Many cooks coming up through the ranks and assailing the long slippery slope to chefdom moved from station to station in the kitchens as pretty much everyone does. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity, many times by order or lash.
The best true professional chefs are competent in all areas and stations in a foodservice kitchen. They may excel in many areas, not so much in others but no matter the role(s) they are no fool.
A few rogues migrated to the Garde Manger. Some wander into the banquet hall never to be seen again. There is rumor that a few of them ended up in the bakery and turned into a gluten version of the clay people. Others not paying attention were clamped in leg irons in the employee cafeteria (this is cooking purgatory for some). Some cooks just needed to express a more artistic approach & transitioned to pastries. Much like the galley slaves whipped in the belly of a Roman Trireme headed for Anthony and the Egyptian Fleet. One speed, full speed ahead was an oath to many.
For myself and others there was yet another choice to be had. Usually it was a matter of confidence, a comfort zone to be sure. I worked with chef Bob Kowalewski for a few years and we were line cooks together at The Hyatt Regency Chicago when it was only one tower.
The exec. Stuart Johnson and the Sous Chefs had a field day running us around the various restaurants putting out fires and replacing more experienced veterans on their days off. Over the course of only a few months we ended up working in every restaurant and main kitchen area in most every position, day and night. After experiencing peak volume service repeatedly at different stations we developed individually a preference of stations to work at.
We did not care for working in the deli, pizza kitchen or Garde Manger stations so much. I think because of peer pressure to assume more responsibility coupled with pride and ambition. Plus, the flood levels of youthful hormones made our eye balls float. That is the reason we looked like the walking dead, not sleep deprivation from all night benders. Yeah right…… That is my story and I’m sticking to it for now. Yes, there were pasta stations, fry cook, expediter and other fill in the menu areas though not as diverse as some large operations today.
After a while Bob and I would both be sent to a restaurant on a given day and told just show up rather than where we would be manning a station for a shift. Though we became very competent and comfortable at every station we tended to we developed two distinct likes. This is just personal preference at this point for us. We switched stations mid shift just for fun or to play head games with the chef. Bob preferred the broiler station now commonly referred to as the grill. I preferred the sauté station at the time. The grill was more of a mass production and efficiency station. The backbone of the menu selection. The timing for such high volume was crucial. The variety of items served prior to the millennium, around 1990 which seems ancient was vast compared to today’s menus. Then the variety of fish is unseen today. It was the same every night. Salmon, red snapper, tuna, flounder, lobster, swordfish, marlin, grouper, actual Dover sole (not today’s common lemon sole sold as such), prawns, pompano, halibut, haddock, amberjack, red sea bass, pike, lake trout, grouper, soft shell crabs, and on & on. Many of the varieties I just listed are used solo or maybe in pairs on menus because of demand and over harvesting. Then, having ten or even more delivered and served fresh daily was common. Plus there were shellfish in abundance and variety. Then came the cuts of meat and the poultry varieties. Many independent restaurants have trimmed down selections due to availability and the stability of controlling costs.
You can spot grill cooks in a kitchen line-up pretty easily. They have little or no hair on their arms up to the elbow. Many times, there are no finger prints, just scar tissue. The sauté cooks have burns on their hands and arms in the outlines of droplets/small splashes from hot liquids & oils. If they need to flambé you need not look for eyebrows:) You won’t see many husky sauté cooks. On the grill size is no issue. The best grill cook that ever worked for me was 6’ 7” tall and tipped the scales just over 315. In general grill cooks are now perceived by the public with some acclaim which is cool. There is an accessible comfort zone beginning at the home barbeque for most diners.
Then comes into play the culinary dance between the sauté and grill stations. Much like the Rockettes, timing is everything. One slow foot and the whole line crashes. Consistently cooking to the right amount of doneness with different cuts of meats mixed in with not blowing away various fillets of fish and their assorted textures plus poultry and vegetables finished with sauces, butters, compotes, and other sides this station when set up for a professional cook can be a maze unto itself. This station needs to have its timing pin point.
The sauté station usually has finished sauces in the steamtable, numerous vegetables, fruits, seasonings, oils, stocks, mother sauces, wines & spirits. Then we add pretty much the same variety of cuts of meat with many thinner for quick cooking and a more tender finished result. There are more items that can be sautéed than grilled in the spectrum of food. Due mostly to how fragile something is to handle and smaller sizes like bay scallops and crayfish tails. An item finished on the sauté station needs to be plated and sent out asap. With more urgency than a grill or pantry/Garde manger station. Sauces develop “skins” quickly under heat lamps. There are only so many burners and so much oven space and it’s all crucial because skillets take up space and can cause log jams with tickets really fast. The sauté station is at the mercy of the pot washer. No clean skillets, no food. A great pot washer can make any sauté station shine. Many menus intertwine the grill and sauté stations where both are producing items for the same plate. To see 2 pro cooks do the culinary dance between these stations is a culinary marvel. To be one of the duo is culinary heaven. The respect and professional bonding lasts a lifetime. I have been so fortunate to be a part of this dance with some very fine cooks then, chefs now. The pride factor is very real.
Expeditors when they have their act together are great in high volume restaurants and very necessary. In smaller kitchens one of the cooks on the line may be in that role as well. That usually separates good from elite talents. Invariably from my experience sauté cooks that excelled at the position rose through the ranks quickly. Not to say grill cooks that excelled at that station didn’t or do not. European trained chefs kept a watchful eye on cooks that shined on either station but in particular the sauté station. It is the coveted position in the cooks world. In truth, it’s easier to be a “lifer” professional cook that grills rather than sautés. Ergo some restaurant chains slapping the label of master griller to the position. Life that changes the reality of the position. Grill cooks do produce more food and are more cost effective than sauté cooks. A grill cook can be trained to be competent much faster than a sauté cook.
The sauté position is more active and requires much more flexibility and quickness physically. The sauté cook’s timing must be really good. Seconds can break a sauce or scorch a reduction in the middle of a rush and cause a back-up. Its very taxing on the lower back going in and out of ovens fetching skillets of beef tenderloin & veal chops. The sauté cook position is considered a vital stepping stone to be a competent saucier. The grill position demands a good tolerance to extreme heat for protracted periods of time unlike the sauté station (unless you have an antiquated blast furnace style flat top, which I always had a distaste for). Grilling is widely accessible to non-professionals and much easier to learn. This is true for beginners and the more advanced home cook. If the art of sautéing was as easy we would see a greater home kitchen interest. That won’t happen to the same degree of popularity grilling evokes with us. Grilling is also an outdoor experience that very much enhances the meal, simple or involved. From the set-up to the final forkful downed grilling is an easier cooking method to learn and become competent in. The first restaurant I opened as a chef was a mesquite grill fusing Southwestern cooking with French nouvelle cuisine. The art of grilling has evolved light years in only a few decades in the culinary world. This cooking method has impacted food in general more than any other method in my opinion during my lifetime.
Ask a chef in your next conversation with one where they preferred to work in a kitchen during their tenure as a cook acquiring experience and knowledge. That one question will open the door to a professional journey in their career. Invariably they begin their response with a smile no matter the answer.