Pick a culinary autobiography — any ole’ one… okay, maybe not Guy Fierri’s, but an actual Chef telling all, about what it was like for them, taking their lumps and putting in their time as a rookie, working their way up the chain, and what it took to earn the trust and respect of their peers. I don’t (nor will I ever) claim to be a fortune teller, but I bet each of those stories make some allusion to their first line-cooking job, and how they quickly realized that “it didn’t matter how well I could cook. It was all about being able to do ‘The Dance’.”
For the record, I recognize I’m paraphrasing (at best) the above anecdote, that there isn’t some code that requires newbies to acknowledge the existence of aforementioned “the dance” in order to work in a professional kitchen with any sort of stature. Nor am I implying that if you know how to “dance”, any ignorance of culinary techniques will immediately be compensated for.
Now that we’ve gotten those totally fabricated legals out of the way, let’s actually get to what I’m talking about.
I once took a job at a place I’d eaten at, because I’d eaten there. I’ll elaborate: The food was so simple and perfect, that within seconds of having put it into my mouth, I would have taken a stage’ (pronounced “staj”, in the culinary world it means, among other things, working at a place as an audition for a potential job) there for free, just to learn the secrets of such a place. Fast-forward several months, some cashing in on networking, a solid friend, an old friend, and two and a half years of busting my ass for a private restaurant owner/chef who acknowledged my years of service… and I wound up working at that restaurant.
But before I started my full-time tenure there (that would last upwards of three years), I was asked to come in and be an extra hand for a particularly busy shift. I worked one of my days off from my full-time employer to go and help out my future one, and at the same time, advance the interview process.
Just before this service started — and I was assured by all, that it was going to be a ball-breaker — the guy who got brought in to help wash dishes on busy nights (someone who was also a personal friend of the Chef/owner), leaned over his shoulder and said to me, “you’re gonna learn how to dance tonight!”
Now, I felt offended by this, to a degree. The comment implicitly inferred that I’d never known how to “dance,” but I took it in stride, knowing that nobody in that kitchen could have possibly known that about me, so I retorted with (quite poetically, I might add)
“Oh, I’ve known how to dance for a while — I’ve just never had a waltz in this ballroom.” He had a good chuckle (as well he should have). We all went on to crush that night, and I held up my end of the bargain…
When I think back to the best line jobs I ever worked, there are some commonalities that present themselves. They (not so) coincidentally keep within the narrative. For one, the partner tends to reflect the quality of the dance. My favorite shifts or positions I worked, largely had to do with the chemistry I had with the people directly next to me, and the people who physically affected what I did.
Sometimes the dance was more theoretical: I don’t work well with that guy who, when he expedites, calls out tickets based on what he wants in five minutes:
“In five, I need table L-4: Broadway-sunny, pork chop-easy, burrito, chicken chop and short stack SOS.”
I work great with the guy that calls to each station. The same situation would go more like this:
(To the grill guy) “Angel, picking up a chop and a chicken salad in five?” Angel acknowledges.
(To the salad guy) “Kyle, picking up that salad, and will need toast for the Broadway.” Kyle acknowledges.
(To me) “Glenn, in five you got three sunny, two easy and a burrito.”
You get the picture.
Now there’s lots to break down about the kitchen’s coded language with this example (regarded in the kitchen as call-backs), but you see what I mean in terms of verbally working well with someone on a non-physical level. The dance on the other hand, is a different story entirely.
Line cooking is not unlike dancing when it comes down to it: there are things you should and shouldn’t do. There’s a rhythm, there’s a leader, a follower, a hierarchy of right-of-way, and a solid possibility that someone will end up in the ER by the end of the night.
Most of these things are (or at least should be) common sense. For example, someone carrying a twenty two (slang for a tall, 5-gallon plastic container that, when filled to the brim, holds 22 quarts of liquid) of hot liquid on their way to the cooler, holds the right of way over… everyone else. If you’re strolling along with your two quarts of almonds, and that walking martyr is on your course, you give them the road until they’ve passed to safety. This is common sense/courtesy.
The other parts of the Dance are a bit more refined. For example, there’s a lot of turning in cooking — not just on the line, but at home as well. Rare is the kitchen that is truly one-dimensional, in that, you don’t even have to turn 180 degrees from one task to another. So when you turn, just assume that you have something hot/sharp in your hands, and if you don’t, the person behind you does (you can’t see them because they’re fucking behind you!). If you’re facing twelve o’clock, and you want to be facing six o’clock, three feet behind you, but you think there’s someone at seven o’clock, whose movements you’re not too sure about, lead with your feet. This means, with your body still focused on 12:00, reach behind you with your leading leg. If your leg made it there, that means the coast is clear, and that you’ve claimed that area for yourself (not unlike pulling into an intersection when trying to turn left without a green arrow), it is safe for the rest of your body (and its cargo) to proceed — first with your head, then your hips, then your arms with whatever hot thing you’re holding.
Use your peripherals — ALWAYS!!! This is something people should just generally be in a better habit of doing, but especially so in a kitchen. Most kitchen activities are repetitive, and whilst this doesn’t always ensure the opportunity to break your attention, you can at least focus some of it on what’s happening in your peripheral vision. This allows you to be aware of far more of what’s going on in the kitchen than just what’s on your board. And because most kitchen activities are repetitive, it means when your peripherals pick up on movement, it’s movement out of the ordinary.
Don’t use your knees to pivot, use your heels. Every time you try to pivot on your knees, you’re putting one or several ligaments in danger (yes, I had to learn this lesson the painful way). Keep your knees pointed in the same direction as your toes at all times. When you need to pivot, either unlock your knee, pick up your foot, slide it low across the floor and plant it where (and in the direction) you want it to be facing, or spin on your heel and use your toe as a stopper. It feels a little childish and silly, but then again, so are most of the jokes that fly around the kitchen all night.
When you’re moving with something hot/delicate/sensitive, hold it close to your body and let that thing be the trailer. The physics of centrifugal force dictate that when something spins on an axis, the further away from the axis an object is, the faster it needs to go to keep up with the rotation. Ergo, if you keep that pan of seared chicken extended at arm’s length as you turn, the chicken (farthest away from the original point of rotation, will be moving the fastest) will probably go flying off your pan, sending the chicken to the floor, and requiring you to question just how strong your conviction is of not putting floored food onto a plate. Instead, move your body to where you’re trying to go (we’re talking like, 18″ away), while holding the “cargo” where it was, but then stepping methodically to the final destination, and smoothly moving your cargo in as straight of a path as possible to its destination.
Be aware of the feet of the people around you when predicting movement. This ties into the using of peripherals: when looking down (like at your cutting board or plating space), your peripheral vision now includes some space on the floor behind you. Use this to be aware of the movements of those around you by watching their feet. The outside observer would think you’re a ninja when you’re able to use this to step calmly to your right to make room for your incoming co-worker (or even Executive Chef!) on your left, all the while, never breaking from your perfect plating job of table twelve’s second intermezzo. This skill is also helpful when working in an exceptionally tight kitchen, as once the foot of someone working two feet away from you vacates a piece of floor, you can replace it with yours immediately. Only a couple days ago, a co-worker (unsolicited) told me I had excellent peripheral vision. I told him it was a necessary direct result of line-cooking.
Understand what the person next to you is doing. This allows you to anticipate their movements, or your ability to do something in a space their actions have left momentarily vacant.
Establish your positions and those of the people around you. This is a skill very applicable in everyday life, that I wish so many more pedestrians in San Francisco had. When your peripherals catch someone walking towards you down the line, or crossing in a pass-way, use definitive bodily motions that establish where you’re planning to go, and what zone you’re “claiming” as yours. If you’re sautéing something and see someone coming down and don’t want them to pass, step back into their zone to toss your pan. Likewise, if you’re the oncoming cook and this happens before you, not the time to get offended — wait your fucking turn, and nobody gets hurt! This general approach helps avoid collisions, both on foot and behind the wheel! If you decide you’re coming through no matter what and want to get all macho and shit, just shout “BEHIND!” and the seas should part before you.
Be loose in the knees. Simple, but I can’t name all the veteran cooks I’ve talked with who wished they’d stopped locking their knees earlier. For one, it puts you at higher risk of a traumatic (and work-suspending) knee injury, but it’s also going to save your knees long-term (as in, you’ll still have cartilage in your knees when you’re forty). Keep them loose and make your quads actually do some work. The same way a baseball fielder is taught: you’re always ready for quick reactions and sudden movements.
“What do I do with my hands?” you ask. Always keep your fingers curled back when dicing. Keep your elbows in. Place everything you think you’ll need to prepare your section of the menu within easy reaching distance. Try your best to eliminate unnecessary hand and arm movement.
Apart from that, let the smell of sautéing onions, the heat of the flames behind you on the grill and the sound of the soft clank of dining room silverware keep you moving along, and dance the night away!