What is a Line Cook? | Job Description, Salary, and How to Hire the Best

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Gabriela Tan
April 8, 2024
A line cook is putting out two bowls of sliced fruit on a kitchen prep surface.

Ever wondered who keeps the kitchen running during a dinner rush? It’s the line cooks, the backbone of every restaurant. In the United States, there are over 1.02 million line cooks currently employed. Without them, it would be nearly impossible to enjoy a delicious meal at a restaurant. A line cook’s role is often overlooked, but their position on the front line of the kitchen makes them indispensable. 

If you’re looking to learn more about the line cook role, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll be diving into everything you need to know about line cooks and how to hire the best ones. 

What Is a Line Cook?

A line cook is a kitchen staff member who is responsible for preparing and cooking certain ingredients within their assigned station on the kitchen line. In this line, multiple stations are set up and each line cook is responsible for different areas of cooking. Since line cooks are typically focused on getting things done at a specific station, they often end up specializing in a particular area of food preparation. 

Beyond cooking and preparing food, line cooks are expected to meticulously follow the chef’s directions and communicate with other cooks to make sure meals are prepared properly and on time. Depending on the restaurant, some kitchens may have a strict hierarchy with a head chef leading the line, or line cooks may have more autonomy in taking ownership and decision-making within their stations. 

What Does a Line Cook Do?

During a busy rush, line cooks are the lifeline of a restaurant. Each line cook is responsible for churning out a specific element of a dish, such as grilling meat, preparing appetizers, or plating desserts. With each line cook taking care of certain parts of a dish, they need to work together seamlessly to put together the final product. 

Line Cook Duties

Although taking care of one station sounds simple, a line cook has a multifaceted role with a range of tasks and duties. Here are some of the key responsibilities of a line cook: 

  • Preparation: Line cooks must prepare the ingredients and cooking tools they need before service begins. Ingredients should be portioned for dishes and counted properly to prevent any shortages during dinner service. Cooking tools should be cleaned and conveniently positioned within the station. 
  • Cooking: Line cooks must cook dishes according to standardized recipes and specifications for their station. Depending on which station they’re assigned to, they could be grilling, sautéing, frying, baking, or more. 
  • Plating: Some line cooks are responsible for plating dishes — the final touch before it’s delivered to the customer. 
  • Communication: Line cooks must communicate effectively with other kitchen staff to coordinate timing and sharing updates. Open communication helps to facilitate a smooth and more efficient workflow.
  • Quality Control: Line cooks are responsible for ensuring high standards of food quality to maintain or exceed customer expectations. 
  • Cleanliness and Food Safety Compliance: Line cooks are expected to maintain a clean and organized station to meet hygiene standards. Food safety protocols should be followed diligently to prevent any contamination. 

A line cook is carefully plating a dish with meat and salad.

What Is the Difference Between a Line Cook and a Prep Cook?

While a line cook and a prep cook are both significant contributors to the success of a kitchen, their responsibilities within the service workflow are quite different. 

A line cook primarily works during service hours and focuses on the creation of dishes, whereas a prep cook lays the groundwork for service by preparing ingredients beforehand. Prep cooks tend to work earlier shifts to make sure all necessary ingredients are ready before meal service. Overall, a prep cook’s role is less about cooking and more about preparation, as the title implies.

Prep Cook Duties

The core responsibility of a prep cook is to “mise en place,” a French culinary term meaning to “put in place”, making sure all the ingredients and tools are ready before meal service begins.

Breaking it down even further, here are some of the main duties of a prep cook:

  • Prepping Ingredients: Prep cooks must prepare ingredients, which should be portioned and measured according to recipes. This includes washing, peeling, chopping, and dicing vegetables; slicing, mincing, and marinating meats and seafood; and preparing rice, pasta, or other starches. 
  • Making Sauces and Stocks: Some prep cooks may be responsible for making simple sauces, dressings, or preparing bases like chicken stock. 
  • Preparing Simple Dishes: Some prep cooks may be responsible for making salads and simple appetizers. 
  • Inventory Management: Prep cooks must maintain a well-stocked kitchen by taking inventory of ingredients, rotating stock to maintain freshness, and notifying kitchen management of low stock or any discrepancies. 
  • Food Safety Compliance: Prep cooks must follow proper handling and storage procedures, such as storage temperatures, to maintain food safety and sanitation standards at all times. 
  • Cleanliness: Prep cooks are expected to keep kitchen equipment and prep areas clean and organized. 

What Qualities or Expertise Are Required for a Line Cook?

Whether you’re an aspiring line cook or a restaurant manager looking to hire one, you may be wondering what experience, skills, and education a line cook should possess. Here’s what’s generally required to become a line cook:


Most employers prefer some experience in a restaurant kitchen, such as starting as a dishwasher or prep cook, to familiarize themselves with kitchen operations and food safety. Entry-level line cook positions might require 1-2 years of experience in a similar role. 

Education and Certifications:

A high school diploma or GED is usually sufficient to become a line cook. Additional formal education and certificates are not mandatory, but they can be beneficial to demonstrate an applicant’s knowledge of cooking techniques and food safety procedures. 

Hard Skills Required of a Line Cook:

  • Proficiency with various cooking equipment
  • Knowledge of cooking techniques
  • Excellent knife skills
  • Thorough understanding of food safety and sanitation procedures 
  • Ability to follow recipes and portion control
  • Physical fitness to stand for long hours 

Soft Skills Required of a Line Cook:

  • Excellent communication skills
  • Ability to self-manage and work independently
  • Ability to work under pressure and prioritize tasks
  • Time management and organizational skills

All in all, formal education isn’t a strict requirement, but relevant experience and strong cooking skills are crucial to becoming a successful line cook. 

A line cook is heavily salting a large piece of steak.

What Makes a Great Line Cook?

We covered the basic skills required to be a line cook, but what makes an exceptional line cook? These are the qualities that can help a line cook stand out: 

  • Above and Beyond Communication: Line cooks are used to communicating with other kitchen staff, but many of them don’t interact very much with the front-of-house (FOH) staff. Going above and beyond by maintaining strong communication with both back-of-house and front-of-house staff can set a line cook above the rest. 
  • Adaptability: During a meal-time rush, it can be easy for a line cook to fall into their usual cooking habits. A great line cook can adapt quickly and easily to any special requests or substitutions, which can save time from having to remake the dish to the customer’s specifications. 
  • Attention to Detail: Keeping a sharp eye on quality makes a line cook stand out. From noticing small details that need to be fixed on a dish or an order that’s gotten cold, having strong attention to detail can help maintain consistent quality. 

What Is the Average Salary of a Line Cook?

According to Toast, the average salary of a line cook is anywhere between $21,000 to $38,000 annually. Although this figure is expressed as an annual salary, it’s important to note that line cooks are typically paid hourly. The average hourly salary for a line cook in the United States is $17 per hour. As an hourly employee, the number of hours worked may vary based on the restaurant’s needs. 

The exact hourly rate a line cook can expect to receive will depend heavily on previous experience and skills. Similar to jobs in other industries, the more experienced a line cook has, the more a restaurant may be willing to pay them since training costs should be less. Based on data collected by Indeed, these are the hourly rates you can expect as a line cook based on years of experience:

  • Less than one year: $17.35 per hour
  • Three to five years: $18.71 per hour
  • More than 10 years: $20.26 per hour

Another factor that can impact a line cook’s salary is the type of restaurant they work at. For example, a line cook may earn more at a fine dining or Michelin-starred restaurant since higher standards are usually expected in fine dining. 

How Many Line Cooks Does the Average Restaurant Need?

The exact number of line cooks that a restaurant needs can vary depending on factors like customer volume and restaurant size. However, a general rule of thumb to follow is to have three to five line cooks per shift for a casual sit-down restaurant that serves around 50 customers per hour. While this may be a good starting point to make a staffing plan, keep in mind that this number can fluctuate. Larger or more specialized restaurants might require more line cooks per station, whereas smaller restaurants might cross-train staff to cover multiple areas. 

Maintaining a balance between efficiency and cost is key since too few cooks can lead to slow service, while too many can inflate labor costs. Each restaurant is unique and analyzing customer traffic can help restaurants determine the most optimal number of line cooks to deliver a smooth meal service. Using a smart scheduling system that can help you analyze labor vs. sales data can be a simple way to stay on top of your labor costs. 

What Training Should Be Provided to a Line Cook?

Equipping your new line cook with a well-rounded training program sets them – and your kitchen – up for success. 

Starting with onboarding, training should begin with a thorough walkthrough of the kitchen layout, equipment operation, and safety protocols. As a line cook, mastering knife skills is essential, so dedicate time to proper technique and safe handling. Next, you can dive into specific cooking methods used in your kitchen to make sure they understand proper preparation and execution for the station they’re responsible for. Once they have the cooking methods down pat, familiarize them with your menu — cover signature dishes, plating techniques for each one, and portion control. 

Last but not least, emphasize the importance of teamwork and communication in the kitchen. Role-playing a busy service can help them develop a rhythm with their fellow line cooks, so they can get a feel for what’s expected of them. 

Keep in mind that ongoing training and feedback should be provided to help a line cook continue their development and foster their confidence in the role. 

A line cook is chopping up a green leafy vegetable.

What is the Average Career Path of a Line Cook?

The career journey of a line cook begins in the kitchen, not behind the grill, but usually in the dishroom. Many aspiring cooks start off in a dishwasher position since it’s considered an entry-level role in a restaurant kitchen. Dishwashers have the opportunity to learn about kitchen dynamics and the importance of cleanliness. From there, they can progress to becoming a prep cook to master basic knife skills and food prep techniques. 

Depending on the restaurant, a prep cook may need anywhere between one to four years of experience before getting hired as a line cook. After a few more years of experience as a line cook, this role can be a launchpad for several different career paths. Here are some positions that a line cook can consider as their next role:

  • Sous Chef
  • Executive Chef
  • Pastry Chef
  • Butcher Chef
  • Vegetable Chef
  • Commis Chef
  • Saucier

Being in a line cook position offers many career possibilities, making it a great position to gain experience and explore different culinary specialties. 

The Heart of the Kitchen: Recognizing the Value of Line Cooks in Your Restaurant

Line cooks are the heart of your kitchen. They’re the ones turning orders into delicious dishes, fast. They juggle cooking techniques, teamwork, and cleanliness to keep kitchen operations running smoothly. Remember, a happy and motivated line cook translates to an efficient operation and satisfied customers. When you invest in your line cooks, you invest in your restaurant’s success.

If you’re looking to streamline your restaurant’s operations, consider Push, the all-in-one people management solution specifically built for restaurants. From smart schedules to automated payroll and reporting, Push is the secret ingredient to success. Book a demo today to experience the power of Push for yourself.

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April 2024


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