What does a First Cook do?
A first cook acts in a supervisory role in an institutional kitchen, where meals are prepared in large quantity for a population such as students or prisoners. Job requirements for this position vary but generally include at least one year of supervisory experience in a kitchen where food is prepared in quantity, along with culinary training, preferably with a certificate or degree from a culinary school. This work can involve irregular hours, and people spend a lot of time on their feet in hot, chaotic environments.
The first cook may supervise the whole staff or work under another supervisor, depending on how the chain of command is structured in a given workplace. The person working in this role is involved in hiring and firing of personnel, creating schedules, and working with staff who need time off or other workplace accommodations. The first cook usually needs to have a sanitation certification and audits the workplace to make sure people are observing appropriate food safety precautions in addition to setting policies intended to keep the kitchen safe and clean.
In some institutions, the first cook plans the menu, while in others the menu is passed down by supervisors. The first cook must generate ingredient lists to place orders for supplies, plan ahead for producing foods outlined on the menu, and supervise the preparation and safe handling and storage of the food. First cooks can also be involved in determining how to repurpose leftovers and may be required to prepare special meals for people with particular needs, like gluten-free meals or vegetarian meals.
First cooks usually come in early to assess the situation in the kitchen, develop a plan of action for the day, and meet with other kitchen staff like baking and dessert crews. The supervisor assigns tasks to people as they report for work, may engage in some cooking, and also walks the floor in the kitchen to monitor people while they work. If there are concerns or complaints about the kitchen, this staff member may be involved in meetings to resolve the issue. When people aren't actively preparing meals, the first cook is inventorying supplies, placing orders, and training personnel.
This work requires good people skills, as supervisors need to be able to coordinate with their staff. Tolerance for very busy workplaces is critical and multitasking skills are also necessary, as first cooks need to keep track of multiple dishes, employees, and areas of the kitchen while at work.
Having been through some difficult circumstances in her life which required lots of time off work, my cousin was very understanding about her employee’s scheduling needs when she worked as first cook. This was great for them, but she often ended up short-handed because she let so many of them off at once.
When this happened, she would step in and cook. She said that it helped her keep her skills sharp, and while she cooked, she would teach the others by demonstration.
I think that her methods paid off, because the food was always excellent. Happy cooks tend to make better meals than frustrated ones.
The university I attended had a unique opportunity for culinary students. They got the chance to run their own restaurant on campus under the instruction of their professor.
The restaurant would offer a choice of two meals to the public on Tuesday nights for a very reasonable price. All of the meals were prepared by students.
At the beginning of the semester, the professor provided the menu and lots of instruction. Toward the middle of the semester, he let the most capable student take over as first cook, and he turned the entire operation over to the kids. Of course, he still offered guidance, but the first cook had a lot of control.
@Oceana - This position really does require a personality like your sister-in-law has. I tried working as a first cook, and the pressure got to me quickly.
It seemed things were always going wrong at the worst moments. Because I was in charge, everyone came to me to fix things. I think it was a case of too many cooks in one kitchen, because we had ten cooks. When you have that many people making different dishes, so much can go wrong.
I finally quit and accepted a position as just one of the cooks at a restaurant. I did not want to be responsible for anyone but myself. My new job relieved me of the tremendous pressure I felt as first cook.
After having worked for years at a bakery, my sister-in-law landed a job as first cook at a university kitchen. The workers there prepare three meals a day for the students buffet style, so they have to cook a variety of items quickly.
She is accustomed to working in a high-stress environment, and she has a take-charge personality. She likes to be in control, and she likes making things happen, so this job is ideal for her.
She is an excellent chef, and she offers invaluable tips to the other cooks working there. They hold meetings before they start their work, and she gives them advice for the day’s meals.
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