By Luis Olguin Santiago, Oct. 19, 2021

Now that California’s unemployment aid ended this September, are people prepared to rejoin the workforces?

Currently, the food service industry is understaffed and is forced to offer new hires a $1,000 incentive bonus at the beginning of September.

Due to COVID-19, I lost both my kitchen job and a culinary program I had enrolled in at the start of the pandemic. I have accumulated six years of work behind the line and learning the true fundamentals of culinary arts.

I have been trained by both professional chefs and “old heads” who are too stubborn to change their ways. There are so many reasons why I enjoy working behind the line, but what comes to mind is the stress it helps me release and the purest enjoyment of working with people I can call friends. With my experience, I would like to warn potential hires of some of the pros and cons of working in a kitchen.

Luis Olguin Santiago | The Poly Post

Most kitchens pay a dollar or two above the minimum depending on location. As a new hire, it’s important to know that the $1,000 incentive bonus is only given in two to three increment payments after a certain work period is reached with the company. When working behind the line, it is possible to get a quarter increase added to your hourly salary. Let me be clear:, it is an actual quarter, 25 cents added for every station you know.

As for me, I have worked and slowly learned all six stations. Yet, I won’t get paid that extra quarter until I take their certification test, regardless if I cover a shift, break or close that station. I won’t get paid for that station until I pass their test. It is infuriating that most kitchen systems work like this, but most line cooks are powerless to change this. But as any line cook knows, you either leave a kitchen early and restart in a new kitchen or stay to become the old stubborn head.

The food service industry can be this soul-draining damnation, and yet is also a place where I feel pure exuberance. The people who I work with and those who are in charge make a difference when working in a kitchen. The ideals and work ethics of the employer can influence new hires and veteran employees.

When handling food, one must follow a rigorous list of health procedures. Working with a mask on for an eight to 10-hour shift isn’t easy. While wearing these masks, it is difficult to call out for plates, restock, or talk to servers about plate modifications.

There are instances where co-workers turn masks into chin straps when working around or with equipment that produces mass amounts of heat. When working around stoves, flattops, friers, or brick ovens and with air vents that don’t work, it is hard not to sweat a pool under that heat.

This heat box wouldn’t happen if the kitchen vents were probably cleaned or worked in general. But as any line cook knows, there is always one thing broken.

The best way to scope out the attitude of the kitchen before saying yes to a job is to ask to look at the line. By looking at the line, one can notice if the line is efficient in running through orders and whether it is clean and well-maintained. Red flags to notice are how clean the floors are under the refrigerator and if there are any grease stains on the walls. If you notice this then it means cleanliness isn’t their top priority. Pay attention to how well the lines communicate with each other.

Other difficulties to overcome in this industry include understaffing.

Be sure to pay attention. Proper training means fewer injuries to yourself and those around you. You will handle sharp knives and work in intense heat and while nothing tells a great story like the battle scars you collect in the line, the less damage the better. If I had $1 for every time someone asked about my new oil or dry heat burn across my arm, then I would accumulate enough wealth to never touch an oil vat again.

Major disclaimer: understand that cooking for oneself versus doing it for a restaurant has major differences. Most restaurants demand their food items to be made fast with top-tier quality and care. All restaurants have strict specifications and demands for their line cooks to know how to cook and plate the food items. Plating is heavily enforced to be “perfect’ as customers eat with their eyes first. All line cooks must remember the recipes of each food item of their station.

In order to excel in this position, one must take pride in their work. I believe that the food items I send out as a line cook or a chef are an extension of myself and my work. If I send out a dirty plate or unorganized food item, then what does that say about me? I am proud of my work, and I want the individual who is eating it to enjoy it, too. But as any line cook knows, it hurts the soul to see the plate you made going straight to the trash or sitting unfinished on the dish pit.

Modern kitchens have adapted to the strict French kitchen hierarchy known as, “Brigade de Cuisine.” All new hires start from the bottom and have opportunities to go up the ranks with time. Hires with years of experience can skip some ranks, as I did. “Old heads” or veterans in the kitchen are in control when the kitchen manager isn’t there. It is important to stay respectful and on their good side. Otherwise, the kitchen can become a very toxic place for you where these individuals can speak ill of you to cut you from the kitchen.

To manage the stress, I shout at the top of my lungs for the items I need on the line. Shouting is commonplace communication behind the line. Yelling for plates or lamb sauce without reprimand is calming because it makes me feel in control for a second.

For some lucky kitchens with amazing staff, there are closing nights that make everything worth it. There are instances where my line buddies and some of the front-of-the-house coworkers chill after work. Here we can share a drink and vent about how terrible the night was for everyone.

These rowdy nights of communion re-up my serotonin and I’m ready for another round on the line. The people I can bond with over a horrible night are the same people I can call on for a day off.

Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon for some kitchen workers to have or develop substance abuse with alcohol and drugs to get through a night where they have a full screen, no stock and no staff. Closing late hours, double shifts and high stress are common factors that lead kitchen staff to believe that they need a stimulant to finish a shift or a depressant to numb their aching bodies.

I wholeheartedly believe that working behind the line for any mid to low-level kitchen is easy since everything is “idiot-proof.” Things are designed, labeled, color-coordinated and structured so anyone can work and learn. Keeping with the pace, learning to multitask and handling noise levels are learning curves but it comes easily with time and patience. But as any line cook knows, the line is a tough place that requires a tough spirit. The moment you start panicking about how red your screen is or how back up you are is the moment you lose control of your station.

In the end, working behind the line is truly a unique experience. You’ll see co-workers who break down after a night of service or those who shotgun a beer in under two seconds. Despite the painful experiences, working the line is rewarding as you can demonstrate your talent on the edible eye-candy you serve. The community is like no other and I always find support and encouragement to grow as a chef.

We always welcome newcomers and can use the helping hand. Are you willing to join the fun?

Feature image courtesy of Michael Browning.

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