I stumbled into a conversation at work recently between my chef and the pastry chef. They were speculating on how old Leon, one of our dishwashers is. The other dishwashers are basically kids – around 20 and 22 years old. But Leon’s clearly got some mileage on him and the years have not been kind. He looks tired from the moment he arrives to work and the younger guys run circles around him. Chef and pastry chef both turned to me and asked, “How old do you think he is?” “Oh, he’s got to be older,” I said. “What would you say, like 45?” asked Chef. “Yeah, mid forties,” I answered. Well, we got the scoop from our butcher, who told us he was 38. Both chefs and I were shocked. “He’s our age?” said our pastry chef. “He’s got to be lying,” said Chef. Still our butcher assured us it was true.
So all of this got me wondering, how much does age actually matter in a restaurant kitchen?
Both the pastry chef and I are in our thirties, but routinely get mistaken for women who are, if I had to guess, 7 or 8 years younger. She started as a line cook twelve years ago, and in her case, found that especially early in her career, it was difficult to get people to take her seriously because they all thought she was a kid. In my previous career, letters of reference often included descriptions like, “Always a professional, she responds to the challenges of each project with a maturity beyond her years.” I had to wonder, did they actually know how old I was? However, as a career changer, I believe that looking younger than my age has actually worked to my advantage, at least to get a foot in the door. My pastry chef agreed, saying, “Yes, in this industry, it’s true especially for a man. No one is going to hire a 45 year old line cook.”
When I considered becoming a cook, I certainly felt an urgency about it because of my age. If I was going to do it, it had to be before I turned 35. I wanted at least 10 years of solid restaurant experience before I could even call myself a chef. (see pastry chef’s previous quote). Yet when I was in culinary school, there were a surprising number of students who were in their forties and fifties. One such student was in great shape and could keep up with the younger students, but many simply had trouble keeping pace. And cooking in school was like taking a nap compared to cooking in a real restaurant. So I had to wonder what these older cooks planned to do after culinary school. Most of them had dreams of opening their own restaurants. Restaurant owner? Sure, I could see that, but I doubt any of them would become chefs. From what I’ve seen, line cooks respect a chef who may have retired from the line but can still jump in and cook alongside them in a crunch. These are chefs who have already earned their salt by working many years on the line. They know how each station works, how to direct a line of cooks, and how to get the best out of each and every one of them. I doubt these autumn career changers were going to get that kind of experience. It’s true, line cooking is a lot like being an athlete, a soldier, or even a ballerina. It requires many abilities way beyond and unrelated to cooking itself, and the cold hard truth is that many of these abilities simply weaken with age:
Sharpness and alertness of all Five Senses.
Line cooking is the only job I can think of in which all five senses must be fully engaged at all times. The first and most important one is obvious: Taste. You must taste your food before you serve it. You need to know what it’s supposed to taste like (um, delicious) and how to fix it on the fly. Does it need more seasoning? Or is it too salty? Is the sauce if flavorful enough, or it it over-reduced? Can I salvage a mistake or have to start over?
Hearing. It is loud in a restaurant kitchen during service. There is the constant rumbling of the commercial exhaust hood right over you, the clanging of pots and pans, the rush of water every time the dishwasher opens and closes. And in this small enclosed space, over all the noise, you must be able to hear the chef or expediter call out orders and fire tables. At one point this past summer, the garde manger station was running a mixed, a beet, and a fig salad. Say the words mixed, beet, and fig. Add to them a Spanish accent, mix them in with other orders and the kitchen din, and to the English speaking ear, they were nearly indecipherable.
Sight. If you are lucky enough to be working a station that actually gets a dupe, or ticket, you have to be able to read the orders and pick out the ones that come from your station. Oh, and all those modifiers, such as “SOS” (sauce on the side), “light on dressing,” or “gluten allergy,” are in really fine print. There’s simply no time to be taking off and putting back on the reading glasses during service.
Smell. Sometimes you’ll get a bad scallop, or open a bad oyster. If you can’t smell it and it gets served, that’s going to be one unhappy, or even worse, one sick customer.
Touch. Essential, especially if you are the meat slinger. The fact of the matter in every restaurant is that the grill guy is not standing there with a meat thermometer checking the temp on each filet mignon and hanger steak. Some use cake testers to probe the meat and can tell by the heat of the probe how done the meat is. But the real pros can tell by gently pressing the meat with their fingers. (Yes, our hands are on your food, if this skeeves you out, you probably shouldn’t go out to eat at any restaurant).
A combination of senses can save a line cook from the irretrievable disaster of burned food. When it’s busy, you can’t always have an eye on the pans that you have working on the stove. Ideally, while you have your back turned, reaching around the low boys for your next order, your food should be quietly sizzling away. However, if one of your pans has gotten too hot, and something is at risk of burning, the first thing you’ll notice is the sound. A loud hissing noise should signal you to quickly lift the pan and turn down the flame. If this first signal is missed, the second signal will the be the smell, which is often followed by the internal musing, “Hmm, is something burning? Oh shit!” At this point, the item may still be salvaged if you react quickly enough. However, if you don’t hear it, and you don’t smell it, by the time you see smoke, it’s probably too late. This brings me to the next requirement of line cooking.
Quick reflexes, agilty, and a steady hand
In a restaurant kitchen, it’s called line cooking because you are literally standing in a line of cooks flanked on one side by counters and refrigerators and on the other side by ovens and burners. The aisle in which you stand is narrow so that you can reach items on the stove and the counter at the same time, but it also means that whenever the oven or refrigerator doors open, you’d better be out of the way. In an ideal world, each cook on the line would have his/ her own oven. Well, this week, one of our two working ovens finally died, leaving all four cooks on the line working out of the hot appetizer oven. It happened that was the station I was working last night. “Open oven!” yelled the saute cook next to me as she opened the door and threw a pan of monkfish inside. I quickly stepped back, still stirring my pan of ragout so the cheese I just tossed in wouldn’t clump up. Just as she was about to close the door and I was about to resume my position in front of the burner, the garde manger cook to the other side of me said, “Wait” and held the door open so she could pull the tart she had been warming. I could easily have stepped forward and had a face full of hot veal ragout and second degree burns on my knees. As I’m plating my dishes, cursing some oversized floppy pasta for splashing all over the rim of the bowl, or trying to stack saucy sticky barbeque ribs into a structually sound tower without making a mess, it is not uncommon for a dishwasher (usually our friend Leon) to insist on squeezing by behind me to restock the shelf over the stove with clean saute pans.
When it works, line cooking is actually a beautiful thing to watch. When my station is quiet, I take particular joy in watching our resident meat slinger at work. Manos de hombre, as he has been dubbed for his unusually large and meaty hands, works the grill, and only the grill. Yes, it’s strangely fitting, and he’s a real pro. Watching him is like watching a prima ballerina dancing a part she has done a thousand times before. Always calm and even smiling, he makes what I know to be a difficult job look practically effortless. Every one of his movements is clean, precise, and steady – whether slicing a perfectly cooked duck breast, arranging it on the plate, drizzling the sauce over it, or even wiping down his station after each plating. Utter perfection, especially when compared to the night that our former sous chef, who eventually got fired for cooking under the influence, crashed and burned covering the station on Manos de hombre’s night off. But that’s a story for another post…
Stamina, Resilience, and Mental Focus
Hungover after going out after last night’s service? Coming down with a cold? Grab a hot pan without a towel? Or simply exhausted from working a double shift? Well, suck it up, because a line cook’s shift is anywhere from 8-12 hours, and if your name is on the schedule you had better be there and pull your weight. The work is physically demanding. You are on your feet for every single one of those long hours, running up and down the stairs from the prep kitchen to the service kitchen, lifting 5-gallon containers of stock or heavy equipment, standing in front of a hot stove, or endlessly squatting down to get stuff out of low-boys and ovens. If you are tall like I am, it certainly takes a toll on your back and your knees. What about burns and cuts you ask? Well, while I was an intern, I saw a young fish cook at another restaurant grab hold of a hot pan-handle, burning himself very badly across the palm. He couldn’t let go or the fish would have dropped on the floor. He managed to plate the fish, left the line just long enough to wrap his wound in masking tape then return to the line to finish his shift without once losing his focus. This is the reality of what is expected of a line cook. Leave early, or pull a no-show, and your fellow cooks are going to have something to say about it – probably using phrases such as pinche pendejo, burro, or hijo de la verga. And yes, even English speaking cooks have come to use the more colorful Spanish phrases.
So how much does age matter in the kitchen? How old is too old? Well, if working the line requires you to have your five senses intact, quick reflexes, precision of movement, and the physical and mental stamina to stay focused for 12 hours (or more if its a double shift), then yes, age matters in that these are typically abilities that become compromised with age. Still, everyone ages differently so I’d say that it’s physical and mental age, not numerical age that matters. Regardless of how old you are, or how old you look, it all comes down to not letting your fellow line cooks down.