Returning to the restaurant line seemed like the ideal career shift. But first, a question: ‘Can you still throw down?’
In 2004, I had a job cooking. In 2018, I tried to go back. But returning to simplicity is more complicated than you think.
I was desperately in need of something less subjective than my career in the advertising industry. In a restaurant, you can count the number of guests. You know exactly how many veal chops you go through. And there’s no audition. In advertising, everything’s an audition.
Cooking is quantifiable, measured in ounces and teaspoons. But it also thrives on entropy. The job of the line cook is to keep a kitchen from going where it wants to go, which is flat chaos. The “line” isn’t just a physical place near the back of the house. It’s also the mental space between order and disaster. Most cooks can confidently walk that edge. I missed the feeling of riding that mental line, and that’s why I decided to go back.
I type up a concise statement of purpose and send my résumé to my favorite French restaurant in Milwaukee, Lake Park Bistro.
I get a call back the same day.
The interview with the executive chef consists of a single question: “Can you still throw down?”
“I think so,” I stammer, concealing seeds of self-doubt. Suddenly, I’m Lake Park’s newest line cook. A few days later, I tuck my knives into my backpack and ride my bike to the first shift. I put on a chef coat and slide into a new-hire tour. Fish is here. Sauces are here. Cheese is here. And here’s the butter.
I get straight to prepping my shift. Finally, I get to linger in the craft. I apply my chef ’s knife to a fresh harvest of chanterelle mushrooms. They conjure the aroma of forest floor with fog settling on a late-summer morning. They cut exquisitely, as I separate stem from cap.
But just as I’m basking in fungal euphoria, I catch my knife against the tip of my index finger, draw blood and need first aid. Cooking certainly has its hazards. The tools of the trade are sharp knives, open flames, hot pans, commercial-grade slicers and the occasional live lobster – all juggled simultaneously while skating on the oil-slick floor.
Still, there’s a lot of fun to be found on the line. Imagine we’re disassembling a French dish. There’s a mountain of butter in the middle. And exploding from the fatty center is a dazzling array of ingredients – peppercorns to pimentos to sprigs of rosemary – forming a picture of complementing colors and tastes.
The chefs are the scientists of this endeavor. The sauce they’ll create with those chanterelle mushrooms will be perfectly composited, ingredients penciled together the way you balance a chemistry equation. French recipes are not a series of vague guidelines. There’s tradition to these dishes, thousands of repetitions that serve to hone a culinary discipline.
Line cooking is the result of having a full house and too little time. Perfection has to wait while you try to stave off a fundamental breakdown in the supply of cuisine to customer. And the plates are being built 10 at a time. Sauce pans are tossing, staff nearly colliding. A white-out blizzard of flour and salt. Searing heat. Crackling oil. Chaos lines the margins, and yet we push through until the last ticket is torn.
There’s an old cliche about heat and kitchens. And yet, for me, it’s more than realizing I can’t take the heat; the real deal-breaker was the low pay and less-than-ideal health insurance. I still love to cook. But after revisiting my younger self and vainly searching for aesthetic perfection in culinary art, I want to limit my ambitions to my own kitchen. I also realize I’m a better writer than line cook. I just hope to find the same exhilaration in writing as I do in the kitchen – where I survive the storm and emerge to the other side, drink in hand.