Line Cook Job Overview
When Team Localwise asked San Francisco line cook Cody Chao about his work, he replied, “It’s a science. You learn a lot through trial and error.”An Oakland native, Cody is a student in the San Francisco Art Institute’s Culinary Program.
His dream is to one day open his own restaurant, but for now, he’s focused on learning as much as he can from his job as a line cook at Vintage Golden Gate’s restaurant. He’s worked there for over a year now, serving over 500 customers on a regular day and over 1,000 on holidays. Here’s what Cody had to say about being a line cook:
A line cook is in charge of preparing everything needed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That includes cutting, peeling, cooking, etc. — though prep cooks help out with the initial parts of the process as well.
As a line cook, a big part of your job is researching new cuisine, setting the menu for the week, and ordering needed supplies. That could vary from placing orders through US Foods to shopping at local farmers' markets. Photo Credit: Vintage Golden Gate
That’s one thing that Cody really enjoys about being a line cook, he said, learning about new cuisine and applying that knowledge to dishes he already knows.“Take jello for example,” he said, “Jello is simple. You find it everywhere. As a line cook, you ask yourself how you can make something as basic as jello even better. What ingredient would do that for you?”Cody admitted one of his favorite “basic” foods to try new ingredients with is a grilled cheese sandwich.
He said the job is right for anyone with a passion for food.
“Some places even prefer no prior experience, so they can teach you everything from scratch.” When it comes to being a successful line cook , here’s how Cody recommends we go about it.
1. Be early
Cody tries to get to work about 30 minutes early.
2. Be focused
Both mentally and physically. “Don’t go out partying the night before,” says Cody. “Being a line cook means working 8-12 hour shifts many days. That takes a toll on your body if you’re not well-rested.”
3. Be clean & organized
No one else will clean after you. A clean space to work will save you time and be appreciated by your team. (One of Cody’s personal pet peeves is a messy head chef. The head chef normally directs kitchen activities and demonstrates new dishes.)
You’re part of a team— your team consists of prep cooks, servers, and a head chef— and good communication will help you avoid weird team dynamics (Cody maintains a good relationship with his team by spending time together regularly outside of work.)
5. Practice good time management
With several meals to prepare every day and hundreds of customers to serve (depending on the venue where you work), learning to manage your time wisely will make this fast-paced job much more manageable.
Photo Credit: Vintage Golden Gate
Hiring and Pay
We asked Cody how he got started as a line cook.
“I started as a dishwasher and worked my way up within a year. When you’re applying for a cooking position, you go through a stage. That’s a 1-2 day try-out to see if you’re a good fit. As a line cook, your stage consists of a lunch or dinner shift.”
Cody says a lot of chefs are needed. “You just have to ask for moderate pay. If you ask for a high starting pay, that wouldn’t be ideal for restaurants.” Cody’s seen line cooks make $30,000-50,000 annually. PayScale reports the national median at $26,390. That's about $10/hour.
In terms of hours, the position can be done full time or part time—with lunch and dinner being peak hours.
“Expect to work overtime on holidays as well,” he says. Holidays tend to bring in twice as many customers at Cody’s work—and with only six staff members in the kitchen, an all-hands-on-deck attitude is necessary that time of year. Once hired, you make your way up by building skills and experience.
That’s why a good head chef is important.“If you have a lazy head chef, you won’t learn as much because you’ll have more work to do.” Cody’s current head chef takes the time to walk his cooking staff through new dishes at least once, allowing for a good balance of challenge and support.
A sharp knife can go a long way, says Cody. “You can have a bad knife, but if it’s sharp, you’ll get done what you need to get done.” He recommends getting your own. A good peeler is also a plus.
Other cooking equipment will be provided by your employer, with no need to buy specialized items of your own.
Before saying goodbye, we asked Cody what he’s been working on lately.
He said he’s currently trying to perfect blueberry cookies. It’s been a month, and so far, they only taste like blueberry pancakes.
“It’s a slow learning process,” he says. “You learn a lot from your mistakes, but once you get a dish right that you’ve been trying to perfect for a while...you feel like the happiest person alive.