What does a line cook do?

It’s a simple fact: without line cooks, many culinary kitchens couldn’t function. They are a key part of the “kitchen brigade,” a system where each member of the kitchen staff has a designated role in creating meals. And with kitchen staff in high demand today, there are tons of well-paying line cook shifts on Instawork right now. But what does a line cook do, exactly?

Whether you’re hoping to become a line cook or are just curious about the field, read on to learn all about line cook responsibilities, job requirements, certifications, and more.

What is a line cook?

If you’ve ever been in a professional kitchen before, you might have noticed that all of the cooking equipment is set up in a line under a set of whirring hood vents. This is the “line,” and each piece of cooking equipment — fryer, grill, flattop, stove, etc. — is manned by a different cook. A line cook can also be called a line chef, station chef, or chef de partie.

No matter the kitchen, the core job of a line cook is the same: help prepare food for customers as part of a team, with each person given a specific task. Usually, there’s one line cook assigned to a single station, like the sauté station, or a piece of cooking equipment on a line, such as a deep fryer — and they’re responsible for all the food coming off that station.

A line cook’s role can vary a little bit from place to place. The knowledge and technique required from line cooks at a college dining hall, for example, will probably be much more simple than it would at a five-star hotel. This doesn’t mean that the skills aren’t transferable at all, but you should know that employers will keep this in mind when deciding whether or not to hire you.

What does a line cook do?

A line cook’s tasks can fall into a few different categories, such as:

  • Station setup: As the saying goes, “fail to prepare, and you prepare to fail.” Line cooks must make sure that they have everything they need, from towels to pre-chopped and measured ingredients, ready to go before service starts. This is commonly called your “mise en place,” a French term meaning “everything in its place.”
  • Cooking: A line cook needs to recreate the head chef’s recipes flawlessly, time and time again. And just as importantly, they need to do it in sync with the other members of their team, so that each part of the dish comes together down the line quickly and efficiently.
  • Maintain health & cleanliness: A line cook is required to follow health code regulations and keep their station clean. At the end of each shift, each line cook must properly clean their station and put all their tools and food away.
  • Food prep: While many kitchens will have prep cooks or station assistants who prepare the ingredients, line cooks may have to help out as well with things like breaking down meat and partially-cooking fruit, vegetables, and other items.

What’s the difference between a prep cook & a line cook?

In the kitchen system, a line cook and a prep cook are two different roles, although their tasks may overlap a little bit. Prep cooks are more of an entry-level job for people without many years of experience in a kitchen — their main task is to get ingredients ready for cooking, which might include washing produce, trimming meat, peeling fruits and vegetables, and chopping them. After gaining some experience, a prep cook is often promoted to line cook, which comes with greater responsibilities and higher pay. While a line cook may do some ingredient prep, their main task is to make dishes using the prepared ingredients.

What education & experience does a line cook need?

If you’ve been asking “what does a line cook do,” you might also want to know how to become one. The good news for anyone interested in becoming a line cook is that it’s pretty straightforward. When it comes to educational requirements, some places might want you to have a high school diploma or GED, but others may be more flexible.

For anyone who’s determined to become a sous chef, head chef, or executive chef at a high-end or elite kitchen one day, a degree from culinary school can help. There are culinary schools around the country where you can gain the knowledge and experience needed to thrive in a kitchen, like the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson & Wales University, and the Institute of Culinary Education, to name a few. Most of these schools offer two- to four-year programs, and, because of the high costs involved, are usually for those who want to dedicate their lives to becoming a top chef. If you’re interested in formal instruction but can’t afford sky-high culinary school tuition, many community colleges offer culinary training programs or courses at a much lower price.

While formal education is one way to gain experience, it’s not a must. You’ll find that many — probably even most — line cooks haven’t gone to culinary school. Plenty of line cooks work their way up through the ranks in the kitchen, and have previously been prep cooks or station assistants. Even famous chefs like Gordon Ramsey have started out as dishwashers and climbed their way up the ladder over time.

Keep in mind that there are different levels for line cooks (often three, but it varies) based on previous experience. If you have little experience as a line cook and are still learning the ropes, you’ll usually start out at a lower level. Those with some past experience who have a good handle on one or two stations might be given a mid-level job title. Those with more experience who have mastered multiple stations will be at the highest level. These line cooks are valuable players, and often lead the line during service, so they earn the most money.

What certifications does a line cook need?

Required certifications for line cooks are different from state to state and even county to county. These certifications can go by different names, but often deal with topics like food safety and responsibly serving alcohol. Many areas where certifications are necessary state that full-time employees must get certified within 30 days of starting work.

Usually, these certifications can be done through an in-person or online course that takes anywhere from a few hours to a whole day. Once you get a certification, you may need to renew it every couple of years to prove that you still know your stuff — but again, this all depends on local regulation. Businesses usually have to keep a copy of all of their employees’ food safety certifications on file in case an inspector comes through the door, so it’s a good idea, and sometimes required, to share a physical or electronic copy with your employer. 

On Instawork, most employers won’t book Professionals unless they already have the certificates they need — so make sure to upload your Food Handlers card and any other certifications you have to your Instawork profile so we can review and verify them.

What skills does a line cook need?

If you’re thinking about becoming a line cook, you shouldn't just ask “what does a line cook do,” but also, “how do they do it?” To succeed in this job, you’ll need a number of different skills, such as:

  • Cooking & kitchen skills: At a base level, all line cooks should have good knife skills, be familiar with classic recipes, and know how to operate the equipment at their station. They should also have a good understanding of how other stations work so they can coordinate with their teammates.
  • Communication skills: Communication in kitchens is like oil in an engine — without it, the kitchen will quickly shut down. With lots of orders coming and going, everyone on the line needs to know which tickets the team is working on to keep things moving smoothly. Each ticket almost always requires items from multiple stations on the line, and line cooks have to be in constant communication with each other to make sure the dish comes together at just the right time so that it’s hot (or, for things like salads or certain desserts, chilled) and ready for the customer.
  • Organizational skills: Getting everything set up before a shift is important, but keeping it organized in the middle of a busy shift — however long it lasts — matters just as much.
  • Ability to follow instructions: Fun fact — the creator of the modern kitchen brigade system actually modeled it on the military! When you’re on the job, remember that the head chef is in charge, and you’re making their dishes — so prep, cook, and plate exactly how they want you to.
  • Reliability: Line cooks should always show up on time and ready for work.
  • Working well under pressure: Line cooks work hard in a hot, fast-moving, and sometimes stressful environment for long shifts. If you want to be a line cook, you should thrive in these situations.

And while it’s not quite a skill, the best line cooks are also passionate about what they do — this motivates them to bring their A-game every day and make the most delicious food they can. Although you can be a line cook without being passionate about it, passion often makes the difference between good and great.

The bottom line

Now that you know the answer to “what does a line cook do,” you can decide whether or not it’s right for you. If you’re interested in cooking and food, learn quickly, and do well in high-pressure environments — as they say, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” — then it just might be.

And there’s no better way to get a feel for being a line cook than gaining some kitchen experience, whether that’s at the front or the back of the house. Seeing line cooks in action will give you a good idea of what the job is like, and what it takes to do it well. Then, if you do decide you want to become a line cook, that experience will give you a leg up in your job search.

So check out open FOH and BOH shifts on Instawork today to start building your career!

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