Let’s Hear It for the Line Cooks
By Mina Yamashita
“The pilot light in the stove had gone off, so when she turned the oven on to full bore, it did not light. A couple of hours later ... she opened the oven door. The flame from the top burners ignited the gas in a single terrifying rush, blasting Courtney three feet back and three feet into the air so that she landed, seated on the prep counter.”Michael Ruhlman, The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection
According to author Ruhlman, cook Courtney Churchin was back on the line nine days later, no worse for wear.
Matias Rechy left Veracruz, on the eastern coast of Mexico, for a high-school vacation in the States. He liked it here and started cooking at a Denny’s in Arizona. He later moved to New Mexico, and within a week he was washing dishes at Milton’s in Downtown Albuquerque. Two weeks later, one of the cooks called in sick and Rechy was moved to the line. He’s been there for eight years, and he shares the work with three others who do all the cleaning, prep and cooking.
The country’s 3 million line cooks are the gears that keep our food industry turning. They learn their trade from the ground up—washing dishes, cleaning range hoods, making gallons of stocks and sauces, prepping ingredients for the day’s menu. Eventually, they will find their place at one or more of the stations that make up the working kitchen—-meats, eggs, fish, deep-frying, desserts—whatever the menu demands. Skill with tools and food and efficiency, and just keeping up with the pace of a busy restaurant, is no mean feat.
Hurricane’s Restaurant and Drive-In boasts more than 150 menu items and opens at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast, closing at 8:30 p.m. after dinner. Owner Greg Desmarais shows me his scars. His arm is covered with a history of burns, cuts and scrapes from decades in the kitchen. He works the line with his staff, and in the wee hours of the morning they put together 500 breakfast burritos for sale at Albuquerque Public Schools. The restaurant makes meals for many community events in addition to feeding its dine-in clientele. Desmarais is something of an anomaly in that he began his career in food with an education in hotel-and-restaurant management in Midland, Mich. Now, taking a break from the morning rush, he describes the Hurricane’s kitchen.
There are eight line cooks who rotate shifts and stations. All of the cooks know all of the stations—a good setup so that every areas is covered and the cooks have a variety of tasks. While customers may not know who’s cooking their order, the cooks are totally tuned in to the customers. They know their regulars by the orders that come in on the chatterbox in the kitchen. I mention to Desmarais that a friend and I often come in on weekend mornings and describe one of the dishes we order.
“Oh, with lots of red,” Desmarais grins.
I am astonished.
So, the next time you’re dining out, and the wait staff promptly brings your perfectly prepared dish—whether you’re having burgers or filet mignon—remember the folks in the kitchen, and send some compliments to the cooks.
Tasty Reading• The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, Michael Ruhlman (Penguin)
• Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, Bill Buford (Vintage)
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