What Is a Line Cook?

Line cook is a term used in the foodservice industry for a cook who works on the “line” and prepares food orders. In a fine dining environment or a kitchen that follows a brigade system hierarchy, a line cook is considered a type of chef called a “commis” (section chef). In many casual restaurants, line cook is a catch-all term for a cook who does a little bit of everything. Keep reading to learn more about line cooks and their duties.

What Is the Line?

two chef assistants cooking a new dish in a restaurant kitchen

You may be wondering what the "line" is and how line cooks got their name. A cook line is where most of the magic happens in a commercial kitchen. It’s a long, narrow space set up with all the hot-side equipment needed to cook menu items to order, usually deep fryers, charbroilers, a flat-top grill, a range top, and possibly a salamander or cheese-melter. You’ll also see microwaves and chef base refrigeration units for cold ingredients that line cooks need. This galley-like space is called the line because all the equipment is set up in a line, with a line cook assigned to each station.

What’s It Like to Work on the Line?

The line is a very active place during a shift. Ambient temperatures become extremely hot because of all the equipment running at once. Each line cook has to be aware of the space around them and all the potential hazards. Front-of-house staff members are usually not permitted to enter the line unless they are dropping off ingredients, clean cookware, or dinnerware. The reason for this is that the area is small and line cooks need all available space to prepare orders.

Line Cook Duties

line cook making dish on a gas stove

Line cooks perform many tasks before, during, and after the shift has ended. Extra duties may be assigned, depending on how the kitchen manager divides up cleaning and prep tasks.

Before Service

Line cooks must set up their stations with all the items they need for service. This includes ingredients and kitchen tools. If a cook is assigned to the fry station, they need clean fry baskets and utensils. A line cook assigned to the grill (charbroiler) needs tongs, seasoning shakers, and a stocked chef base with all the important menu items. If the nightly special is a New York strip steak with sauteed mushrooms and onions, the line cook makes sure there are strip steaks and toppings in the refrigeration unit. If ingredients are forgotten or miscounted, it results in wasted time spent running to the walk-in or freezer during service. Every second counts when you work on the line.

During Service

Each line cook is assigned to a cook station on the line. Throughout service, they man their station and cook all items that are ordered by guests. The fry station cook prepares all fried items. The grill cook prepares all grilled items like burgers, steaks, and chops. Depending on how complex the menu is, there might be a line cook assigned to the saute station, the sauce station, the seafood station, and/or the roast station. The salad station and dessert station are not considered part of the line because they usually don’t require hot-side equipment, but a line cook may be assigned to one of these stations as well.

After Service

As service starts to die down, each line cook is responsible for cleaning their station, setting it up for the next shift, or preparing it for closing. When a line cook closes out the shift, they need to put ingredients back in the right locations. All equipment needs to be cleaned according to daily requirements. For a fry cook, this could mean filtering or replacing the cooking oil in the deep fryers. If a line cook is working a breakfast shift and passing the station onto the night shift cook, it’s considered good etiquette to help stock their station. After stations are clean and stocked, a kitchen manager will check to make sure all tasks are done.

Receiving Days

Sometimes line cooks are assigned shifts on truck days, or receiving days. These are the days that food deliveries arrive at the restaurant. A line cook needs to be able to lift heavy boxes of ingredients and put them away in the right locations. They also need to check invoices, food temperatures, and the quality of items to make sure the shipment is correct and everything is food-safe.

How to Train a Line Cook

Line cooks usually learn by shadowing a more experienced cook or by starting on an easy station. The salad station is considered one of the easiest stations. The fry station is another station that’s usually reserved for less experienced line cooks. From there, it’s possible to observe the head line cook and learn how all dishes are prepared. In a fine dining or traditional brigade-style kitchen, training is more rigorous and a new cook may have to prepare dishes as a test that they can perform the work.

One important aspect of line cook training that shouldn't be forgotten when hiring a new chef is food safety. All food handlers in the kitchen need to be familiar with cross-contamination and how to prevent it.

What Makes a Great Line Cook?

chef cracking an egg while preparing food in restaurant

You don’t necessarily need a culinary degree to snag a job as a line cook at a restaurant. Many line cooks start as prep cooks or even dishwashers and work their way up the ladder. Besides experience with cooking and commercial kitchen equipment, these qualities will make someone stand out in this position:

  • Special requests and substitutions - When you prepare the same dish over and over, it becomes a habit to make it the same way every time. A great line cook will be on the lookout for any special requests like “no cheese” or “sauce on the side”. Preparing dishes exactly the way they are ordered eliminates do-over requests and saves time and money.
  • Orders in the window - Some cooks think their job is complete when the dish is plated and sitting in the service window. A great line cook will pay attention to see if an order is sitting in the window too long, has become cold, or is wilting from the high heat. They take the initiative to remake or reheat a dish if it's needed.
  • Focus on quality - In the middle of a busy rush, standards can be dropped pretty quickly. The best line cooks refuse to serve any dish that isn’t their best quality. This means paying attention to little details like burn marks, undercooked fries, and even smudges of sauce on a dinner plate.
  • Communication with front-of-house - Sometimes it seems like the back-of-house and front-of-house employees speak two different languages. Line cooks that excel at their job have great communication skills and partner with their server staff so everyone can succeed.

Prep Cook vs Line Cook

The difference between a prep cook and a line cook is that a prep cook works on preparing ingredients ahead of time, while a line cook works during service to perform cooking tasks. The prep cook works off of a par sheet to make sure the line cook has the ingredients they need. If it's estimated that the restaurant will sell 25 burgers that evening, the prep cook makes the burger patties, slices the tomatoes, and prepares any other burger toppings. When service begins, the line cook should have the right amount of ingredients for all burger orders that are placed. In small restaurants, it's common for line cooks to take turns doing prep work.

Different types of restaurants use a range of terms for their kitchen staff, but line cook is a common term in the industry for any cook who works on the line during service. If you see a job posting for a line cook, the position will most likely involve a variety of cooking tasks. Life as a line cook is fast-paced and requires attention to detail and great multi-tasking skills. It's a common entry point into the industry if you aspire to become a chef or own a restaurant one day.

Posted in: Management & Operation|By Michale LeRoy
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