If You Can’t Stand the Heat

An ode to the line cook

Photograph by Fritz Hoffman

There’s no line cook “type.” They can be as energetic as carnival barkers, as serious as hangmen, or totally spooked by the idea that “service”—meals, in kitchenspeak—might go wrong. For the decade I toiled as a line cook, I spent more time in houndstooth pants than in civilian clothes. As much as the oven scars on my forearms, they showed I belonged to an unglamorous kitchen rank where precise gestures, executed under high stress, provide their own satisfaction. Chefs can be creative; line cooks are clutch.

Two of my colleagues from those years represented both the variety and the ethos of the position. Ruben was from the central Mexican town of Cerano, Guanajuato. With the encouragement of chef Alain Giraud, he’d worked his way up through the Citrus kitchen, from dishwasher to the lead station: meat. Every chop, lamb rack, or steak he put out was the perfect temperature. It was an enviable skill.

Judging by her sometimes streaked hair, Mary would have been a punk, had she the time. Not as confident as Ruben, she would sink deeper into her Doc Martens if she didn’t finish her garde manger prep. But as soon as things started going, her movements would become fluid and crisp.

The beers we would share after the last shift of the week were the extent of our socializing, but occasionally we’d do more. Once, Ruben threw a barbacoa in the parking lot of his apartment building. Another time, when Mary got a job at Charlie Trotter’s first Vegas restaurant, we drove to Reseda to help her haul boxes. I see it now as one of the last times we would feel unencumbered. Ruben’s girlfriend would soon have a baby; I would soon start to write. For now we were packing Mary’s truck. It was a moment of line cook solidarity. In this realm of the kitchen hierarchy you have each other’s backs, and although we were all exhausted, sending Mary off with a final toast of Coronas was the right thing to do.