At a time when chefs have become national celebrities, it's easy to forget: If you're eating in restaurants, you're mostly being fed by line cooks.
Like the ghost writers of the food industry, line cooks execute a chef's vision by providing everything from uniformly sliced vegetables to perfectly cooked proteins and pretty garnishes. It's a job that comes with a skill set all its own.
Ask cook and "roundsman" KC Callaghy, who has worked at The Elbow Room for four of his 14 years as a cook. Large parties at the Shaydside restaurant can mean 10 to 20 tickets "firing" at the same time, all bearing different dishes — with different components — expected to arrive at the table together and at the right temperature. It's intricate choreography, to say the least.
But Callaghy says he's "passionate about food" and sharing food traditions. From great chefs, he has learned about stocks and "mother sauces" like béchamel. "Now I teach people how to cook," Callaghy says. "I've been all over, so I also like to share my knowledge ... [like] how to cook pita, because I worked at a Greek place in Seattle where I made 300 pita in a half-hour."
During high-volume hours, the job can be "organized mayhem," says Raymond Simmons, cook's manager at popular Strip District breakfast spot DeLuca's. One morning's business can empty the restaurant's cooler of nearly 1,500 eggs. Simmons started as a dishwasher five years ago, and now cooks in the restaurant's open kitchen. "It's a big rush," he says.
Mike Younger, another DeLuca's cook, also likes the intensity. "There's a little bit more pressure when people are watching you cook," Younger says, but it also keeps DeLuca's cooks clean, efficient, and in good spirits while they perform egg-flips for customers watching the action.
Which suggests the kind of "secret ingredient" in the recipe for a good line cook. "Instincts," is how Simmons defines it. "You've got to have good instincts."