On any given night in the kitchens of Washington's finer restaurants, a half-dozen bodies in white will be scurrying with sizzling hot pans from the stove to the counter and back.
But neither the head chef -- whose name is on the menu -- nor his second in command, the sous chef, will be counted among them.
These are the line cooks. When you go out to eat, these are the people who actually cook your food.
"It doesn't matter what the chef does. It doesn't matter what the waiter does. When it comes to a restaurant's success," Joe Raffa, the sous-chef at Alexandria's Majestic Cafe, says bluntly. "Everything comes down to the line cook."
For five years, I worked as a line cook in kitchens here in Washington as well as in New York, London and France. Although the languages may have varied, in all of these places the unique joys and horrors of the line cook's life are very much the same.
The "line" in "line cook" refers to the row of stoves where the food is prepared. Lines are divided into stations. To get the food out as efficiently as possible, chefs assign the components of their menu to each division. Some chefs allot stations by thing cooked -- meat station, fish station, first courses, desserts. Other chefs divide them by method of cooking: saute, grill, rotisserie.
No matter the station, every line cook's day has two parts: prep and service. Service begins when the restaurant opens to customers. Prep starts a few hours beforehand. If a restaurant opens at 6 p.m., the first line cooks will arrive between three and six hours earlier, depending on how much needs to be done.
Upon arrival, a cook dons a fresh apron, grabs a clean cutting board and heads over to his station. He lays a damp cloth on his counter to prevent his board from slipping and sets his knives onto a dry towel to protect them from the hard steel working surface.
Each day one of the first tasks of the line cook is to determine how much "mise" he will need. Mise en place (MEEZ ahn plahs) is a French term that refers to the uncooked ingredients that must be assembled. The quantity depends for the most part on the number of dishes on the menu, with some adjustment for each dish's popularity. If 100 customers are expected, and the menu offers 10 main courses, enough mise for 15 dishes each should do it. But if it is a Saturday night, a line cook might prepare enough for 30 or even 40 of some of the dishes -- one-third to one-fourth of the customers -- if the dishes are as popular as, say, beef tenderloin or grilled salmon. If he ran out of a dish the night before, he might make extra for good luck, though the superstition goes that whatever you make extra of will not sell at all.
While the cook figures out how much he needs, he also works out in what order to do it all.
On a perfect day, his plans will proceed smoothly. There are so many variables to restaurant life, however, he can count on something going awry.
Mistakes include anything from burning a roast to spilling stew on the floor, to electrifying oneself with a hand mixer to maiming a finger with a knife. Sometimes such accidents are the line cook's own doing, whether from carelessness, exhaustion, boredom or all three.
But sometimes the causes are other people. Another cook accidentally turns off the oven, ruining a batch of pastry. The fish due to be delivered in the afternoon mistakenly are brought first to a different restaurant or just never arrive. Or the chef changes her mind about how she wants a dish, is having a bad day and decides to throw out everything the line cook just did.
All these setbacks push a line cook into the "weeds," the term for the choking that occurs when there is not enough time to do everything necessary before service begins.
Line cooks cannot count on other cooks to help: Odds are they are too busy themselves. Sometimes the entire staff is weeded before service, and even waiters get pulled in to work before the customers arrive (the hostess picking thyme while answering the last phone calls).
When prep is at last completed, the cooks "turn over" the kitchen, swabbing it down like a square-rigger coming into harbor. Every surface gets cleaned off. Cutting boards are sent to the dishwasher. Knives go back in cases. Stations are wiped down with hot soapy water. Floors are swept clean. Saute pans and sizzle platters are stacked high for the many orders to come. Clean towels and aprons are stockpiled. Cooking tools -- ladles, spatulas, spoons -- are set up in water-filled canisters for quick rinsing between use. Heat lamps come on, giving the kitchen an incandescent glow. Stoves and burners are cranked up and the temperature climbs.
Some restaurants provide a staff meal just before service. But many cooks complain that a large meal right before the action makes them sluggish, even a little woozy, and prefer to cook on a slightly emptier stomach.
Sometimes there is a lull before customers arrive. Like tennis players before a match, cooks run through the motions: checking their mise, folding towels, preheating pans. Others unwind a bit, joking or juggling spoons, snacking on their prep, killing time before the first orders come in.
Frank Ruta of Palena in Cleveland Park likes to design his menus so that his cooks have enough time to get ready and have a few minutes before service. "I think it's important for them to compose themselves, so that they're not running around at the last minute peeling a carrot or two. That really affects the nerves. You need to be composed."
Composure is essential during service in order to prepare each dish just as the chef wants it and exactly when the customer expects it. For each order, the line cooks assemble the mise a la minute, to the minute, often for a dozen or more different orders at once. With skill and experience, a line cook learns how to manage 20 beef tenderloins grilling to different temperatures (some rare, some well-done, some in between). He becomes able to assess without much thought when to start sauteing the mushrooms that accompany them, or when to pull out which of the 10 squabs he has roasting for an entirely different set of orders. He has to be able to know when each of the accompanying items are ready: a side of spinach, a brunoise of vegetables, a sauce and garnishes. Finally, he has to be able to "plate" each order while the other orders are still working.
If he's given enough time, just a minute or two per order, a good line cook can do all this and still have time to rib his fellow cooks on the line every so often. But just as in prep -- when cooks lay plans knowing they will probably be thwarted -- during service line cooks know their ideal is rarely met.
In an ideal restaurant, customers' orders arrive at a steady pace, so that the line cook can prepare each dish in the same amount of time. In a tightly managed restaurant, reservations are made with this in mind, accepting only a certain number of people every half-hour. But even there, the early people come late, the late people come early, and the people in the middle come right on time.
Many restaurants cannot be so choosy about when their customers arrive. Afraid to turn people away, they will sometimes overbook during certain hours. When the kitchen becomes overwhelmed, a "crunch" or "rush" results during which everything needs to be cooked at once.
"You've got tickets up here, tickets down there, and then a whole pile over here, you've just got tickets all over your station. A waiter calls out, 'Fire 30!' [i.e., I need the food for table 30], and you're like, where's [the ticket for] 30? I don't see 30. Thirty hasn't even come out of the ticket machine yet," said one cook. "All you can say is, 'Well, it's going to be a long night.' "
An overwhelmed kitchen can also be the result of excessive optimism on the part of a creative chef. Occasionally chefs create menus that are too elaborate to be prepared well under pressure and find they have to pare them back. Some are known to forget how many burners are in their kitchen, making plans to have more pots going at once than there is room.
Other times there is a mistake in the order itself: a customer changes his mind, or a waiter writes down the wrong thing, or forgets completely to enter the order, or the ticket, for the cooks.
But even on a slow night a line cook can goof up. Whether through pressure, panic, confusion or mere distraction, mistakes happen. Just as in prep, perhaps a cook's most important skill is his ability to repair the damage before the customer can find out.
What kind of errors occur? You name it: things get overcooked, undercooked, not cooked at all, fall on the floor, erupt onto the ceiling, blow up in the oven, or don't meet the standards of the chef.
Most repairs just sacrifice a little care and time. Sauteing one batch of spinach results in a nicer product than sauteing 25 at once. Carefully arranging garnishes and measuring out sauces for each plate results in something prettier than plates scattered together at top speed.
In the end, the pressure makes for better cooks. And as most line cooks hope to be chefs themselves, experience is what they are after. "To tell people what to do, you have to know what you're doing yourself, and that only comes with experience," Raffa said. "Becoming a better cook," Frank Ruta said, "translates into being a better manager."
With all the stress, it may be understandable that the best part of the day sometimes comes at the very end.
No matter how well or badly service turns out to be, the night always ends with a second cleaning of the entire kitchen. Once the last orders have finally gone out, every cook grabs another tub of hot soapy water and scrubs down his station: every counter, refrigerator, stove and grill. Before they leave, the cooks make the kitchen look as if nothing had happened there at all.
The eternal possibility for a fresh start is part of what keeps some line cooks coming back the next morning.
Emily Kaiser is a Washington writer and former line cook. She can be reached through emilykaiser.com.