Chill Clinton spent three years working as a cook at a nationally lauded American restaurant.
Life Lessons as a Line Cook
I spent three years cooking in a James Beard–nominated restaurant so you wouldn’t have to. Even though I eventually left restaurant cooking behind, I took three important life lessons with me.
1. Showing Up
No, I'm not talking about making sure you get to work on time. Although I must say that I had many coworkers who seemed to have great difficulty with this simple requirement.
Restaurants, like small businesses, have very slim profit margins. Because of this, many kitchens limit the number of cooks working to the fewest needed to meet demand. Needless to say, this makes slacking impossible. As a line cook, you are unable to hide, work at your own pace, or shirk your responsibilities. To move slower than the cook next to you means disrupting their flow. Not pulling your own weight means burdening others with extra work.
The years I spent as a line cook instilled in me a strong desire to put my best foot forward regardless of where I am or what I am doing. Any successful chef will tell you that it is impossible to get very far as a line cook without approaching everything you do—from searing a $40 filet to cleaning out the floor drains—with the utmost vigor.
Cooking, unlike a number of other jobs, can never be done at whatever pace you choose. Even if you have the fastest hands around, you can’t will an onion to sauté immediately, roast asparagus without blanching it first, or shout down your coworker to plate their element of the dish when it suits you.
New cooks may think turning up the heat on their food (or their coworkers) will work just as well as a healthy dose of patience. However, doing so generally leaves you with burned food and bruised relationships.
Having patience for the process and for those around you can be the strongest skill you can exhibit—whether on the line or anywhere else.
Many young cooks enter the kitchen having, at the very least, finished high school—a pipeline of skill and knowledge building that educates you whether you want to learn or not. So it came as a shock to me that, as a fresh-faced prep cook, there seemed to be nobody ready to evaluate my progress, and remark at how much better my knife cuts, stocks, and sauces were getting. Unlike my high school home-economics teacher, my coworkers and bosses weren’t always eager to build me up, or help me learn better methods to expand my knowledge and skills.
Working in the kitchen quickly taught me that very few people are interested in volunteering help or guidance when that is not part of their job description. Many chefs will not give you the opportunity to learn advanced techniques unless you specifically ask. If you show up to work every day and appear content prepping the same three dishes, what reason do they have to teach you anything new? It’s just one more task on the laundry list they have to get through that day.
Simply waiting for the tools and guidance you need to get ahead in your work or personal life will always leave you feeling restless and resentful towards those to whom you look for mentorship. Instead of getting frustrated, learn to identify what you want or need, and who you need it from, and ask. Take charge of your own progress, because nobody is as invested in your journey as you are.
Most people assume my greatest take away from working at a highly regarded restaurant was how to cook really really well. And it’s true. I can confidently say that, as a man in his early 20s, I could cook 95% of the worlds’ population of grandmas under the table. But that wasn’t the most important thing I learned. Being a line cook taught me some tough life lessons very quickly—lessons I’ve brought along with me in both my personal and professional lives outside of the kitchen. And I did it all so you wouldn’t have to.
© 2019 Chill Clinton
Liza from USA on July 11, 2019:
Thanks for sharing this well-written article on your experience as a line cooker, Chill. I have zero knowledge about this career as I was never done before. So to grasp your experience and knowledge, it's interesting and broadens my thought about it.