Line cooks seem to endure endless strain on the body and mind. They stand for hours at a time, surrounded by steam, fry oil, and intense heat. The life of a line cook is, simply put, extremely demanding. Thinking back to the hardened misfits in Anthony Bourdain’s seminal Kitchen Confidential or the more recent Sweetbitter, one might imagine self-care for these cooks as fistfuls of Advil and tons of post-shift booze. But in fact, some line cooks turn to refreshing skin care, muscle salves, and epsom salts to keep going — habits and products that could come in handy for anyone, regardless of time spent over a skillet.
We asked six full-time line cooks how they keep their bodies and spirits in check. Some indulge in a few luxuries, but, with work weeks often verging on 70 hours, long commutes, and few breaks, most of them take a decidedly no-B.S. approach to self care. When you’re working a double shift and your body is fighting you like the enemy, you’re looking for results.
The primary self-care goal of Jules Beidel, who works the fresh pasta station at New York City Italian spot Bottino, is dissolving the “invisible layer of flour” that coats her face and body by the end of the day. For this, she loves to grab a nice, cool, grapefruit-scented face wipe out of the staff fridge — she likes the ones from Burt’s Bees or Neutrogena. At one job, she was one of the only female line cooks doing dinner service, and her male coworkers laughed at her for bringing wipes. But after a couple of days, “literally every one of them would ask me for one after the service was over. They were like, ‘Oh, this smells delightful,’” she says.
Diana Freedman of New York City’s Gramercy Tavern uses a more aggressive tactic against her skin woes. Freedman, who says she never even got pimples before joining the ranks of the line cook, now deals with acne on a daily basis — the kitchen’s sweaty, humid conditions don’t exactly bode well for her pores, she says. The clinical-sounding ZAPZYT acne treatment gel does the trick nicely. For a little TLC, she’ll throw on a good, cheap sheet mask once a week — she picks up these Tony Moly ones at Urban Outfitters.
Shary Romo deals with heat and sweat on a different level. Romo is a pastry cook at Quintonil in Mexico City, where it can get up to roughly 104 degrees Fahrenheit in her kitchen. (Mexican kitchens often aren’t air-conditioned, Romo says — so cooks just have to deal.) The oppressive heat, coupled with the constant exertion of lifting heavy sheet trays into the oven and scraping dough out of huge mixing bowls, tends to make Romo feel “disgusting,” she says. She has a basic skin-care routine that she tries to stick to. She uses the affordable Neutrogena Hydro Boost exfoliating cleanser and serum, which keep her feeling a bit more put together.
Stacy Seebode of Michelin-starred, tasting menu spot L’Appart goes a few steps further with her routine. Since Seebode’s team is made up of just six people, she spends a lot of time bouncing from station to station, and she’s constantly near a gas grill or hot oven. “My biggest nervousness is always, is this heat going to damage my skin long term?” she says.
Seebode feels that hydrating her skin is about as important as drinking water. She layers her skin-care products almost as delicately as the components of a dish, putting her faith in the Innisfree green tea line’s toner, serum, moisturizer, eye cream, and mask. When she skips, she notices angry red patches the next day, she says.
For relaxing sore joints, Freedman’s a big proponent of CBD products. This balm by Love + Destroy is formulated for lips and cuticles, but it beats her persistent knee pain into submission. “I just rub it on, and I don’t feel much creaking anymore,” she says.
Romo employs a slightly more old-school remedy to soothe her overworked muscles. After work some nights, she’ll reach for the pain relief ointment, Tiger Balm, which smells heavily of camphor. It helps relieve some of the pain while the heady herbal scent is relaxing enough to put her to sleep, especially when applied to her temples.
Ivan Jurado, currently in charge of the morning shifts at San Francisco’s Californios, applies Aquaphor the way Gus Portokalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding uses Windex: on everything, and with abandon. He doesn’t get burned much these days, but things can still get ugly when other cooks aren’t aware of their motions. That day, he says, “This fucking guy turned around with a hot tray and burned my arm.” Luckily, Aquaphor keeps those burns from blistering and softens the look of scars. And for cuts? “Just Aquaphor,” he says.
Jurado also deals with eczema, which gets exacerbated by kitchen work. He keeps it at bay with a few pumps of Aveeno’s Active Naturals lotion — “It really moisturizes the shit out of my skin without feeling greasy,” he says — and some more Aquaphor, obviously.
Sam Meono might seem lucky to only work 40 hours a week at New York City Thai restaurant Uncle Boons. That is, until you count his part-time gig at Superiority Burger. Since this cook is almost never off his feet, self care for him means splurging on a good pair of duds. His pair of New Balance Made in U.S. 997s ring in at just over $200 — basically the antithesis of Crocs.
While shoes at that price point aren’t strictly necessary, Meono does think cooks should be mindful of what they put on their feet. “If you’re on a break, change your shoes. Don’t be in your kitchen shoes all day,” he says. “And then whenever you’re walking around on your day off, don’t be wearing Vans and shitty stuff that’s bad for your knees and your back.”
Freedman goes for a slightly less sexy-sounding, but still super effective, pair of standard-issue Dr. Scholl’s non-slip work shoes. For extra support, she’ll also pick up some custom-fitted orthotics by the brand Foot Levelers. They’re not, she admits, the cheapest, but “that’s money invested into your health.” As the daughter of a chiropractor, Freedman knows plenty about the link between foot pain and back problems, so the investment is twofold for her.
Like Freedman, Meono is a huge proponent of CBD products. Back when he started at Uncle Boons, he was holding a wok and ladle for up to seven hours a day, and his hands weren’t used to it — they’d cramp up every night. He tried Mary’s Medicinals Transdermal Compound, and the results were nearly immediate. He still uses it occasionally, and freely admits that his girlfriend will sometimes massage his hands with it before work.
A solid hand cream is also indispensable. Beidel gets contact dermatitis on her hands, which cooking definitely doesn’t help with. “Your hands kinda get a beating — moisture, heat exposure,” she says. She treats hers with O’Keeffe’s Working Hands cream, a drugstore staple. “That shit’s pretty heavy duty,” she says. Seebode, on the other hand, opts for a cream with a bit more flare — the “super bougie” L’Occitane shea butter hand cream that retails for $29 per 5 oz. tube, which Seebode makes sure to rub into her cuticles as well.
After they’ve tended to their aches, pains, bruises, and burns, many line cooks turn to their creature comforts — unsurprisingly, this often means a good, hot bath. Beidel loves a soak with Dr. Teal’s Epsom Salt, as does Seebode. “It helps me get ready to go to sleep,” Seebode says. “It takes away the anxiety.”
Jurado’s relaxation game also includes a soak. “I’m a big bath guy,” he says. Jurado adds that his current roommates are too dirty for him to actually use the tub, so he’ll stock up on bath bombs from LUSH when he goes away. He recently picked up six for a three-day trip to Kansas City — that’s two glittery, psychedelic bath bombs a day.
“I go for color,” he says. “Whichever one looks the most fabulous.”
Rachel Baron is a freelance writer and recent Brooklyn transplant exploring the five boroughs through food.
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