Head Cook Says Consistency Is Most Important

For Jaime Macias, being a restaurant cook means constant learning and improving.

"Every day I try to be better at my job," said Macias, who started working at El Torito Grill in Costa Mesa 15 years ago and is now the head cook.

He starts work at 8 a.m. to begin preparations for lunch and remains on the job until 8 p.m. to help out during peak dinner hours. "To me, the job is not difficult. But you have to be willing to work hard sometimes and want to learn," he said.

Before coming to El Torito, Macias worked at various restaurants throughout Orange County, learning to prepare a variety of cuisines.

"The most important thing is consistency," Macias said. "The food can't be good one day and bad the next, or customers won't come back." That means attention to detail, which includes checking the quality of supplies, maintaining proper storage and careful preparation.

Macias advises beginners to avoid fast-food restaurants if they are serious about becoming a cook. "The menus are too limited and there is little training," he said.

At larger restaurants, it is not unusual for someone to start as a dishwasher and move up to become a cook. "At El Torito, we are always looking for people who want to learn and are reliable. We will give them many opportunities," he said.

Aspiring cooks start by doing prep work, cutting up cold foods and making sure there are enough ingredients ready for use during peak hours. Then they are advanced to the pantry, where they prepare mostly salads. The next step is to become a line cook, where they get their first chance to prepare meals. After several years, they may advance to assistant head cook and then head cook.

As El Torito's head cook, Macias is involved in the restaurant's catering activities. "Not too long ago, we catered an event at Fashion Island called 'The Oscars Come to Fashion Island.' I like going out to different places and meeting the people involved," he said.

OCCUPATION: Restaurant Cook

* What's involved: Restaurant cooks prepare food for meals, buffets and catered banquets. They are responsible for ordering supplies, proper food storage and for the quality of food served.

* Qualifications: Most restaurant cooks are trained on the job. Some have a high school education, but many do not. Most add to their skills by working at various restaurants and learning specialties such as seafood, catering and ethnic cuisines.

* Outlook: By 1998, the number of restaurant cooks is projected to increase by 10.1% to 7,830.

* Salary range: $5 to $9 an hour.

* Pros: Cooks employed by busy restaurants with a varied menu enjoy the fast-paced environment and the opportunity to learn various cuisines. Most receive medical and dental benefits.

* Cons: Restaurant cooks are on their feet throughout most of the shift and are required to work evenings and weekends.

* Advancement: Cooks may advance to assistant head cook or head cook. They may also specialize in catering or banquets.

* Quote: "A restaurant kitchen has many things going on at once. Being a cook requires good organizational skills to make sure everything comes out right."--Jaime Macias, El Torito Grill

Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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