September 19 was “Talk Like a Pirate Day” – one of those internet-created faux holidays everyone loves to talk about on social media and at the water cooler. (Do people in offices really gather around a water cooler anymore? I picture them alone at their desks hunched over their $5 pumpkin-spiced Life Water, scrolling through Instagram on their phones.)
Having worked in restaurants for many years, I can usually spot a line cook in the wild at 40 paces or less, even if they’ve eschewed their every day uniform for civvies. There’s a certain way they walk: a gait indicating baked-in aches and pains (from years of standing on hard concrete floors and terra cotta tiles) combined with the eerie grace that results from the constant requirement of working with others in a tighter-than-normal personal space. Line cooks have to be ninjas of sort, working in high temperatures, surrounded by flames and steam and all manner of sharp objects while struggling to communicate over the sounds of crockery being slung about and the roar of hood fans. It’s hot, it’s noisy, and your fellow employee is more likely to be bumping his sweaty elbow against your sweaty back than offering bon mots from over a cubicle wall 10 feet away.
So they often speak expansively and at volume, even in public. They laugh loudly, too. Every sentence seems to end with an exclamation point. They hold forth constantly about food: food they saw, food they ate, techniques they want to try. Their conversational style may strike kitchen civilians as inappropriate, due both to the subject matter and a liberal sprinkling of profanities that inevitably finds its way in.
I work in retail now, at a kitchen store, and I can tell the difference between a casual shopper and a line cook right away. Line cooks don’t get paid a king’s ransom, yet they always gravitate to the most expensive items first. The sous vide machine, the top-of-the-line blender. They’ll stand wistfully in front of the knife display (not the affordable knives that hang on the open wall, but the pricey ones in the locked case).
They are not there for an herb stripper or a garlic press; their chef’s knife serves admirably in place of most such single-use gadgets. They’re not there for a whisk, a ladle, a spatula or a wooden spoon, either; these can be purchased cheaply at a restaurant supply store. They’re certainly not there for decorative tea towels. No matter how clever the kitchen quote or how exquisitely rendered the hand-painted eggplants, tea towels are put to shame in a restaurant kitchen by their humble terrycloth brothers, the side towels rented weekly from a linen service.
A line cook might look a little scruffy, sort of pirate-y in fact. His hair might be unkempt by the standards of the neighborhood I work in, and there’s probably a bandanna evident, either hanging from a pocket or serving as a sweat band. He might not be freshly shaven. He might even smell a little “funny” – like onions, or garlic. I don’t have to follow these cooks around the store, extolling the virtues of cast iron pans or the latest in non-stick coating technology. Occasionally I’ll point out the few items they might not spy on their own, like an adjustable food ring for plating, or a rugged mortar and pestle combo that does twice the work of the slick marble ones they sling at Sur la Table.
But mostly I just leave them alone unless they look like they have a question. And usually all I have to do is bring the key to open the knife case without being asked. Together, we’ll make fun of that one really cool looking knife which doesn’t have an obvious purpose, while we discuss the merits of eight-inch blades over ten-inch blades, both of us laughing a little too loudly and trying not to let our casual swear-words be overheard by others.
Of course, #notalllinecooks. I’m sure somewhere there’s a perfectly mannered, perfectly coiffed, soft-spoken line cook without visible tattoos or a ladder of burn scars on both forearms. I just haven’t met her yet.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.