IN THE WEEDS: The line cook, properly seasoned

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4:17 p.m. Seth walks in.

“Usual?”

“Yeah, James.”

I pour a shot of Fernet and pass him a PBR. Seth is an “inbetweener.” He works at a restaurant down the way and he just got off the lunch shift. So, if you’re a line cook at a non-descript restaurant, have two hours to kill, of course you’ll show up at a nearby bar. 

I’ve known Seth for a while now. He’s been cooking about as long as I’ve been tending bar. Seth usually flies solo, either on break or after a long shift. He gets his shot and his beer and opens up a book. This week, it’s Steinbeck. East of Eden. Nice choice. As long as it’s not a self-help book. A drinker with a self-help book is dangerous.

He started out on a different path, as most of us do. In the business about a decade, he’s worked at about 15 establishments over the years. In the service industry, this is normal. When you’re not chasing the 401K, the benefits, the promotion, one tends to follow the money, or a sane restaurant owner. Usually the former, because the latter doesn’t exist.

People like Seth exist in every city, every restaurant. They’re lifers on that line, or failing that, biding their time to move on or open a place of their own. I’ve worked with countless numbers of these brethren, and while all are different, I’ve never seen harder workers on the fly.

Seth started as just a face I’d serve on occasion. Seth is a line cook, a sous chef. He just got hired at one of the new hotels/restaurants/spas that seem to be popping up every six months or so in downtown Winston-Salem. He’s a great cook (he sometimes brings me leftovers, delicious,) has aspirations like most, but is also just trying to get by like the rest of us. Seth’s a grunt. He’s downtown out of necessity. He works, he comes by, has a drink or two, and he goes about his life. No glam. That’s most of us.

Seth started out at a mechanic school. Motorcycles — BMW, Ducati, Triumph. Decent gig. He’s in Florida, good money, no attachments, he’s young, world/oyster, all that. Then the Curse of the Hometown comes calling. The Curse of the Hometown is an obligation or responsibility that calls you back home. It’s not my phrase, and it’s not really a curse, mostly. “Promises to keep” and all that. In Seth’s case, it was a family member who took ill. I’m familiar. Sometimes, you must come back. I know plenty who don’t. So, congrats to all of you who MOVED AS FAR AWAY AS POSSIBLE. I hope it’s nice in Austin.

Line cooks are a big part of the unsung heroes of the industry. They deal in repetition, slinging the same dishes out day after day, under all the stress and heat that comes with that kitchen. They deal with the perfect meal coming back from an unsatisfied customer. They feel the disappointment of realizing a mistake, an overlooked order change, a substitution. They can show you the finger trick of determining a steak’s wellness, and they can recite temperature requirements like sonnets. They’re the ones who feel a server’s wrath, even when they’re not compensated like one.

The ones you don’t see are some of the most important of what we do. I’ve seen tears and anger. I’ve seen fights and breakdowns. I once saw the police chase a new dishwasher with warrants out the back door just to have a waiting cop slam him into my car (the dent is still there.) I’ve also seen a guy with no car and four different restaurant jobs provide for his family when he could have gone in another direction. That’s the soul I love to see in this business, the heart, where the only thanks one receives is silence from a plate not being returned by a pissed off server. I’m not saying they don’t receive thanks from the head chef or wwner, some of the best restaurant owners I know are aware of the importance of the line cook and are vocally so. But when they take off that apron, they’re as anonymous as the guy next to you at the bank. Front-of-house people get recognized. I know some who go drinking in the next town over so they don’t see anyone who knows them. 

There’s a Bob Dylan interview where he mentions levels of fame, similar to Warhol’s “15 minutes.” In it, he said that you could be famous worldwide, nationally or regionally. You could be famous in your town, or the street you live on. A line cook’s fame is determined by the burner in front of them and the complaints they don’t receive.

I know more Seth’s than I can count, and I’m thankful for every single one. 

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