Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The Era of the Line Cook

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In “Kitchen Confidential,” the book that launched Anthony Bourdain’s writing career, he explained that his subject was “street-level cooking and its practitioners.” Line cooks—the people actually making your food—“were the heroes,” he wrote. It was clear what kind of heroism he meant: obscured and nearly undetectable; all drudgery, no glory; the hustle its own reward. In the preface to an updated paperback edition, Bourdain said that the book had been wrongly perceived as an exposé of the restaurant business, when all he was trying to do was write something that his fellow-cooks found “entertaining and true.” “I was not—and am not—an advocate for change in the restaurant business,” he wrote. “I like the business just the way it is.”

Whether he meant to or not, Bourdain did change the business, in part by stoking the public’s interest in its inner workings. His vivid portrait of life in the kitchen helped turn the line cook into an ascendant figure; a quarter of a century later, people without any particular connection to the industry are familiar with the image of a cook drinking ice water out of a plastic quart container; with the term “back of house”; with the ritual of “family meal.” The TV show “The Bear” has proffered an insider’s view of the quotidian dramas of opening a restaurant, giving focus not only to Carmy, the head chef and owner, but also to Sydney, a sous-chef learning her worth in macho environs, and to Lionel, a quietly ambitious pastry chef.

The restaurant world still harbors affection for the idea of cooks paying their dues, but the fetish for rigidly hierarchical and abusive workplaces seems to have abated in recent years. In his memoir “Notes from a Young Black Chef,” Kwame Onwuachi recounts being emotionally abused in some of New York’s most prestigious kitchens. At his own restaurant, Tatiana, he is a firm but gentle leader, presiding over an ongoing “Top Chef”-style knockout tournament, in which cooks both compete and serve as judges, whipping up dishes during lulls in service. It’s lighthearted—an impromptu round I saw involved shooting a balled-up piece of tinfoil into a trash can—but high-stakes, ending with a big-ticket prize of the winner’s choice. (One person won a trip to Jamaica, at Onwuachi’s expense.) Eric Ripert, the chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, recently hired a “staff meal chef,” whose sole job is to prepare excellent food for his co-workers.

If the era of the line cook had been hovering pre-pandemic, the course of 2020 certainly hastened it. That year, as restaurant workers scrambled for gigs and sweated in the trenches of “essential work,” the chef Eli Sussman, who began his career as a prep cook, started posting memes that united denizens of the industry over the daily struggles of kitchen labor: dropping a paring knife behind a lowboy, forgetting to close the roll gate at the end of your shift, barely livable hourly wages. (To a pair of photos of Tom Hanks—a clean-cut Forrest Gump on the left, a bedraggled castaway on the right—he added the text “Day 1: Hi Chef! Looking forward to being part of the team! Day 366: Who the fuck stole my fucking sharpie!!!”) At the latest Baldor Bite, a biannual food expo hosted by one of the biggest restaurant suppliers on the East Coast, Sussman hawked delightfully niche merchandise for the back-of-house crowd, including T-shirts printed with the script for Baldor’s automated phone menu.

One recent Monday afternoon, I stopped by gertrude’s, a restaurant Sussman co-owns, in Prospect Heights, and made my way down a precariously steep set of stairs to the dark, cramped basement prep kitchen. Every Monday, Sussman runs a burger special, usually conceived by someone—a line cook, a dishwasher—who works one of the restaurant’s less glamorous jobs. That day, it was in the hands of João Soares Vieira, the production manager, who oversees all kitchen prep and who now stood at an induction burner, stirring a pot of garlic simmering in olive oil, to which he’d soon add walnuts and diced cremini, to make mushroom duxelles.

This was Soares Vieira’s second go at burger night; his first had been “vaguely controversial,” he said, because the patties were served without a bun, after bife à café, a classic of Lisbon, his home town. This time, he was showcasing his classical French training, pairing the duxelles with yellow mustard, Roquefort, and a handful of parsley, all to be sandwiched with the beef patty on a buttered challah bun. Other cooks had done riffs on the banh mi and the chopped cheese; a porter named Keith had smothered his in smoked cheddar, crispy onions, and a house-made A1 sauce. “It’s definitely not common to have line cooks actually put something on a menu,” Soares Vieira said. Cooking is his second career; before culinary school, he worked for ten years as an interior architect. He confessed to spending “too much time” at gertrude’s—“to the point that Eli sends me home sometimes.”

During the restaurant’s lineup meeting, after Sussman updated the front-of-house staff on changes to service—the chopped salad was eighty-sixed; it would be great to sell more of the Montauk sea bass—Soares Vieira emerged from the kitchen with two finished burgers, which he sliced into tiny wedges so everyone could have a taste. “How would you describe Roquefort to someone who’s never had it before?” a server asked. “Very nutty,” Soares Vieira said. “Don’t say ‘moldy,’ but it’s full-on moldy—it’s a full blue cheese, which has mold in it. If they don’t know what Roquefort is, they probably won’t like it.” But Soares Vieira and Sussman agreed: no “mods,” or modifications.

Chefs see these opportunities as a way to develop the skills of newer cooks, and to retain their talent. Jason Vincent, the chef and co-owner of Giant, in Chicago, prints the initials of line cooks who conceive of new dishes on the restaurant’s menu. (When I went recently, a pasta with lentil ragù and a grilled swordfish Tom Kha were attributed to “l.k.” and “l.d.,” respectively.) Younger cooks, he’s observed, have different expectations for their careers than he did when he started. “With Instagram and everything, everyone’s got the potential to be noticed,” Vincent said.

“I was a cook not so long ago; I know how monotonous it can be,” Onwuachi told me. “And I think by having the tournament, by bringing the staff into the dining room, by playing the music loud so they can hear it, it feels more like they’re a part of the culture that we’re trying to convey to the diners.” But also, he said, “everybody has a voice now, especially with social media. So I think a lot of people are more cognizant of how they’re treating their staff—because there is someone watching.”

This spring, I went to a dinner in a series called the Line Up, for which line cooks, sous-chefs, and chefs de cuisine from buzzy New York restaurants get to be executive chefs for a night. It’s the brainchild of Elena Besser, who is in her thirties and makes a living as a private chef, a caterer, and a culinary contributor to the “Today” show. She has worked the line herself, at Lilia, in Williamsburg. “I felt really frustrated that it takes years and years, and many other factors, to get the opportunity to be in the spotlight,” she told me. “Often, individuals leave the industry because they put in all of this time and effort, and are never the ones calling the shots.”

For the series, Besser and her co-founders find participants by asking chefs to nominate someone in their kitchen, and choose three per “season” to each come up with a one-night restaurant concept, which Besser and her team fully fund and help to execute. On the marquee when I went was Noah Ponjuan, the Baton Rouge-born sous-chef at the Musket Room, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Nolita. At the offices of Food 52, on a high floor in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, guests milled around a bar, drinking a cocktail called Clear Skies—a riff on a Hurricane, with coconut milk and lime—and eating cornmeal-battered fried oysters before being seated at several large tables.

Ponjuan, who is twenty-seven and slight, with a ruffled mop of fine curls, a goatee, and round spectacles that give him the look of a young, Brooklynite Colonel Sanders, seemed nervous and excited; it was clear that he wasn’t taking the experience lightly. A detailed menu began with a poem about his mother and explained the inspiration behind each dish: the boiled-peanut vinaigrette on a plate of white asparagus reminded him of eating boiled peanuts by the side of the road on the way to baseball games in Louisiana; a course of duck à l’orange was made with satsumas like the ones that grew on a tree behind his grandparents’ house. A dish of crab “rice and gravy” came with a tiny plastic squeeze bottle of Nasty Noah’s Hot Sauce, labelled with an illustration of Ponjuan’s face.

Besser said that when she was first putting together the Line Up, five years ago, “it felt like walking on eggshells”—some chefs she approached “felt threatened and nervous about their cook being distracted, or wanting to leave and go do their own thing.” But recently, she told me, chefs have been eager to showcase their employees’ talents. At dinner, I sat next to Camari Mick, the Musket Room’s executive pastry chef and one of Ponjuan’s bosses and mentors, who cheered loudly—“Yeah, Nasty Noah!”—when he stood up to speak.

Ponjuan considered the night a success, though afterward he couldn’t resist thinking about what he might have done differently. (The plating on the crab rice, and on the dessert, could have been cleaner, he told me.) If he had relished his moment in the spotlight, it didn’t seem to be what motivated him. “It’s hard,” he said of his work, “but there’s something that I just enjoy about the endurance of it. The life that comes with it.” ♦

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