On the Line
Line cooks are the lifeblood of any restaurant — just ask the executive chefs at the helms of Charleston-area establishments. And while these behind-the-scenes chefs are crucial to professional kitchens, folks outside of the industry might find it hard to comprehend the impact they have on each service.
On any given night, a line cook is responsible for one or multiple stations, where they’ll complete a certain task or dish in a timely manner. This means they are constantly moving throughout the kitchen cooking, plating and making sure each station is stocked with ingredients.
Line cooks endure obscure hours, high turnover and sub-$15-per-hour wages in non-pandemic times in a line of work that’s been even more uncertain over the past year. Young cooks tried to stay afloat in a struggling industry while subjecting themselves to the dangers of COVID-19. We spoke with four local line cooks to see what it’s been like working over the past 12-plus months.
“The reason I got a job cooking in Charleston is because there aren’t enough line cooks, and I don’t think people realize that,” said Connor Simonson, who works at Stems & Skins and Bok Choy Boy Asian fusion pop-up while finishing his degree at the College of Charleston. Prior to that, Simonson, a contributor for the City Paper, spent time on the line at Zero Restaurant + Bar, Edmund’s Oast and fine-dining restaurant Cypress, which closed in 2017.
“It’s really intense when you first get into it for sure,” Simonson said, describing his time at Cypress where he worked 50-hour weeks. “It was really intimidating, but there’s definitely this incentive to pull your weight, show up early and work your way up.”
Jackrabbit Filly line cook Erin Sullivan said her hours are quite manageable at the Park Circle restaurant — this, despite the fact that there are just four cooks, including executive chef Shuai Wang, in the kitchen most evenings.
“I’m cross-trained on everything and kind of get to learn a lot more,” said Sullivan, who moved from front-of-house to the kitchen in 2018. “Back of house, it’s so much more team oriented, and you have to work together.”
Sullivan said she was nervous to return to work post-pandemic, but Jackrabbit Filly’s safety precautions and her desire to feed the community brought her back to the industry.
“It’s hard not to be (scared), but it’s one of those lines of work where restaurants aren’t going to go away and people aren’t going to stop wanting to go to restaurants,” she said. “At the end of the day, we just kind of had to get back to it and start cooking food for people. It was good to feel a sense of normalcy, but it was stressful.”
Post House line cook Joel Carnright recalls a feeling of guilt when he went back to work. He knew he had to continue cooking to make a living but was scared of contracting the virus and bringing it home to his girlfriend, a fourth- grade school teacher at Chicora Elementary.
“It doesn’t just affect me, it affects my girlfriend, my family and everyone around me,” he said. “Cooking in the pandemic is tough because of the mask — it gets hot in the kitchen, and services can get hectic.”
Despite the standards set by then-Post House executive chef Evan Gaudreau, Carnright said he contracted COVID-19 in December. Still, this was the reality Carnright said he was prepared for when he went back to work in March 2020.
“We’ve been making sure to have our masks on at all times in the kitchen, even if you’re by yourself,” said Carnright, who has his temperature taken before each shift. “All the stuff we were doing before but just more vigilant.”
Even in non-pandemic times, working as a line cook is a challenging profession. Just ask Slightly North of Broad line cook Chelsea Christian, who starts most days on Johns Island in the kitchen at Wild Olive around 5 a.m. Yes, Christian works two kitchen jobs.
Early in the morning, you’ll find her preparing sauces to pair with Wild Olive’s pappardelle or tagliatelle pastas before heading downtown to work the lunch or brunch service at S.N.O.B.
“Obviously COVID has changed a lot in the kitchen,” said Christian, who estimates she works 60 hours per week. “Some days it’s smooth, and sometimes, it’s pretty draining where I don’t think I’m going to see the end of the day.”
All four chefs plan to stay in the industry moving forward. Carnright, who said the business is “a lot of who you know and who you don’t piss off,” will “hopefully be running a spot, ideally the size of Renzo,” in the next five years. Still early in her career, Sullivan just wants to keep taking things day-by-day.
“I never expected to see myself as a cook, and now here I am falling in love with this career,” Sullivan said. “I kind of just grab at any opportunity that I can.”