I often look back at my first line cook job with a fondness I don’t feel for any other job I’ve had. And yesterday while I was preparing dinner my mind wandered, as it tends to do, and I was thinking about the exact day that I became a better cook, the exact moment that my skills as a line cook were dramatically improved, about a third of the way into my stint during that first job.
The kitchen was small and incredibly inefficient, and on the weekends with a staff of five (chef, sous chef, two line cooks and a dishwasher) it felt especially crowded. The line also doubled as prep stations during the day, and there was one prep table which was usually taken up by an extern making empanadas. In this picture you can kind of see just how small it is: the kitchen is the back room on the left, just about the same size as the bathrooms on the right.
The setup was really less than ideal and it was obvious that no thought had been given as to the layout of the kitchen. On weekends, chef would double as expeditor and fry cook, the sous chef ran sauté, and the two line cooks ran garde manger, broil, grill and desserts. The only saving grace was that it was a tapas bar, so we could put dishes up willy-nilly and generally not have to worry about timing our dishes with other stations.
Like all restaurant kitchens there’s no dead weight, especially on a busy night. So when one person doesn’t show up, as in the case of the more senior line cook (Leo) on this particular Friday in question, it hurts.
My presence was only just tolerated by Leo because the chef liked me, and I’m sure he felt no remorse in thinking he fucked me over that day. Sure, in the short term I was fucked over, but so was everyone else in the kitchen. In the longer term however I became a considerably better, stronger, faster and more vocal cook, and for that I have Leo to thank.
Up to that point I was still learning and coming to grips with the pace of busy nights. The lead up generally filled me with dread, the dining room filling up and getting noisier, no tickets printing, us just standing around with our dicks in our hands as we liked to say. Wait for it, wait for it. Because you know what’s about to happen, as it does every weekend night in any self respecting establishment on this planet that serves food.
But once you’re in it, it’s surprisingly enjoyable. The notion of time ceases to exist. Your head empties of all the bullshit it usually focuses on and is replaced instead with 5 shrimp, 8 beef, 6 chicken, 4 cheese plates, 6 citrus, 8 beet, 6 coca, a seemingly infinite stream of marinated goat cheese, 3 tuna, and desserts. Desserts, are you fucking kidding me? More plates, I need more plates!
We eventually made it through, though the rush felt longer than most nights. After service, the chef and sous chef stuck around to help clean up (this was usually left to the line cooks) and then the three of us sat at the big family style table at the front of the dining room and had a few beers together. And then the next night we did it all over again.