When I tell people my husband is a professional cook, they ask, “That’s fantastic! Does he cook for you?” To which I reply, “Well, he sometimes cooks on his days off, but I’m in bed by the time he gets home from work.” Then there’s an awkward silence, and the person finally says, “That sucks.” In terms of hours, yes it does. But as I say, “He does it because he loves it and he’s very good at it.” In these conversations, I’m not (usually) looking for pity, but instead want to give some well-deserved respect to my husband’s job.
His position particularly deserves more recognition than it gets because he’s a line cook, not a chef. Although most people think a chef is someone who cooks well, it’s actually someone who is the head of a kitchen. As Anthony Bourdain has eloquently stated, “A chef is a cook who leads.” Chris is one of the cooks the chef leads. In fact, the very large majority of your food is made by those cooks. Chefs often don’t work the line; instead, they supervise and ensure that the food is to their standard before it is sent out. The line cooks are generally those who sear the meat, broil the fish, saute the vegetables. What they do is fundamental to the quality of a dish.
Although they aren’t often recognized, many parts of a line cook’s job can be as challenging as a chef’s. First and foremost, the hours. Yes, Chris works nights, weekends, and holidays – all of them. Most cooks usually have two days a week off, but sometimes it’s hard to know what days they may be. Chris happens to get some vacation, but many places don’t offer that. And sick days are unheard of. The executive chef for Wolfgang Puck’s The Source said at Chris’s graduation, “How many sick days have I taken since I was 18? Zero.” Chefs usually work more hours because of their meal-planning and supervisory responsibilities, but line cooks are definitely not slackers in this department.
Then, the physical labor. Line cooks are on their feet and constantly moving for at least 8, often up to 10 or 11 hours a day. They’re lifting very heavy hotel pans filled with searing hot ingredients in and out of ovens. They’re climbing up and down stairs back and forth from the freezer. They’re chopping extraordinarily quickly, mounding up piles of vegetables. If you’ve ever watched Top Chef, you know that creating a well-made meal looks more like a dance than someone fussing in front of a stove. (The Quickfire Challenges with Tom Colicchio and Le Bernardin’s fish challenge illustrated this particularly well.) In fact, I think cooking professionally is the definition of a “labor of love;” it involves a lot of physical strength and you would never take it on if you didn’t love it. It’s not a profession for the weak of body or spirit.
Oddly enough, Chris has it easy in some ways. He’s a well-educated American citizen; many of his fellow line cooks aren’t. Some are immigrants and a large number speak little English. Often, cooking is the best paying job they can get with their education or experience in America. Even then, some of them need to work more than one job. And there is no doubt that they work incredibly hard. Without getting into an immigration policy rant, I can say that I give them the deepest respect (as does once again, the immensely quotable Anthony Bourdain).
Now perhaps you can understand why it’s frustrating to me when someone looks disappointed when I inform them that Chris is not a chef. Perhaps he will be one day, but that doesn’t mean that his contribution to the kitchen now isn’t important. So the next time you have a good meal, don’t just say “complements to the chef.” Thank the line cooks as well for their job well done.