I’m a line cook at a New York City restaurant and that means I am constantly surrounded by food. But not just any food: extremely rich food laced with cream, butter, sugar, and a lot — like, a lot — of salt. (“Yes, but add a little extra for chef,” is the best answer I’ve ever gotten when asking the sous chef if a sauce has enough salt.)
You’d think, then, that I eat a lot. That I might be overweight. And that I’d be on some kind of January Super Diet like everyone else. After all, don’t I spend all day around beurre blanc and braised duck?
Yes and no. But mostly no. Eating, like real eating, is something that I don’t have time for. Ten hours a day (or, more likely, 13), five days a week (or, more likely, six), I am “cooking,” which feels more like running a marathon. I spend so much time worrying about food and preparing food that I never (NEVER) have time to sit down and eat it. That, in a nutshell, is the Line Cook Diet. And it is, I feel sure, extremely unhealthy.
Let me explain.
My workday starts at noon, which is an awkward time. I usually set my alarm for 9 AM in the hope of getting in some form of exercise before work. Most days, though, I end up getting up around 11, speed-walking to the train station with a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee but no time for actual breakfast, and rushing into work all flustered.
Then comes a four-hour period when food is somehow both the first and the last thing on my mind. I spend those four hours — which go by so fast that they feel like one hour — prepping food like a crazy person. There is no time.
I am running up and down stairs between a kitchen and a walk-in refrigerator, stressing about whether or not I will have enough of this or that for dinner service. Every movement is calibrated for efficiency. When I first started working in restaurants I could never get it all done. It takes practice. And you’re not done until every thing you will need for the night is assembled, portioned, properly seasoned, at the right temperature, and ready to go. This is called mise en place.
During these four hours there’s no eating. There’s tasting: I taste for seasoning, which means dipping a CLEAN spoon in something I’ve made, putting it in my mouth, then adding more salt.
I taste polenta and add salt.
I’ll taste a salty cauliflower puree — then add more salt.
I taste creamed kale or spinach. Needs salt.
I taste acidic dijon dressings and fatty fried potatoes. Chef says more salt.
The braised brisket? Needs salt. The fried shallots? They…actually they’ve got enough salt. You get the idea. Lots of tiny tastes of salty delicious things.
I also spend a little time in the afternoons cooking some not-quite-as-delicious but still pretty tasty things for family meal — the food the staff eats for dinner. “Family” gets put up at 4:00 every afternoon. Because of time constraints, family meal is often deep fried — chicken wings are just so easy to make when you have a really long prep list to knock out — and even the salad has been known to contain leftover duck chicharones and garlic butter croutons.
Sometimes I’ll eat family meal out of a quart container, but most often I make it and then completely forget about it because I have other things to finish before service.
At 5 PM, service officially starts and I stand in front of the stove, waiting for an order to come in. This is the first time all day that I’ve stood still. It also tends to be the moment when I realize that, yes, actually, I’m pretty hungry. Then all of a sudden, it occurs to me that I might faint if I don’t eat.
At that point I grab a handful of the closest thing we have in excess, maybe a couple of oil-poached potatoes and three slices of prosciutto. My sodium intake is probably through the roof.
And I drink three quarts of water, because I am thirsty from tasting salty things and because it is SO. FUCKING. HOT behind the line. And this is January. Come June, I think I may literally faint right onto a sauté pan of scorching hot duck fat.
Anyway, service continues and eventually gets crazy busy. I continue to drink quarts and quarts and quarts of ice water (we drink out of quart containers, so that’s how I measure my fluid consumption) to cool myself down.
All the while, the coat of dry sweat on my skin gets thicker by the minute; so much so that, by 9 o’clock, I am wiping a pretty thick layer of salt off of my arms. Gross, but seriously more physically exhausting than any Boot Camp class I’ve ever been to.
The night starts to slow down, and I pilfer a couple of steak ends from the grill guy, which I chase with a giant spoonful of creamed kale that I have leftover from a table that I accidentally over-portioned.
Everything is delicious, but also salty. I chug another quart container full of water and go stand over at the Garde Manger station for two minutes, because the heat from the stove is starting to really get to me.
Then, duh, I have to pee really really badly, but need to wait ten minutes because the last two tables just got fired and I have three fish and a duck to cook before I can step out of the kitchen.
The food goes out and I run downstairs, praying that there’s not a line for the bathroom. There is, obviously, and by the time I get back upstairs, the sous chef is taking orders for shift-drink. I get wine. And truly, between all of the cooking and the sweating and the water-chugging and the stressing, it’s not until I take two sips of alcohol and feel totally loopy that I realize I’m actually kind of famished.
Right on time, the night’s leftover bread is up for grabs, so I take a roll and a bite of honey cake that the pastry chef can’t serve, and I feel better. I finish the wine while transferring my proteins to new containers, cleaning my lowboy refrigerator, and writing tomorrow’s prep list.
By the time that’s all done, I’m exhausted and book it to the train station. Going out after work used to be a pretty regular thing, but this is a busy time for restaurants, so recently I’ve been so tired that I just go home and crash. Sometimes I drink another glass of wine, talk to my roommate, and watch an episode of The Office, but more often I just shower, get into bed with soaking wet hair, and wake up seven hours later wanting breakfast but only having enough time for coffee.