Sign up for our free newsletter
“To be a line cook you have to be a certain kind of crazy.”
“You get your ass handed to you. It’s hot as hell back there. You’re running around. The chef is barking orders at you and you’re not getting a lot of help. It’s stressful.”
“This is the only profession where the only thing you get out of it is that you’re passionate and you love it—there’s no money; it’s tiring as hell; and you get sweaty and gross.”
D.C.’s thriving restaurant industry employs thousands of line cooks. They’re the ones folding ravioli, sautéeing fish, and grilling meat. Yet there’s a disconnect. Despite being on display in the city’s many open kitchens, they still work in the shadows where a “thank you” from a diner is rare, and a living wage that comes with employment benefits is a unicorn.
Glassdoor, a popular website where current and former employees anonymously disclose salary information, puts the average annual line cook pay at $27,752 in D.C. That’s less than half of the median household income for the District, which is $70,848 according to 2011–2015 Census data.
With Washingtonians’ insatiable thirst for craft cocktails and knowledgeable service, certain positions within the restaurant industry are becoming more legitimate. The stereotype that servers and bartenders are simply biding their time before starting or resuming more serious careers is lifting. Restaurant owners are investing in these employees by providing them with educational experiences, giving them ownership shares, and expediting paths to leadership.
The same does not hold true for cooks, who are often stuck receiving apprentice pay after years on the line. They work intense hours in front of hot grills radiating suffocating heat. They recoil following insults from shouting chefs. And when their bodies suffer—whether a knife wound on the job, an injury outside of work, or an illness—they are often asked to work through it.
Most of these warriors wielding whisks and wooden spoons in D.C. are originally from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, according to Bar Pilar executive chef Jesse Miller. “Mine are 100 percent El Salvadorian,” he says. “You’ll find some younger African-Americans and Caucasians back there, but not so much in this city.” Capturing Latinos’ stories can be a challenge, according to Miller. “They don’t want [their] name attached to anything,” he says. “All of our guys have documents, but they still get freaked out about it. It’s hard not to with Trump sitting in office.”
City Paper sat down with six D.C. line cooks who were willing to speak anonymously or go on the record with their names. What are their lives like? Why do they stick with it? What builds them up and what brings them down?
The line cook job description is fairly consistent from restaurant to restaurant. Those working dinner typically arrive in the early afternoon to tackle a prep list until the restaurant opens for service. Sometimes they pause to have “family meal” that cooks often prepare on top of their regular duties. Then it’s an all out blitz until the last orders leave the kitchen. Finally, it’s time to clean up for the next day. The clock can strike midnight before the workday ends.
If a restaurant follows the French brigade system, line cooks will work the same “station” every night whether that’s garde manger (salads and other cold food), saucier (sauces), poissonnier (fish), and so on. As they build skills, line cooks can graduate to more advanced stations, ideally working their way up to becoming a sous chef.
A line cook we’ll call Cory, who spoke to City Paper under the condition of anonymity, works at Kinship and Métier—the double-decker, Michelin-starred restaurants in Shaw that share a kitchen. Chef and co-owner Eric Ziebold runs both.
Cory works five days a week doing everything from cooking ravioli and cutting vegetables for soup to making dressing for the salads. Cory also builds a roasted banana bavarois (custard) with California sea urchin and Australian black truffles at Métier.
For a long time, Cory wasn’t invited to sample the dish. “A month ago we didn’t taste our composed dishes at all. That’s hard for us as cooks because we don’t know the level of salt, the balance of ingredients.” Ziebold only recently changed this policy, according to Cory, who then learned that the sea urchin needed more salt, and the truffle broth needed more truffle.
Cory likely wouldn’t be able to afford to try it as a customer. The tasting menu at Métier costs $200 per person, the same amount of money Cory has to pay for health insurance each month since Ziebold’s restaurants cover only half. “When we opened we covered 100 percent,” Ziebold says. “That changed because some people were more interested in having a higher wage rate and not insurance.”
When the restaurant opened, Cory says line cooks started at $11 per hour. Six months in they were bumped to $12. Now most make $13 or $13.50. Cory estimates the going wage for line cooks in D.C. is $16 because that’s what various area apprenticeships offered.
Miller says he pays his cooks between $12.50 and $16. “To be competitive, $16 is the highest I pay anyone,” he says. “With minimum wage increasing to $15 next year, that’s going to be the going rate, but a few years back $16 would be your number one guy.”
Cory and the other line cooks in the kitchen are young. “Kinship all happens to be under 30, but that’s the way he runs his kitchen,” explains Cory. “We get paid less than the normal rate for the city because it’s a French concept where you work for free so you can learn from the best.”
Their paid vacation policy, under Ziebold, also comes with an asterisk. “Once you’ve stayed for a year, you have one week paid vacation, only to be paid out if you give 90 days termination notice,” Cory says. “Which is literally impossible because this industry has such high turnover.”
D.C. is currently experiencing a line cook staffing crisis. According to 2016 National Restaurant Association data, 63,400 people work in the District’s restaurant industry. That’s not enough. Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington CEO Kathy Hollinger says the worker shortage has been the trade association’s biggest issue for the past five years, and that it has really come to a head this year. Chefs say cooks will take a new job for as little as fifty more cents per hour.
Ziebold asks his line cooks to commit to two years when they sign on. “The way he wants you to leave is also through him,” Cory says “That’s why he’s like, ‘Give me 90 days and tell me what you’re looking for. I have all of these connections.’” Cory predicts only one person will hit the two-year mark. “That shows no one is willing to stay.”
“It’s not like you work two years and you’re booted out of the door,” Ziebold says. “I have someone who worked for me for two years right now.” He’s already made good on one promise to plant a cook in a job at a highly lauded kitchen, according to several employees.
There’s a fair share of needling and bullying in Ziebold’s kitchen. Cory calls it emotionally draining. “No one has been fired but people have been forced out based on Eric’s treatment of them. He will demean you, belittle you in front of the whole kitchen during service, and just scream at you all day.” Cory says Ziebold forced out two co-workers, calling one of them pathetic.
Sometimes, Ziebold says, he has to instill a sense of urgency in his cooks, but insists it isn’t personal. “There’s a difference between saying someone is pathetic and something is pathetic.”
He doesn’t deny raising his voice but says there’s a time and place for it. “We try not to revert to yelling as a knee-jerk reaction to every situation,” he says. “There’s a time for coaching, for having a conversation, and there’s a time for, ‘Do what I said.’”
This volatile environment is not unique to Ziebold’s kitchen. “There’s a lot of machismo and stuff back there,” Miller says, speaking about restaurant kitchens in a broad sense. “There’s a lot of attitude. You have to find ways to work together instead of going against each other.” That’s why he says, “If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Another line cook at Kinship and Métier looks at the fiery kitchen environment in a different way. We’ll call this cook Jordan because they also spoke to City Paper on the condition of anonymity. “We get so excited and passionate about what we’re doing,” says Jordan. “If you’re not drinking the Kool-Aid, it’s hard to keep up.” Jordan describes working in a part of the kitchen that’s especially hot and high-paced. “You run in circles like a mosquito preparing sauces and garnishes.”
Jordan dislikes plenty about the way the restaurant industry functions, but pushes through the tension. “That’s how I’ve survived so long in the kitchen. I think, ‘I deserved to get yelled at,’ instead of, ‘My boss is an asshole.’ That’s the difference between people that stay and people that don’t,” says Jordan.
“I think, ‘How can today make tomorrow better?’”
After corroborating the wages Cory shared, Jordan says the benefits of working at Ziebold’s restaurants outweigh temporary financial strain. “A lot of people chase money too soon,” says Jordan. “It looks amazing on my resume and my boss is breaking all of my bad habits one by one. So we accept the terrible wages in exchange for future success.”
Jordan doesn’t see the point in asking for better pay. “If you ask for more money and storm out, you just lost your job to someone else who is willing to work for that shitty money in exchange for a good future,” says Jordan. “I tell myself, ‘You have to win the game to fix the game.’ I want to play the game and do the best I can and be successful one day so I can make changes for the next generation. I think that’s what my boss is doing.”
Both Jordan and Cory have college degrees, as does Liesbeth Workman. She’s been a line cook at RIS, Birch & Barley, Tail Up Goat, and The Salt Line. She wants people to know that “not all line cooks are ex-cons and do drugs.” She says, “A lot of us are just normal human beings.”
Her first gig after college and culinary school was at RIS in West End. She describes a nurturing environment at the eight-year-old restaurant. “Ris Lacoste is a matriarch in terms of how she runs her kitchen,” she says. But there were challenges, including a tight financial situation.
“When you’re working hourly and it’s slow, to save on labor costs they’ll cut people,” she explains. “To survive, I needed that eight hours of overtime. Just that small bump in pay was enough to make sure I could pay all of the bills.” She continues, “For most people it’s just $50, but for me, it’s food.”
At the time Workman was employed at RIS, she says she wasn’t offered health insurance. “That’s important,” she says. “I know two people who put off taking care of themselves because they couldn’t afford it.”
Like athletes, line cooks need to be in good health to stand for 10-12 hours at a time performing physically demanding tasks under pressure. And chefs sometimes ask cooks to work through injuries, even serious ones.
For example, a line cook at a local fine dining restaurant injured their leg and required surgery. The executive chef asked this cook, who wants to remain anonymous, to postpone surgery and work for a month until a replacement could be found, putting the cook at risk for secondary injuries that could stymie their career. “I did that for him and he waited for me,” the line cook says. “I guess that was the exchange there.”
Workman finds the physicality of the job the most challenging, especially the heat. “Salt Line is a very hot line,” she says. “Getting used to that in the summer was nuts. I’d say it was peaking at 110 degrees.” Drinking enough water is critical. “Even though I worked for chefs who want me to push myself, they also emphasize taking care of yourself.”
Her executive chef at The Salt Line—Kyle Bailey—is the same executive chef she had at Birch & Barley. She says Birch & Barley was a lot different from RIS because the restaurant was slammed. “It was hellish at times,” Workman says. “I was averaging 13-hour days. But it was the first time I’ve ever been accountable for my work and given the opportunity to improve.” The kitchen needed her overtime hours, and she put them in.
Workman highlights yet another stressor of being a line cook—the discord between kitchen workers (back of house) and dining room and bar workers (front of house) that goes beyond pay disparity. Employees who interact with guests make significantly more money because of tips.
“It’s more of a misunderstanding of what makes their jobs hard, what makes our jobs hard,” Workman theorizes. Misfiring an order, for example, has consequences. “If you have a line cook training on a new station and you throw a curveball, you can derail their whole night if they’re not capable of recovering. That can be frustrating if the empathy from the front of house isn’t there.”
To address the difference in pay, some restaurants are doing away with tips altogether, but that too comes with a helping of consequences, including driving off customers due to perceived higher prices. Sally’s Middle Name tried it on H Street NE, but quickly reverted back to using the tip system.
Ziebold explains why he hasn’t made a leap to level the playing field. While he states that the line cook job is physically more demanding than what servers go through, he feels servers have the more challenging job.
“A server probably has the hardest job in the restaurant because they’re the ones that have to deal most closely with the largest variable—the guests,” he explains. “Being able to understand and guide somebody is an amazing skillset.” He continues, “There are fewer great servers than there are line cooks and the law of supply and demand is going to dictate that a great server is going to get paid a higher salary than a great cook.”
Plus, it’s not like the restaurant industry has high profit margins. Most restaurants are operating on a shoestring. “Every day guys are asking for more money,” Miller says, while also noting that minimum wage will soon jump from $12.50 to $15. “It’s getting tougher and tougher.”
Tail Up Goat is experimenting with a new model that closes the gap between both sides of the house and prevents burnout. Workman was a fan when she worked at the Michelin-starred restaurant in Adams Morgan.
Every line cook at Tail Up Goat works in the dining room once a week as a food runner or back server. They complete easy tasks like folding napkins and filling waters. It’s a much shorter shift, and the line cook gets a share of the pooled tips from the evening. Laura Pohanka, who has been a line cook at Tail Up Goat since July 2016, says the boost brings line cooks’ pay closer to a living wage.
Pohanka moved to D.C. in 2014 to cook at Marcel’s after working restaurant and catering jobs in California. At Marcel’s, Chef Robert Wiedmaier employs the French brigade system just like Kinship and Métier. She learned to work all of the stations, eventually becoming the tournant—the cook that can pinch-hit at any station. But then she sought out Tail Up Goat to explore new cuisines.
“I knew from the minute I started doing things, that’s where I wanted to be,” she says of Tail Up Goat. “Something cool and different is happening here.”
Pohanka has taken vacation with ease, including a two-week trip to Japan. Though a small business, Tail Up Goat offers some insurance coverage, as Ziebold does. “All employees part-time or full-time are eligible for health care through the restaurant [within] the first month after they are hired,” says Tail Up Goat co-owner Jill Tyler. “We cover 50 percent of the bronze level plan through BlueCross BlueChoice.”
Line cooks there are also able to taste composed dishes on a daily basis to gauge improvement, and Pohanka shares in the restaurants’ victories. Workman agrees. “When we made the Bon Appetit list and Jon [Sybert] got ‘Best Pasta of the Year,’ that was like, ‘Yes, we did this together!’ I felt like I helped this man achieve his vision, and that’s how I’ve looked at a line cook’s job.”
By contrast, Cory says that when Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema elevated Métier’s rating from 3.5 to 4 stars this fall and Ziebold poured cooks a glass of Champagne before service, Cory felt far removed from the accolades.
Tail Up Goat proved itself a good employer when Workman had a family emergency, too. While working the line, she found out her father died. “They paid me for the time I missed,” she says. “I was blessed that I was at that restaurant.”
“People should be able to mourn their family members—a restaurant isn’t that important,” says Rachael Harris, a line cook who says she was replaced at a closed Capitol Hill restaurant when she needed time to grieve her grandfather’s passing. She’s also cooked at Jaleo, The Reef (now closed), food truck Cirque Cuisine, DC Reynolds, and Ripple. Now she’s a part of a pop-up, Vic’s Homegrown, which sets up shop at 3 Stars Brewing Company.
Harris’ cooking career started in the Navy. She was a culinary specialist at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton where she cooked for a unit of about 300 people. “It’s more of a family in the Navy,” she says. “In D.C. everything is impersonal. I feel like everyone is so transient, it’s hard to find a family environment, and maybe that’s why I’ve struggled.” She’s found that whenever she gels with a boss, the boss inevitably leaves for another job.
The lack of work-life balance is the hardest part of being a line cook for Harris. She says you don’t get to see your family or friends, even during holidays. “So you blow off steam, you drink, you smoke cigarettes,” she says. “At The Reef we’d drink all day. Everybody would stay after last call at 2 a.m. and sit at the bar until 8 a.m.”
Addiction continues to be the restaurant industry’s Achilles’ heel. Pair the ease of access to alcohol with late nights and the fact that many line cooks can’t take time off, and you have a deadly combination. Harris describes line cooks as a vulnerable population. “Similar to veterans, we’re fragile,” she says. “Generally we can come with baggage.”
Some line cooks work not one but two jobs, like José Nava. Find him at Cafe Berlin from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then Montmarte from 5 to 10 p.m. His line cook résumé includes stops at Duke’s Grocery, Alfie’s, Et Voila, and Belga Cafe. The Mexico native who came to the U.S. when he was 18 has learned to cook Belgian, German, French, and Thai and retains a somewhat rosy outlook on his profession.
“Being on the line working hard with all that pressure means that after the shift is over you feel relaxed and happy that you accomplished it,” Nava says. He most enjoys the creativity the job can offer. “You can invent and create something out of nothing. I love that—especially if your boss supports you. I have worked with good bosses and bad bosses.”
He counts Alex McCoy of Alfie’s and the forthcoming Lucky Buns as a good boss because he empowers line cooks to create and “be themselves” in the kitchen. The same goes for Rico Glage at Cafe Berlin. “He’s teaching me how to profit, how much we can charge for a certain dish, how much he can pay employees.”
Nava says pay at the German restaurant is OK, but the positive atmosphere counts. “If I go to other places that pay me higher and I’m mad all of the time, it’s not worth it … I can’t stand when people are yelling at somebody for no reason.” Line cooks often report being reprimanded if they don’t execute a special order from a customer in the dining room.
“Sometimes we make mistakes on the line because we already know how the plate is on the menu,” he explains. “We won’t look at the ticket and will set it up as is. The server goes away and they bring back the plate and say, ‘Remake it’. And we get in trouble with the chef.”
Asked what they would do differently if they ran a kitchen as an executive chef, line cooks had a variety of suggestions. “A lot of Michelin places are closed one day of the week,” Cory says. “With the restaurant being closed Sunday or Monday, everyone is guaranteed a day off.”
Cory and Harris would both introduce group activities. “Us all going to dinner together. Masseria has had a dinner at Métier with all of their cooks. Why don’t we do that?” Cory asks. Workman says she’d aim for health coverage for all of her employees. Others are curious about models that split the service charge between front of house and back of house employees.
But advancing to the next level can take time. Pohanka says you have to have patience. “Since it is so demanding, a lot of people don’t want to do it for the long haul,” she says. “They want to be the next Food Network star, but it doesn’t really work like that—you have to get your butt kicked to get anywhere.”
Some face additional challenges to becoming a sous chef or chef de cuisine. “In order to move up in this industry, you have to be able to speak some English,” Miller says. “You have to communicate with the whole staff.”
Workman was recently promoted to sous chef at The Salt Line, meaning she now leads a team of line cooks at the new Navy Yard restaurant. “I feel like the struggle has made me a better person and a better cook,” she says. “It’s supposed to be hard.”
She’s already found herself asking her line cooks to work through emotional pain. “Everything else in your life doesn’t matter because you have to get this food out,” she says. “Telling someone, ‘Don’t worry about your [sick] kid, I need you to cook hamburgers right now,’ is jarring. But it has to get done.”
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.