I write social media marketing and Web content for businesses, but I also really enjoy cooking, learning new skills, and earning additional income.
That’s why I’ve recently gotten back into working in a restaurant kitchen after a 15-year hiatus from the professional cooking game.
[UPDATE 2/14] I’ve since hung up the ‘ol apron and no longer cook professionally. However, I do occasionally write about my restaurant cooking experiences at my other blog, LineDogz.com.
During college, I worked one summer slinging hash as a short order cook at a greasy spoon neighborhood joint that specialized in breakfast (which ionically, did not include hash…the breakfast type) and cheesesteaks. Another summer, I made subs at a sub shop. Those two entry-level cooking jobs introduced me to a variety of experiences and kitchen skills that I still use to this day.
As a line cook in a restaurant kitchen, you are responsible for cooking the food to be served. Here are the 5 essential tools every line cook must have in the kitchen:
5. Knife skills
All cooks should possess basic knife skills and be able to expertly chop, peel, julienne, dice, cut, chiffonade any produce or protein (i.e. beef, chicken, pork, fish, etc.) that their restaurant serves.
Depending on what shift and meals you will be cooking, you will be responsible for the “prep” (preparation of basic ingredients) for the dishes that your station will be putting out.
When the meal service begins and you are cooking on the line, you want to have all of your ingredients, or “mise en place” at the ready and within easy reach so that you simply just grab the prepared ingredients and begin assembly of your dish.
How to improve your knife skills
Just like anything else in life, practice makes perfect.
Or, in the case of knife skills, practice doesn’t make perfect.
Perfect practice makes perfect.
First and foremost, safety should always be the main goal, followed closely by speed and consistency.
Practice cutting fruits and vegetables at home. If you’re serious about your career as a line cook, then consider investing in a quality set of kitchen knives.
I recently purchased a 7-piece Victorinox Forschner Fibrox knife set. I wanted a decent set of knives that would not break the bank.
I also wanted a set that included a handy carrying case. The Forschner Fibrox knife set satisfied both of these demands and have thus far exceeded my expectations for being a relatively low-priced set of kitchen knives.
Regardless of the knives you buy, remember that even the best set of professional kitchen knives in the world are useless in the hands of somebody who does not know proper knife safety and skills.
Here’s a handy video from Chef Tomm Johnson that will cover the essential knife skills you will need to work in a professional kitchen:
4. Knowledge of Kitchen callouts
Believe what you’ve seen on TV or read about in books about working in the restaurant industry. Restaurant kitchens are hectic and busy places.
Your success relies on speed and precision, and cooking from point A to point B in the shortest, yet most delicious way possible.
You are surrounded by hot ovens, open flames, sharp knives, and of course busy cooks rushing about like mad men trying to get orders served.
In other words, a busy kitchen with multiple cooks and waitstaff running around with dangerous, hot, and sharp stuff all over the place is a “recipe” for a bad injury.
And such an injury could quickly derail if not END your culinary dreams of Food Network stardom.
That’s why everyone working in the kitchen and even in the food service industry (including front of the house staff, such as servers and bartenders) should know the basic verbal callbacks that are used in every professional kitchen.
Kitchen lingo every line cook must know and use:
When you walk behind somebody in a kitchen, then you need to announce audibly and clearly “Behind” in order to prevent a dangerous collision.
When you are carrying something hot, such as freshly baked bread or a cauldron of hot chili, then you want people to clear a path. That’s why you say “Hot” often, clearly, and audibly several times on your journey carrying the hot food.
If you need to walk through the kitchen while carrying a sharp knife, then you do not want to cut or stab your colleagues.
That’s why you need to say “Sharp” when carrying a knife or anything sharp that could inflict damage.
Similar to the “Behind” call, if your kitchen or service area has blind corners, then a potentially disastrous collision can be avoided by announcing “corner” before heading through.
When an item is called out by the expediter, or the person in charge of relaying orders back to the cooks to begin cooking them, a cook acknowledges that he has heard the order to be cooked by responding “Heard”.
For even more specificity, the cook can also repeat the quantity and name of the food item being cooked.
Typically used by the expediter or expo, who announces the orders to the cooks.
The expediter will say something like, “Fire, four vegan soy chili dogs.”
This means to begin cooking four vegan soy chili dogs immediately.
This term typically follows the number of a particular dish to be prepared and it means “total number of”.
For example, if the expediter calls out “I need 3 Moons Over My Hammy all day”, that means that 3 Moons Over My Hammy total should be cooking and ready to be plated.
The “all day” callout is important for keeping tabs on what is being cooked at all times and ready to be served.
3. good hygiene
Nobody enjoys eating dirty, filthy food.
That’s why cooks should be clean and maintain good hygiene at all times where food is present.
Trim your fingernails, keep facial hair neat and in control, wear a hat, and practice other good hygiene basics and you should be professional-looking enough to not get too many strange and alarmed looks in the kitchen.
2. A willingness to learn
Rookie line cooks and anyone new to the world of professional cooking must humble themselves.
They must realize they do not know much, if anything, about cooking their specific restaurant’s food.
That’s why it’s critical to listen to feedback and accept criticism as part of the trade. How you respond to criticism is really up to you.
I personally greatly dislike criticism and insults about the food I make.
That’s why I strive to always cook my best, in order to avoid the negative feedback.
However, negative feedback about your cooking is as inevitable as burning your toast (which will happen on occasion, too.)
What’s the best way to avoid negative feedback in your cooking?
Every time you get negative feedback about a dish you make, you must listen to it.
Then, decide whether or not you have learned something valuable from the feedback.
If so, then implement that feedback into the next version of the dish you cook.
Just like in life, mistakes in the kitchen are only mistakes if you fail to learn from them.
1. Comfortable, slip-resistant shoes
Restaurant line cooks will be on their feet for hours on end. You’ll also be doing plenty of other physical movements like crouching to reach into “lowboys” (the small refrigerators located underneath stations) to grab ingredients.
That’s why the shoes you wear in the restaurant kitchen should be comfortable. Because you’ll be standing in them for many, many hours.
Also, restaurant kitchen floors can get very slippery with spills, grease, water, and whatever else can fall on it during a busy service rush or by accident.
Don’t believe me? Then watch this haunting video of a line cook slipping and falling on a wet floor in the restaurant kitchen:
Why let your cooking career end from an injury attained from slipping on the kitchen floor?
Slip-resistant shoes built specifically for food service workers come in a variety of different styles.
Choose a good pair of slip-resistant professional restaurant kitchen shoes that adheres to the uniform code of the restaurant (if there is one for cooks), and rock them in the kitch on the daily. A day upright in the kitchen is a good day.
I personally use a brand of slip-resistant shoes by “Shoes for Crews“, a company that specializes in making slip-resistant footwear for the food service industry. Here’s a helpful and informative video about the particular model I rock, the “Ollie” aka “Ollies”:
Here is an up close and personal picture of the Shoes for Crews “Ollies” shoes I rock on the daily in the kitchen. They’re comfy, look cool, and are slip-resistant. Exactly what I am looking for in a quality shoe for working in a restaurant kitchen:
Another popular kitchen shoe are Crocs Bistro Clogs. Many restaurant industry workers swear by them:
Get the basic fundamentals and essentials down pat before you ever step foot in a restaurant kitchen.
As a line cook, you are relied upon to do the “heavy lifting” and get food out to guests quickly and deliciously. If you have the right tools and skills, then you will be better prepared to take on the busiest dinner rush and cook the best food of your culinary career.
Line cooks: what are your preferred tools in the kitchen?
Let’s hear all about them in the Comments below.
James K. Kim
James "Jim" Kim is a commercial real estate agent with Cushman & Wakefield / Pyramid Brokerage Company in the Capital Region of New York, specializing in retail, office, and industrial tenant and landlord representation.