As I step out the back door at 10:45 and sit down on an old milk crate I light a cigarette and slowly come back into my body. My leg itches, I have to pee, there is a burn on my arm I don’t remember getting. Slowly physical sensations come to the forefront of my mind and I become aware of my body once again. I become aware of the cool air that now surrounds me the fact that it’s dark outside now, and the fact that I am very tired.
It’s 3:00 and I’ve just clocked in. I go to my station and look over my “mise en place” and see what I need to start prepping for the dinner shift. I talk to the chef about what specials we will be running this evening, seeing what extra I need to do to prepare for those. At approximately 4:00 the wait staff starts showing up. I chat idly with a couple of them about service the night before and what’s expected for tonight, how many reservations etc. During this time I am making sauces, pounding out carpaccio, cutting apples, haricot vert, squash, blanching broccolini, scoring duck breast. A seemingly unending list of tasks to complete in the two hours before service lest I find myself trying to make something during the rush, one needs to prep enough to get through service, but not so much that there will be leftover product to go bad. It’s a race to get through the list and a pause at 4:45 to go outback and have a cigarette before shift and talk to the other cooks on the line, mentally going over mis, going over potential problems, talking about possible assists that may take place during service.
It’s now 5:00 and we are officially open for business. What begins as a trickle of orders slowly and steadily turns into a raging torrent. “Walking in second course two new yorks mid, mid well going with a fish special” expo yells over the clatter of pans, the tickets with the waiter’s orders spit from the machine in a near constant stream. The ovens are at 500 degrees the burners are all on full blast, the grill and the salamanders are cranked to the max. I take a moment to look down the line and see the air rippling in front of me, the meat thermometer held in the arm pocket of my chef coat is reading 120 degrees, and I immediately turn my attention back to the sauté pans cooking in front of me. The grill guy yells at me “how long on 43?” I respond “what’s on 43?” The expo yells back “I’m looking for 2 duck, house, 1 tuna going mid well” “3 minutes” I yell back over the washed out noise coming from the fryer. “You’ve got 1 and a half” expo yells at me.
I’m sitting at Denny’s having a milkshake, it’s 12:00 am. I left work at about 11:45. As I sit and enjoy the mediocre milkshake I get a surge of adrenaline and the feeling “MOVE NOW.” I have to keep reminding myself that the noise I keep hearing is the ticket machine for Denny’s, I don’t have to cook those orders, I don’t work here. But like Pavlov’s dog I jump in my seat a little every time I hear the distinct chatter of a ticket machine. I’ve gotten better over time but the instinctual reaction is still there. Every time I see a pan I treat it like a firearm, just as a “gun is always loaded” “a pan is always hot.” I know almost a dozen ways to cut a carrot. I can accurately temp almost any protein. When I eat, when I go out to eat, what I experience is vastly different from what I experienced before I started cooking for a living.
The requirements of a good line cook are roughly as follows; consistency, speed, endurance, accuracy. As a line cook one needs to perform a task (cooking dish X) quickly, correctly, exactly the same way every single time, and multiple times a night. As Anthony Bourdain said (paraphrased) in his book Kitchen Confidential: I don’t want an artist, someone who will sit and play around with my plating all night, I want a craftsman, someone capable of doing something the same way a million times. It’s this repetition and need to perform the task very quickly that causes a certain mentality shift in a person. Or it may further refine said mentality in someone already in possession of it. Cooking requires long hours in small cramped hot dangerous environments with the pressure of time working against every action you take in that environment. To do well in this environment a person needs to be organized both mentally and physically. One’s station must be immaculate in terms of the positioning and the preparation of all items on it so that during the heat of a rush one need not think or look to find where something is. Instead one just knows where something is because you always put it in the same place. One needs to be mentally organized because one needs to keep track of multiple items on multiple tickets, items that may have different cooking times. Keeping this causes a streamlining of thought and of action. There is no time for extraneous motion or thought during the middle of a rush. If I have to think about where I put something I may forget the temperatures of the five steaks I have on the grill, which means that I then have to look at the tickets or harass expo for those temps when I could have spent that time doing something else that needed doing 3 minutes ago.
Cooks look at food in a fundamentally different way. Where the average person will look at plate and see a steak and potatoes, with some sort of vegetable and a sauce, the cook will look at it and immediately know the processes that had to happen for the items on that plate to get there and knowing those processes a cook will judge the plate on the quality of the execution of said processes. In addition to judging the quality of the ingredients these factors will inform the reasoning behind whether the cook enjoys the meal or not. I personally also think about how I would go about setting up the prep for an item, if I receive an appetizer I think about what in this dish could have been par-cooked? What can be kept together in a container and what has to be added at the last second? How have they arranged the elements of the dish on the plate? Would I classify this as simply a messy presentation or are they attempting to be “rustic”. The texture of the sauce, the “mouthfeel” of the soup, the uniformity of the cuts of vegetables, there are a million things to pay attention to when cooking and just because I might not have cooked something doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about them when I’m eating it.
Cooking has made me more direct, more efficient, and more than anything, more aware of what I’m eating. I’m focusing on the flavor of what I’m eating from the moment it touches my tongue till the moment after I swallow. I observe how the flavor profile changes over the course of chewing and swallowing. I try to identify what exactly makes up the flavors I’m tasting, “is that a hint of clove at the end? Did they use a blond or a brown roux in this?” This awareness has changed the process of eating for me into not only a necessity, but something that from time to time can truly be enjoyed. But not in the passive enjoyment that anyone might receive from a good tasting meal. But an enjoyment that extends to the recognition of the skill and the care that went into a dish. I can tell when a dish would be a pain in the ass to make, and I can tell when the cook that made it considers it a challenge to overcome, and when he sees it as a hassle he has to deal with. Emotion shows through in food as clearly as anything else. I don’t believe that one can enjoy food in this way until one has immersed oneself in the finer points of cooking and learned to truly appreciate food.