of paper twice a day. Tickets will pile up and just keep on coming until every last customer can eat no more. This is where the commitment comes in. When you're elbow deep in a pile of orders, the only thing you can do is cook and cook faster. To be able to keep working under conditions like these, you must possess either an extremely dedicated mind-set or just be crazy.

It's so fast-paced that I'm pretty sure I've gone two hours without blinking during a rush. You don't really have the time. You may get a chance to slam some water, an energy drink or some booze in an opaque cup, but if you fall behind when trying to serve 200 people in two hours, you get to watch tables start walking out. As a cook, you may have to focus on preparing four different pastas, mussels (with ingredients cooked by a teammate), six pieces of veal (two medium, one medium-rare, one bloody and two well-done), all plated perfectly and timed to ensure everything is hot and in the window simultaneously. We do this in countless combinations through the two-hour rush. If you fall out of sync with anyone else, you can be sure that you're going to be the one holding up the show, and you don't want to be that person. (Expect some "verbal love" from everyone that works in the joint until you fix your mistake and make damn sure that customer is satisfied.)

In downtime, we'll play with tongs, experiment with new entrées, eat, talk shit, smoke cigarettes and sometimes booze it up. Line cooks enjoy a lifestyle unique to only a few professions. We speak like feral children; we have habits, keep late hours and sleep in late. Our tolerance for "verbal love" is thicker than a coconut husk. But we take our jobs very seriously, and we usually wash our hands — a lot. If we're not cooking in some cheesy Applebee's and watching you from behind a microwave, we smile when we see satisfied customers and get compliments. That's when we especially enjoy our hard work. We're paid to do it well, but what we feed you is your only impression of us, and it clearly doesn't last that long — unless you take it home in a box.

Ultimately, we line cooks put up with this because we like it. It promises good hours and pretty decent wages, but it boils down to adrenaline. When you have to manage your time in order to bust out a mass quantity of entrées so perfect people feel ashamed to touch them — it's an adrenaline rush. After the customers leave, we get the next hour and a half to clean up the mess, pack up our stations, polish our egos, and think about how we get to do it all again tomorrow: the burns, the yelling, the pressure, the heat, the scars — and probably hungover — but we'll feed every last one of you.

Achille Bianchi is sometimes seen in local kitchens. Send comments to him at [email protected]

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