It’s disrespectful to talk about any kitchen (even a hypothetical one) without giving the Executive Chef (EC) top billing. This is The Man (or Woman). The alpha and omega, as they say — the one who runs the whole show. But the EC is the ringmaster — the editor in chief (worth noting actually, that the words chief and chef are *gasp* from the same Latin root). And much like how the editor in chief had to to a lot of writing to get to a point where they, in fact, hardly do any writing at all (and instead oversee those doing the writing), every Executive Chef had to put in their time slugging it out behind the line. Once they reach that top spot in the kitchen though, there is little to no cooking required.
The daily tasks of an EC vary with the size of the operation over which they preside. Most spend their days working on menus, scheduling, ordering, designing dishes, communicating with their direct reports (sous chefs, junior sous, kitchen managers, etc.) or peers (general managers, floor managers, sommeliers, etc.), breaking down numbers, or a litany of other administrative tasks.
But what about the people whose job title literally holds the word “cook”?
We’re talking about cooks: the guys who actually look at what you ordered, put pan to fire or meat to grill, and make the thing you told your server you wanted to order. You probably think that all their job requires them to do is cook, right?
While you have to cook to do the job, being a cook has very little to do with whether you know how to cook or not.
In fact, training a cook at a restaurant is objectively very simple. Most restaurant kitchens won’t require any single cook to know how to make more than six dishes (okay, maybe seven) on the menu. If you can demonstrate the steps of how to make said dishes, and remember how to execute them flawlessly each time, you don’t need to have any grand understanding of anything other than how you were trained to make the dishes themselves. (that being said, it’s at least helpful to have a cursory knowledge of general cooking techniques)
Cooking good food is the “brick” of what makes a good cook. The “mortar”, however, is all the things that most people don’t think about:
Beyond basic culinary skills, here are the skills that a good cook should have:
Resourcefulness: This means being able to use the tools at your disposal to “just make it happen,” a command frequently heard in professional kitchens. One chef I worked for would periodically put everyone through an exercise before service of holding up a simple object (i.e. tasting spoon or a bench-scraper), and giving us two minutes to write down every possible use we could think of for that tool, and the variety of answers were educational, to say the least (you probably never thought of using a teaspoon to prop up a steak in a hot pan in order to sear its side, huh?). The longer you cook, the more “tricks” you pick up.
Excellent organizational habits: There’s a saying behind the line (or variations of): “messy station, messy mind; clean station, clean food.” The term “mise en place” translates roughly to “everything in place”. The evidence of a good cook will be found not on their plates but on their counters, in their coolers and in their cold-wells. Everything will be lined up, dated, perfectly labeled and organized (and if they’ve had any experience in fine dining, all of those things will be at perfect 90 degree right angles).
Maximizing the efficiency of your movements: Move quickly and with purpose. Good cooks are balanced, nimble and decisive in the way they step, pivot and reach. All the while, being mindful of what’s happening around them — characteristics that have led to cooperative line-cooking to be referred to as doing the dance. Stations should be set up to be maximally efficient as well: if you’re prepping something and you’re right-handed, start the raw product on your left, so you can easily grab it with your off (left) hand without reaching across your body. This is one small example of how doing the little, simple things correctly can make your day faster, easier and more efficient.
Pain tolerance (mental and physical): If you can’t reach your arm over the flame of an open burner to grab the saucepan on the back row, or if you can’t take the verbal abuse of your chef screaming about how you just fucked something up (that “not only set the pick-up time for this table back five minutes, but now the whole fucking restaurant is going to be delayed because you can’t make a fucking quenelle! I thought you said you knew how to cook! And why the fuck isn’t your foie torchon tempering!? Every single one of your plates better be perfect the rest of the night or you’re washing fucking dishes for the next month!”) in the middle of a busy service, then chances are you’re not gonna make it in a professional kitchen. Both of these things hurt even the most seasoned of pro’s, but after years of such abuse, you learn to ignore that pain, work through it, and eventually how to turn the momentary anguish into adrenaline and then direct it towards doing your job. If needed, you can always go cry in the walk-in once service is done.
Enjoyment: The things listed above might baffle the normal human as to why someone would voluntarily subject him or herself to this sort of work. But we do; and we really do enjoy it. Conversely, we are horrified by the idea of sitting in front of a computer for 40+ hours a week. Being a professional cook means you have to do more than just enjoy cooking food, you have to crave the things I’ve just described. This is something I talk about regularly when someone asks for my advice about pursuing a cooking career: it’s not for everyone. Just because you like cooking doesn’t mean you’ll like the things that come along with doing it professionally.
If you are considering pursuing a career in professional cooking, my advice is to go work in a kitchen for three months. If you like it — not, can you “put up with it,” if you really like it — go for it. Otherwise, continue enjoying it as a hobby at home, because you’ve been warned:
Being a cook has almost nothing to do with cooking.