If servers are the heart, and the concept is the soul, then line cooks are the muscle in a restaurant. They are the ones that do the heavy lifting and make things happen.
Line cooks get their name loosely from the original brigade systems created in France some time ago. The cooking equipment was set up in a line, as it is now and the cooks assigned to each station were the line cooks.
But today, there's not just one kind of line cook. If you want to hire the best one, download Toast's Restaurant Hiring Kit (and read on for more insights).
Types of Line Cooks
There are three types of line cooks and the distinctions are important when you are hiring and setting pay rates and responsibilities.
Traditional Line Cooks
Line Cooks are what make up the bulk of cooks in the industry. They're often found in your corporate restaurants, hotels, and smaller independent restaurants. They are usually designated by experience and pay with a title of cook #1, cook #2, cook #3, etc. Cook #1 would be your most experienced and skilled, and while they will sometimes work a station, they often just do anything and everything needed.
Short Order Cooks
Short Order Cooks pump out food at an alarming rate. If the line cook is the muscle, these are the body builders. They are the lowest skilled in the “traditional” definition, but have something few others have: speed. Short order cooks basically assemble and cook foods that are simple, ready-to-make, and don’t require a lot of prep. You will hire them for a burger restaurant, simple breakfast spots, diners, etc.
Stations Chefs are usually found in higher-end dining. This is also known as chef de partie. They are the highest-skilled cooks and are skilled at a particular station. For example: a grill, sauté, broiler, fry, fish etc. This is becoming less and less a thing for the same reason a true artisanal carpenter is harder to find. The world is just becoming more generic and the idea of a "grill chef" being hired and known for their skills on grill is rare.
What Makes a Great Line Cook?
Above all else, a great line cook is going to be responsible and passionate. They can handle pressure - in fact, they thrive on pressure.
The busier, hotter, and more demanding service gets, the more they step it up.
Finding and Keeping a Great Line Cook
If your restaurant depends heavily on line cooks, do whatever you need to do in order to keep the good ones. Since everybody wants to be a chef these days, these line cooks are more difficult to find than they once were. Become the restaurant that young cooks know will be a stepping stone for their career and you will never struggle to find an endless supply of eager applicants.
On the flip side, if you prefer a more seasoned cook, then remember they don’t leave for 25 cents more per hour like we think they do. They leave because of working conditions.
“Seasoned” cooks have families and more responsibilities. Respect their needs for time off and time with their family. Give them schedules two weeks in advance. Appreciate the hard work they are putting in, otherwise they will put in that work elsewhere.
Great line cooks want to do it right - they don’t want to find other ways and they don’t want to disregard your directions.
They are just over-worked and under-paid.
What Should You Do With Your “Bad” Line Cooks
If you have a few line cooks that are not giving you what you need, do a quick evaluation before you get too angry and make rash decisions.
First, assess the challenges you are facing with your line cook and determine if they are personality or skill related.
Personality would be coming in late, rude behavior to others, lack of respect, or arrogance. Unless you want to invest an enormous amount of time and effort into fixing their personality, it’s time to say goodbye and develop better hiring procedures that screen for the personality traits you are looking for rather than skills and abilities.
If the person is challenged with skills and abilities like presentation, flavors, execution, waste, cleanliness, and speed, then those are easy to train to improve. You should invest the time into them and develop systems to help them succeed for years to come.
When Worlds Collide
The biggest challenge is when a personality flaw is showing due to a lack of a skill.
Often we expect the impossible out of a line cook. We expect they should know things they simply don’t.
Sometimes when a cook just doesn’t have experience with creating new dishes and is not clear on your expectations, they will be late with creating a new menu. This is not at all a personality flaw, they might not be late in other projects but they just don’t have the skills and instead of asking for help, they will make excuses and push the project off until somebody “comes to the rescue” and helps.
What do you think makes a great line cook? Comment with your thoughts below!