Lessons on the Line

An ode to the unsung heroes of restaurant kitchens from a comedy writer who couldn’t take the heat.

11 min read
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The line cook. Perhaps the most crucial cog of any successful restaurant, yet the most overlooked. To that, I say: Enough is enough. If there is one thing I gleaned from my stint as a failed line cook — I survived a mere three shifts at Pizzeria Beddia in Fishtown — it's that it's time we recognize the immense value of line cooks everywhere, and not just for their hard work, but for their wisdom, too. 

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Pizzeria Beddia is my favorite restaurant and had been long before my brief and spectacularly unsuccessful time working there as a line cook. I ate at Beddia two to three times a week. I'd devour entire pizzas. I developed a fun, borderline-friend-ish rapport with the waiters. We'd talk about non-food-related things, like how sneaky difficult bowling is. I was a regular, and as I spent more and more time in one of America's great pizzerias, my interest in pizza itself steadily grew. This fascination came to a head when I read Joe Beddia's excellent cookbook, Pizza Camp. In the intro, Joe explains that he didn't have a clear-cut career until age 28, when he decided to fully commit as a pizza chef. I read that and thought, "I'm 28. Maybe I, too, could be a Pizza Chef Guy." Why not? Chefs seemed cool. Tattoos. Bright orange beanies. Warby Parker glasses. I could see it. A whole new life…

So I Googled "Beddia pizzeria jobs," and saw they were looking for line cooks. "This is it," I thought. "This is the first step of the rest of my life." Of course, through a series of embarrassments, I discovered it was not. Joe Beddia made the pizza route work. The rest of the cooks I worked with were doing great, too. For me, though, the pizza path proved far too difficult. I was very bad at this job, as I would learn very quickly.

I've had many, many jobs. I've been a sunburned landscaper, a bored cashier, a sweaty salesman. I've worked overnights in call centers, cleaned up puke in ice rinks, stacked and unstacked and re-stacked vague pallets on loading docks. I'm not saying I was particularly good at any of these jobs; I was not. What I'm saying is, each of these jobs was taxing in its own way, but at the end of the day, I could handle them. Being a line cook, on the other hand, was an entirely different beast.

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Pizzeria Beddia's kitchen is a well-oiled machine. Communication was so good it was near telepathic. I once saw a fellow line cook walk into the kitchen for his shift, wash his hands, then start peeling corn without saying a word to anyone. He wasn't even asked! I'd never seen anything like it! In retrospect, I see that this is an area where I fell short. I was not a good communicator. My biggest misstep on that front was that I didn't tell anyone about my dog bite.

Pizzeria Beddia's kitchen is a well-oiled machine. Communication was so good it was near telepathic.

It happened the night before my first shift. Unprovoked, my mom's rescue beagle absolutely munched my hand while we were watching The Heartbreak Kid. My hand swelled to the size of a hotel Bible and became as pink as tonsils. For some reason, I decided to not tell anyone at Beddia about this. I guess I was embarrassed. Or afraid that I'd be fired. So, there I was on my first day, struggling to get my massive throbbing-hot hand into rubber gloves, opening the oven door with just my pinky, spreading mozzarella as quickly as one can with only six working fingers total (which is very slowly!) — all without letting anyone know I was struggling or asking for help. Odd behavior!

But this misfire shined a light on an important truth in life, one that any successful line cook inherently knows: To thrive in a setting like Beddia's kitchen — or in any successful collaboration — you need to communicate well. If you're spending an entire shift in a panic over whether your fingers will have to be amputated Civil War-style, for example, it's crucial to be transparent about it so your teammates can pick you up. 

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It's easy to assume that working in a well-known restaurant like Beddia is always glamorous and exciting. You may even say to me, "You were a line cook at Beddia? That's sick! I can't believe you got to make pizzas for A-List celebrities like Jaleel White." And sure, that is true. I did make a pizza for Jaleel White, the man known to millions as Steve Urkle. He was in Philly filming some movie that I haven't heard about before or since. However, these kinds of brushes with the rich and famous are but a tiny fraction in the life of a line cook. The majority of it is grueling, unglamorous work.

Being a line cook means being on your feet for hours on end, getting blasted by the heat of the oven. It means working under intense pressure at a ridiculously fast pace, like NASCAR pit crews, but way harder. Those pit guys only have to work quickly for like five seconds, then the car drives off. After that they all get to sit down, I presume, and just kind of hang out with their pit crew buddies until the car comes back for new tires. Line cooks don't have this luxury. The pizzas keep on coming. And there are no chairs in the kitchen. I believe there should be, but there aren't. And these hardships are just the cooking part!

Being a line cook means working under intense pressure at a ridiculously fast pace, like Nascar pit crews, but way harder. Those pit guys only have to work quickly for like five seconds, then the car drives off. Line cooks don’t have this luxury.

My three days as a line cook were also the most I ever cleaned in my life. The Beddia kitchen is always spotless when the day begins, and it's the line cooks' job to ensure it returns to impeccable at the end of the night. This kind of intense cleaning was not something I was used to. Sure, I'd had other jobs where I had to mop, but cards on the table: I always consciously did a bad job. When I worked at ShopRite in high school I figured no one actually cared if the cereal aisle floor was pristine, so I'd just soak the mop and flop the wetness around the tiles willy-nilly. I was basically doing an impression of a guy mopping.

That was not how things were done at Beddia. Every line cook, after eight-plus hours working their tails off, would scrub the kitchen on their hands and knees. No one ever patted the cooks on the back about this. It was just part of the job, and they took it seriously. I see now that it's this kind of hard work that makes Pizzeria Beddia so successful, and is critical in making anything truly great.  

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By my third day I was running on fumes. My feet and knees were killing me from all the standing. My neck was destroyed from staring straight down at a 90-degree angle as pizza after pizza slid by me. My face was breaking out from the kitchen-heat-grease-sweat. I was having nightmares about peak hours. In the dreams, customers pounded on the glass looking into the kitchen, angrily flaunting their slices at me, screaming that I was adding way too many onions to the pizzas or way too few. I didn't have The Onion Touch and my subconscious knew it.

So, I took stock. I looked around the kitchen and saw that I was the only cook who was having these issues. Everyone else was locked in. They didn't complain about standing, or prepping, or cleaning. They took pride in their jobs, despite how difficult and thankless it could be.

By the end of day three, I saw that I wasn't cut out for this gig. It was too hard. I realized it takes a specific kind of person to thrive working in a kitchen.

My initial ideas about chefs and cooks were dead wrong. It takes more than dressing like you were once in a hardcore band. You need to work hard, be humble, and pick up your teammates whenever you can.

During my three days working at Beddia, I was not doing any of those things. But after spending time learning from the line cooks who did, I like to think I've grown, and will hopefully last longer than three days at my next job.

About Secret Menu

We created Secret Menu, a print and digital magazine from DoorDash, on the belief that one restaurant's story can help or inspire another. We're proud to elevate stories that connect local restaurant communities and celebrate the craft and ingenuity that makes them so vibrant here on the Merchant Blog. Read more Secret Menu stories here.


Matt Schultz
Matt Schultz

Comedy writer

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