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Dull Knives, Poor Decisions, And Burnt Toast: Learning From Line Cooks’ Missteps

Cooks make mistakes. It is getting past those mistakes that brings us closer to the perfect meal service. Learning from cooks’ missteps is the difference between a team of well-honed, hired killers and, say, the Dallas Cowboys. Line cooks are responsible for the daily delivery of the restaurant’s mission. Common sense, uncommon solutions and making the most from learning opportunities move us forward.

Not tasting food

Seasoning is not just the haphazard dispensing of salt. Tasting food—or not—will set a dish apart from the average failure. Does the acid cut the fat? Is the dish flat? Boring? Absent of interesting texture? Is it hot when it is supposed to be hot? What about doneness? Medium rare is not rare. Noris it medium well. It matters.

Learning: Probe every single dish: Is it right? Not just it appears right, but is it flavored as prescribed? How can I make better? Buffing out mistakes is easy if we measure quality.

Getting it done just to get it done

You asked for toast. I gave you toast.

-But it’s burnt. It. Is. Burnt. Toast.

You asked for toast and that is what I gave you.

Slapdash service doesn’t just exist in the dining room. Rather, piss-poor execution happens at the saute station, at the grill, and coming from the fryer. Sharpening the edge of our ability isn’t figurative; sharp tools and equally sharp execution go beyond just getting it done.

Learning: Critical objectivity is owning a piss-poor performance, and that is a tough gig. Put down the phone, turn off the music and dial into good food, not just done food. Caress the pulse of the kitchen and keep up.

Being one great, big mess

Organizational fortitude is a job requirement. Planning is part of the job. Ordering food for tomorrow’s menu to come in on tomorrow’s truck is poor planning. And operationally shaky. Stop that. First in first out is not some abstract idea that merely comes from a book.

Learning: Use a planner, a calendar, a notebook or—gasp—one of the myriad technology tools that live just for our exploitation. Set pars, order ingredients to come in before they are actually needed and stick with the flow of activity of the kitchen. It can be a ballet or just a hot mess. Organization is not a soft skill: It is a requisite skill. A roll of tape and a Sharpie go a long way to date, label, rotate.

Not understanding patience

Pulling a hanger steak off the flat top or turning a burger too quickly will inevitably get the protein police called on you. So top it. Let the food cook. Ticket times will fall into place if you focus on quality. Trying to speed the process along only gets you murky gray beef and ripped burgers.

Patience goes beyond the flow of food. Wanting to take over a kitchen, for instance, is not an overnight process. It takes time to gleen the skills necessary to operate a kitchen and do it well. Being a line cook turned chef is not a one-and-done process. There is learning. Numbers. Scheduling. Vendor relationships. Writing menus. Grasping trends.

Learning: Stop! Deep breath. A little meditation to zoom out on the big picture is restorative.

Multitasking to a fault

100 crappy outcomes or 10 good ones. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, burning the croutons is.

Learning: Prioritize. Sense of urgency? Yes. Poor execution? No.

Not my Jobbing

…and sucking. The most hire-worthy (and promotable) cooks lead by example, are behaving like they are always on stage, and take on any task. Sticking to the ten items on the job description will get a paycheck. Going on to invent items 11, 12 and 13 will get the raise. Simple as that.

Learning: Do more than is expected. And do it well.

Clean as you go

A chunk of the kitchen is its state of readiness. Cutting boards, sinks, walls, mixers, utensils, and the 600 other pieces and parts of the kitchen are constantly in motion under mounds of potential bacteria. Amazing food, impeccable service, and expertly crafted cocktails mean nothing if there is any indication of foodborne illness from a suboptimally clean kitchen. No excuse can cover that hole. Bad news travels at the speed of Yelp.

Learning: You never, ever have to scurry when the health department walks in. If you work as if the clean police are always coming in, the place holds in a state of readiness. And more efficient. A clean kitchen is a temple of beauty and source of pride.

The idea of hiring the person and training to the job isn’t a completely illogical idea. I’ll teach you how I want the hummus, but it is up to you to work at a clean station, follow directions and then execute a good dish. Wonder why some line cooks seem to be career line cooks? Failing to thrive. Sometimes it really is checkers and not chess; easy answers can often be found within easy mistakes.

Some mistakes aren’t noticeable, like going silent and failing to communicate, or forgetting the hospitality mission. The less obvious missteps aren’t necessarily less vital. The soft skills that go into a successful cook’s routine are part of the big picture. The hard skills, like actually cooking, require direction, communication, concentration and, for all that is holy, a dose of care.

Jim Berman is a kitchen lifer. A career cook, Jim orchestrates new menus, works on staffing solutions and manages food purchases. He received his formal culinary training in New Mexico, and has done stints in kitchens in Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, and the Delaware valley. A voracious appetite for reading about food, and doing volunteer work with the Dave Matthews Band summer tours consumes most of his free time. Jim’s writing is regularly featured on Foodable, Toast and Vitamix.