Jake woke up with a pounding headache. It was only 7 a.m. and he was already sweating from the July humidity or maybe it was from those last two shots of tequila just a few hours ago. As was the case on most nights after a busy service – he found his way to the local bar with a few other cooks for that end of night reward. Just one drink turned into a few more than he could remember. He stumbled back to his lonely apartment and crashed – still in his hounds tooth chef pants. Jake dragged himself to the Keurig coffee maker on his kitchen counter, grabbed the bottle of Ibuprofen and shook four brown pills into his palm while waiting for that first cup of coffee to brew. This was going to be a rough day.
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Being a line cook is damn hard work – it is physically, mentally and emotionally draining, yet once a cook is in the zone the job is almost intoxicating. Jake knows that it will be a struggle to brush the cobwebs from his foggy brain and get over the first couple hours of payment for last nights indiscretions, but he is confident that he will rise above the challenge. A quick shower, another cup of coffee, and a few half-hearted minutes of exercises and he is out the door by 9 a.m. ready for whatever the kitchen might bring today.
So what draws people to this craziness, this repeated abuse (some of which is self-inflicted), and the environment that can beat a person up – especially in the summer months? Jake asked himself this same question nearly every morning as he walked the ten blocks to the back loading dock. His inventory of answers looks something like this: I’M GOOD AT WHAT I DO
After years of working in kitchens Jake knew that his skills could rival anyone’s, especially when it came to organization, speed, flavor and presentation. IT’S NEVER BORING
Although there is a routine in the kitchen – every day brings new challenges and unpredictable twists – this keeps it exciting. THE TEAM ENERGY
Every line cook knows that this is a team sport. Individual talent pales in comparison to unity and focus as a group. The team is only as good as it’s weakest link. THE ADRENALINE RUSH
When the line is cranking full tilt, the adrenaline rush is similar to the endorphin experience that runners have when they get that sudden burst of energy. THIS IS WHERE I FEEL CREATIVE
Jake loves the fact that every dish created on the line is a work of art and personal expression even when the plate design is prescribed by the chef. Line cooks take pride in pushing that plate through the pass – it is as if they are able to sign their work each time. EVERYONE IS ACCEPTED
No matter what baggage a cook might bring to the table – it is their work that counts in the kitchen. Everything else is unimportant when the work meets expectations.
Jake walked through the back door of the kitchen – head still pounding and that typical uneasiness apparent as he wonders what challenges lie before him. He slides into a fresh, starched chef’s jacket, ties on an apron and tucks his hair into a skullcap. He splashes some cold water in his face, switches his running shoes for polished black kitchen clogs and grabs his knife kit – “Here we go”.
Before any greetings – Jake grabs another cup of coffee and snatches two pieces of bacon from the steam table. With something in his stomach he now walks the kitchen and says good morning to the breakfast crew. Grabbing a wet side towel and cutting board he sets up his work station, lays out his knives, and snags the clipboard with the prep sheet that he set-up last night before the end of his shift. Last night was busy so he will need to rework most of his station mise en place – thus the reason for coming in early.
The list is long: reduce stock with mirepoix for a demi, peel and devein 10 pounds of shrimp, clean 15 pounds of U-10 scallops, 20 portions of filets for tournedos, fillet 30 portions of seven-ounce salmon, pound out 24 chicken breasts for schnitzel, mince 3 bulbs of garlic, chiffonade 4 bunches of Italian parsley, puree 1 quart of shallots, clarify 10 pounds of butter, etc., etc. The list was long and a bit intimidating, but Jake knew from experience that time invested in building a tight mise en place will be the key to a successful service. Tonight will be very busy.
An hour into prep and Jake was starting to feel better. He took ten minutes to top off those two strips of bacon with a respectable breakfast and another cup of coffee – back to work. His only other break was to stop and help to check, unpack and store the deliveries that arrived starting at around 9 a.m. Jake, unlike some of the other younger cooks was methodical about the coolers and storeroom. Everything was checked, labeled and dated, and rotated on shelves. Whole fish were packed in crushed ice, produce was transferred from boxes to Lexan containers, fresh herbs were covered with damp paper towels, and meats for tonight were removed from their packaging, quickly rinsed to rid them of the Cryovac funk, lightly oiled and stored in the coldest part of the walk-in, and dry goods were rotated and stored with labels facing out. This is where mise en place begins.
By 2 p.m. Jake was done with prep and able to help other members of his team until it was time to set up his station. The stock was still reducing for a rich demi glace, and a fish fumet was underway from the halibut bones that arrived with the fish order. Jake helped the sous chef finish off the veal shanks that were braising for Osso Bucco and portioned Wagyu strip steaks for the grill cook who was a bit behind. At 4:00 he switched over to his station set-up making sure that each ingredient was in its assigned location, herbs for garnishing were snipped, sauté pans were seasoned and stacked in the oven to pre-heat, clarified butter and sauces were set in a bain marie, and his towels were perfectly folded. Jake even went through the stacks of plates that would be used to make sure that they were spotless – this was his canvas.
At 5:15 the chef walked through the line to double check set-up and taste sauces, relishes, and sides before the first orders ticked in at 5:30. Jake was ready. His mise en place was perfect, those pre-opening knots in his stomach were ever-present, and those beads of summer sweat were beginning to run down his forehead and back. One more cup of coffee (this time espresso) and then he would switch to water for the rest of the night.
The chef gave everyone the thumbs up as the first orders ticked off the POS. The line cooks looked at each other with a nod, shared fist bumps, and had that look of readiness for battle. The time had arrived – bring it on!
“Ordering – three scallops, two strips mid-rare, one Bucco, and a tournedos rare! “Yes chef” was the response from the team – here we go.
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**PHOTOS: The kitchen team at Emmer and Rye in Austin, TX.
NOTE: For more stories of Jake and life in the kitchen – don’t miss reading:
“The Event That Changed Everything”
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