The grocery store in my part of Brooklyn has a small diner tucked away in the back, with a short-order cook turning out regular American breakfasts every morning. Something I like to do on a weekend is go there to eat, when it’s at its busiest and people are hungry and impatient and crowded close to the counter worrying after their food. It’s the best time to indulge one of my preoccupations: to watch the cook as he works, in the hopes that he will, finally, utterly, and dramatically, crack.

The cook is a hangdog sort, slouchy and grim, with a thin mustache and a wry, put-upon mouth. He doesn’t look to me to possess the spatial organization and concision of movement demanded of a crack short-order jock, one hand waxing while the other paints the fence. Where are the martial rows of bacon, the craggy peaks of starch, the metronomic clang of the spatula against the flattop, the fastidious shriek of a grill scraper channeling away rivulets of rendered fat? His eggs scramble in alarming proximity to his French toast, his pancake batter contaminates the bacon, fried potatoes go lost among the hump-backed and defaced crescents of his omelets, and his over is medium when it should be so, so easy.

Worst of all, he seems worried. Jittery. Uncertain. As if he knows that someday the challenges of the job will grow to be too much for him. Perhaps he is scared that the teeth on some superheated sprocket in his mind will crumble from the strain, and he will be unable to function. Stacks of plates will rise to the smoke ventilators, teetering ominously. A daisy chain of tickets will spool forth from the point-of-sale printer and down to the floor, disappearing beneath the muck of crushed eggshells and burnt toast. And he will be carted away, mumbling something about egg whites, never to sling hash again. It is my intention to be there when this happens.

Waffle House expects no more than eight minutes to pass from a customer’s order to delivery.

In the meantime, I must eat. Not too long ago, I sat down to an early breakfast in a Waffle House in Atlanta: T-bone steak and eggs over easy, hash browns and coffee, buttered white toast and purple jelly. It was a simple plate, plainly made and swiftly delivered by a young, very pregnant African-American woman with a light southern accent and a pierced septum. “Fat lady coming through,” she shouted as she leaned over to refill my coffee. My meal was so, what’s the right word — correct — that it almost defies description. Nothing about the food was remarkable in any way. The eggs were runny, as eggs should be. The steak was seared and salty, as it should be. The hash browns were crisp, the coffee strong and fresh, the toast warm and charred, the jelly purple as a Blow Pop — as it all should be. I ate it with a pleasure that would only unravel on reflection.

Waffle House is a large chain of diners, more than 1,800 stores in 25 states, although mostly in the south. The locations are clustered near highway exits. You will have seen their high-rise yellow signs. If you want, you can buy a decommissioned Waffle House property. Waffle House corporate has a division that sells them. Waffle Houses stay open 24 hours, year round.

After a natural disaster, FEMA surveys local retailers to see which ones are operating, as shorthand for the severity of the damage. “If you get there and the Waffle House is closed? That’s really bad,” a FEMA executive in Florida once said. This survey is known as the Waffle House Index. The company is rightfully proud of this fact.

I am slow. Waffle House is fast. They aim for no more than eight minutes to pass between order and eating.

It is also proud of how much food it sells. Waffle House will tell you that if you placed end-to-end all the bacon it sells in a year, it would form a chain that could engirdle the equator. You could stack its breakfast sausages higher than the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. Waffle House sells more waffles than any restaurant anywhere, which makes sense, and it sells more T-bone steaks than anyone, which comes as a surprise. (No word on how these mean feats are verified.) Since opening in 1955, and of this writing, Waffle House has served 32,215,481 slices of pie and 729,065,401 glasses of Coca-Cola and 1,800,286,157 orders of hash browns. In the minute I devoted to tinkering with the previous sentence, out went 96 orders of grits. I am slow. Waffle House is fast. They aim for no more than eight minutes to pass between order and eating.

The first store, located in what is now a rundown, post-industrial suburb of Atlanta called Avondale Estates, closed when traffic patterns shifted revenue to the interstates. The property passed out of the company’s hands in the 1960s or 1970s. It was at various points a tire shop and a Chinese restaurant. In 2008, Waffle House bought the site back and turned it into a museum. It’s open twice weekly at some rather inconvenient hours, but visitors are welcome, and can take home a copy of the original menu and a paper cook’s cap. The building next door houses the company’s collection of memorabilia: a supply of old pieces of flair, dishware in retro patterns, classic uniforms in different shades of polyester. A jukebox contains a selection of Waffle House-inspired songs, produced by the company’s record label, Waffle Records. “There Are Raisins in My Toast” was recorded in 1996 by a man named Danny Jones. The museum can be rented for wedding receptions.

The store I visited in Atlanta was a busy one. A line for a booth or a seat at the counter occasionally stretched out the door. To keep things moving, an expediter called orders instead of the servers. Like all the staff that day, save for one tall and befuddled trainee with a Prince Valiant haircut, whose main responsibility seemed to be Windexing menus, the expediter was African American. Her name was Christie, and she was serious and stern, with close-cropped hair and a booming contralto speaking voice. “What’s the point of what we do?” she said during a lecture to one of her employees. “To make sure these customers are satisfied.” Part of me would have been happy to pass a day observing her.

But I was interested in the cooks. There were three. One man covered the two-foot flattop devoted to cooking meat. Another was stationed beside the seven electronic waffle irons. In between them, cooking eggs and potatoes on the griddle with his back to me, stood the man I had traveled to Atlanta to see. I had been told he possessed in abundance what Anthony Bourdain described in Kitchen Confidential as a “Nijinsky-like grace” at the griddle: light hands and supple feet and an unflappable disposition. His name was Charles Thurman, and he was a Rockstar.

This Waffle House in Atlanta buzzes with students at Georgia Tech — hash browns for hangovers.

“People always ask me how I stay calm,” said Charles.

He was average height and slender, 30 years old and well put together, with long, easy arms that swept loosely in front of him as he cooked. He had a round, brown face, a thin, manicured mustache, and a light blue tattoo on his neck. He wore an unwrinkled grey work shirt, ironed black pants, clean black brogues, fresh latex gloves, a royal blue apron, and a blue baseball cap adorned with a Rockstar piece of flair. He was handsome in a quiet way, and during the day we spent together, polite and impenetrable, as many African Americans in the south can be around white people such as myself.

Rockstar Grill Operator is Waffle House’s term for its best short-order cooks, after the entry-level Grill Operators and more senior Master Grill Operators. Rockstars like Charles must be nominated by several of their peers and managers and pass various food safety examinations. They also take a “volume based” cooking test that Waffle House isn’t particularly happy discussing in detail (I suppose it’s proprietary) but that one employee told me meant you had to cook $1,500 worth of orders on a single six-hour shift. I have no true sense of how difficult that is, but my steak and eggs, the most expensive item on the menu that day, cost $8.50, so the math is available to be done. Waffle House only recently codified these classifications after years of more haphazard ratings, such as the impressive-sounding Super Master Grill Operator and the subtly undermining Master Blaster. About 10 percent of Waffle House’s cooks currently qualify as Rockstars.

“It’s like in basketball, that side-to-side motion. I don’t have to turn my body. That’s a flair I have.”

Charles came to Atlanta from Pensacola, Florida, a little more than 10 years ago, when he was 20. He has been with Waffle House ever since, other than a couple of stints at Pizza Hut and Longhorn Steakhouse. “My first day was at 1700 Howell Mill Road, to be exact. I spent five years at that store.” He excelled immediately. “I remember my first day. We had those white shirts with the red stripes. My boss, he says, ‘You know how to cook?’” And Charles did. “Being athletic helps,” he said. “It’s like in basketball, that side-to-side motion. I don’t have to turn my body. That’s a flair I have.” Charles broke his dominant right hand once but didn’t want to miss work, so he taught himself to cook with his left. “Now I’m real good with both. I can do this thing with my eyes closed,” he said.

Charles oversaw a thronged workplace. Here he either exerted control or crumbled. His cook station stretched perhaps five feet, if that, in full view of the diners. It was 8:45 a.m. A few three-inch sauté pans were heating within reach of his left hand, next to two tureens of grits soaking in a narrow steam well. On the flattop, another three sauté pans filled with eggs scrambling or frying hissed on the heat next to two small cast-iron pans, one caramelizing onions, the other green peppers and mushrooms. At the back of the flattop, but close enough that Charles didn’t have to bend to reach them, were two mildly anal retentive rows of hash browns, each order snugged into a metal ring. Closer in were three omelets “old fashioned” — cooked on the griddle rather than in a pan — which vied for space with another omelet in a six-inch sauté. Charles’s tools were simple and spare: spatulas and spoons, griddle weights and scrapers, a soup-bowl for whisking eggs, no tongs. To his right, a line of waiting plates stretched past the cook station.

“There is no pressure,” he said.

Rockstars must be able to turn out the equivalent of $1,500 worth of food during a six-hour shift. The most expensive item on the menu costs $8.50.

Any readers still with me at this stage will have a right to know why I care so much about short-order cooking. Some may also be wondering, in exasperation, why it is I think you should care about it, but that is dangerous territory for a writer. Most stories of the sort I am writing take a different shape: The writer finds a cool thing, learns as much as possible about what makes the cool thing cool, and then writes something that sets out to inform the reader of its coolness. This is a valuable service — another term for cool is important — and is in fact referred to as service journalism. Investigative journalism and war reporting are as much a form of service journalism as travel and book reviews. Each one tries to establish authority with the reader by demonstrating knowledge. We are allowed to serve you because we know more than you do.

If it is not already apparent, I’ll just go ahead and say that this isn’t how I go about things. So what then am I doing messing around with short-order cooks? Let’s start with my griddle jock at home in Brooklyn. Why did I want to see him fail? I guess I’d have to say I’d take a perverse pleasure from it. Less enjoyment than making a lot of money, mind you, or camping with my children, or making love to my wife — these are not listed in order of importance — but his demise would provide a weird sort of comfort for me. Not a charitable way to be, of course, but I imagine some people will be able to relate to it, if not admit to it.

What I felt as I watched Charles was… something else. The obvious thing would be to call it jealousy. But that’s not exactly true, and for some very ugly reasons. Put simply, Charles and I don’t occupy close enough planes of social power for me to be jealous. Race, education, class, privilege, the whole fucked up intersectional soup that defines contemporary America, makes that impossible. To say that I am jealous of him is to engage in class fetishism. I spoke to several high-end chefs about Waffle House short-order cooks. They were all regular diners at the chain, and in fact had competed in Iron-Chef-like competitions based on Waffle House dishes. Each one professed respect for what people like Charles do, and admitted to their own struggles in trying to replicate it. But, and this was subtle, they also made it clear that it was a lower order of cooking, and that to be good at it suggested a lower kind of culinary ambition. No one said this outright, but it was there. One chef, whose name I won’t use, talked about the “big romance” surrounding the difficulty of short-order cooking. “I don’t want to dispel it. But there are harder things to do,” he said.

Short-order cooks in the United States earn about $24,000 per year. College boys like me don’t get to say they are jealous of people who do that. It’s condescending. The racial makeup of this particular Waffle House made things no easier. When a white American man expresses envy for the physical attributes of a black American man, however indirectly, it is by definition not a neutral act. Wesley Morris eloquently described this phenomenon in his 2016 essay, “Last Taboo: Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality.”

Short-order cooking is still governed, or at least can be perceived as governed, by long-standing assumptions about male behavior.

Besides, Charles was too good to think of in this way. He took pride in his abilities, but modestly, and was definitely pleased that I was interested enough in him to ask questions. His coworkers seemed genuinely to like him as well. Christie, who I imagine isn’t liberal with her praise, called Charles “the best.” The rest talked him up every chance they could. But I was still unsettled by how impressive Charles was on the griddle and here’s why: Watching him perform his duties, and yes, he was performing, at a mesmerizing and satisfying and enviable level, the closest I can come to describing it is with that most disreputable of contemporary words: emasculating. His competence seemed only to highlight my own deficits.

Bear with me here. I proceed from the premise that short-order cooking is a masculine profession in the conventional American sense. Yes, I know: Not only men can do it, not only men can do it well, not only men want to do it, women are probably better at it, women have historically been prevented from doing it — pick your disclaimer, write your hashtag. About a third of Waffle House’s Rockstars are women, which I consider a high number. But I do think that as a form of work in this country, short-order cooking is still governed, or at least can be perceived as governed, by long-standing assumptions about male behavior. A greasy spoon is a male environment, a place where the coffee should be black and bitter, where women carry plates and swab tables, and where men, the central figures, powerful and empowered, burn meat, flip pans, and wield tools. To assert this is not to defend it; it’s not even to say it actually exists. It simply means these notions influence, in ways I can’t entirely dismiss, what I think about short-order cooks.

I prefer the eggs.

The cultural references of the diner cook also suggest a stereotypical kind of manliness. You must be tough and quietly competent, quick to anger but calm in the face of adversity. You prepare plain and straightforward food, heavy on the meat, light on “exotic” spice, all of it evocative of the last era of unquestioned American male dominance, the 1950s. Real men don’t eat quiche, as the old cliché goes, and they certainly don’t cook them, either. John Wayne+diner food–decades of equal rights progress=Jimmy Dean (the brand of breakfast sausage used by Waffle House, I should add). Think, if your memory extends that far back, of the brutish and grease-stained Mel in Alice. Or Bourdain, again, when he describes his role models as cooks who “dressed like pirates,” with “style and swagger,” and who are “afraid of nothing.” In Norman Mailer’s 1953 short story, “The Language of Men,” an Army cook earns acceptance from “real” soldiers only when he threatens to hit another man. The story ends with him banished, after his new comrades learn he was relieved to have avoided the fight.

A friend of mine tried to warn me about writing in this way. “The key is to question notions of masculinity itself, rather than just enact them,” she said. So, yes, I am self-aware enough to know that these are bogus myths. I do not relate to my wife in this way, or my mother, or my female work colleagues, or women walking down the street. I reject antiquated male concepts and strive not to pass them on to my two daughters and my son. Yet men do exist — or they don’t, and masculinity is “socially constructed,” as is more generally thought these days, which is likely true but has no bearing on the embedded concepts about manliness that sway my perceptions — and these ideas about ourselves exist, if not intellectually then emotionally.

I recently took an online test developed by Ronald Levant, a psychology professor at the University of Akron, called the Male Role Norms Inventory. The inventory is a research tool designed to determine if the participant thinks men “should be macho” or if they can “lean more to the metrosexual.” I answered as truthfully as I could, but as any cultural relativist knows, there are many kinds of truth. For example, one question asked if I thought “men should watch football games instead of soap operas,” and I answered, honestly, that I “strongly disagree.” Men should watch whatever they want to watch! It’s a free country! Thus I earned a low score on the “avoidance of femininity” portion of the inventory. “Western cultural norms tend to demand that men sharply avoid anything that even hints of femininity,” the test results read. “Your score represents a rejection of this cultural norm.” (I scored a three, which is, by this measure, as metrosexual as you can get.) Good! But I don’t watch soaps and I do watch football, and my son likes football, too, and my girls, who like to get dirty and play sports and kill bugs and beat each other with sticks, don’t.

This is all very embarrassing, as you can imagine. But as Robert A. Nye, a historian of sexuality, so nicely put it, “When we enter the realm of the penis, we must abandon all hope of reaching firm conclusions.” It doesn’t really matter that my views are contradictory. Men like me, whoever I am or believe myself to be, don’t think in these terms anymore. If we do, we are wise enough not to say it, let alone publish it. I was raised without overtly muscular notions of men and masculinity. Peter, Paul & Mary. Big Bird. Barnard. My mother is the most conventionally macho person I’ve ever met; it would be a major achievement if I could get her to stop bragging about her sex life with my stepfather. (Of course, a lot can also be said about the machismo of the Saul-Bellow-Philip-Roth-Norman-Mailer brand of Jewish-male-intellectualism with which I identify.) Men do this kind of cooking. They are good at it. And as with all things that men are good at, or rather all things they think it is worth being good at, they succeed in relation to other men (and through the exclusion of women). One man’s expertise is another man’s deficit. The lessons of the short-order cook can be applied to all male rites of passage. This is the nature of the emotions provoked by my proximity to Charles.

I should mention at this point that my therapist declined to discuss these issues with me for this story.

The original Waffle House location, in Avondale Estates, in Atlanta, has been converted to a museum. The food is simulated.

Waffle House isn’t McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Subway. Its level of workplace sophistication does not resemble what Eric Schlosser described in Fast Food Nation, where the corporate goal is the eradication of human fallibility (and a living wage) from the labor equation. Charles actually cooks. Yes, he relies on gallon jugs of pre-prepped hash browns and steaks that has already been portioned and vacuum-sealed in plastic bags. But he still has to do something with these things, which means he can do them well or not so well.

One thing I noticed as Charles cooked was the absence of tickets. Waffle House does not use a computerized point-of-sale system. There are no printers or ticket wheels or ticket holders. Instead, the servers that day took orders on paper and gave them to Christie. She called them out to the cooks in her operatic shout. Then Jay, the Master Grill Operator working the waffle irons, “marked” the plates for Charles.

Jay had been with Waffle House since 1999, and seemed a little sheepish that he had not yet made Rockstar. He was tall and beefy and had a black stocking on his head underneath his baseball cap. Occasionally, he took the grill for a few minutes when Charles had to leave the line, and his movements were limber and confident. But somehow he didn’t have Charles’s command of the station. I can’t quite explain it. (I should also mention the meat cook, Terry. He was older than Charles, in his forties, a small man with a furtive, restless energy. At one point, he’d wandered away from his station, and Christie had to call him back. “I need you, Terry,” she’d cried, and his response was to bark. Terry, who had been with Waffle House since 2001, came to work that day despite being hit by a car while riding his bike. “I’m in so much pain right now,” he told me, adding later, “I get hit by a car all the time.”)

It takes mental acuity to internalize so much information and to be able to access it, at speed and under pressure.

Jay greeted me a little formally — “How you doing, Mr. Ted?” — and then launched into an explanation of the marking, which was a visual mnemonic system that used the plates and condiments. Jay slid a white breakfast plate onto the counter next to Charles and grabbed a packet of jelly. Jelly at six o’clock meant eggs scrambled, he said, placing the packet at the bottom of the plate. Twelve o’clock meant sunny side up. Three was over well. Orders were coming in, so he sped up his lecture. An apple butter packet got you cheese eggs. An upside down plate meant no eggs and a napkin on the plate meant a bowl of grits. Mayonnaise packets were patty melts or burgers and “Waffle House sauce” — a kind of ketchup-y, chipotle-spiced, condiment — packets were used for chopped beef or chicken (packet up=beef, down=chicken). A margarine cup face down got you a pecan waffle and face up a regular waffle. A spoon on the plate was a special order. A few cubes of ham or onions, or a slice of cheese, dictated the hash brown orders, which at Waffle House can be positively baroque. Variations on the basic ringed potatoes: scattered (spread on the griddle rather than cooked in a ring), smothered (with onions), covered (with cheese), chunked (with ham), diced (with tomatoes), peppered (with jalapeño peppers), capped (with mushrooms), topped (with chili), and country (with sausage gravy). The man eating next to me that morning had his hash browns light and his toast dark and his eggs over medium and apple butter instead of purple jelly and his coffee with milk instead of half-and-half.

It takes mental acuity to internalize so much information and to be able to access it, at speed and under pressure. It separates skilled short-order cooks from the highly trained chefs I interviewed, who all readily admitted that the Waffle House cooks were their superiors. Andrew Knowlton, editor at large at Bon Appetit, spent a day working the grill at a Waffle House. “I am a smart guy and I cook pretty well,” he said. “But I felt so stupid next to these people. They didn’t get flustered or in the weeds. No tickets or anything, and you look at all those plates with the mayo packets and the jelly packets, my mind just kind of went blank. I couldn’t do it. I seized up.”

An independent franchise manager in Columbus, Ohio, named Fred Thomas invented the marking system in the 1990s and Waffle House adapted it nationally. Testing conducted by the company has shown it to be faster than computerized ordering.

Jotting this all down, I knew why I am neither a math major nor a short-order cook. While Jay was talking to me, Charles asked if wanted a turn on the grill. I just laughed.

“It really is the perfect system to me,” Jay said.

From left: Jay, Charles, and Terry.

Charles’ shift lasted from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. The rush of diners peaked around noon, and the energy in the restaurant swelled along with the crowd. The chaos of hot plates, speeding servers, and sweaty cooks adhered into a kind of choreography, a folk dance. I retreated to the counter and drank coffee. R&B blared on the jukebox, reaching a weird crescendo when someone selected “Ice Ice Baby.” The machine fell quiet soon after.

Things began to die down eventually. The servers caught their breath against the counter, sipped a coke, tossed jokes to the grill operators, who were still in motion but slowing, like a steam locomotive nearing its destination. The hum of conversation among the diners ebbed as people focused on their food. Terry drained the oil from his flattop, five gallons of viscous fat rushing into a paint bucket — the wages of our bacon sins. When the work really settled he went home to nurse his injuries. (I forgot to ask if he was going to ride his bike.) Jay organized a restock, although the overnight shift employees were responsible for most of that work. A rolling cart laden with sides of bacon and flats of eggs and cartons of waffle mix emerged from the back kitchen. He loaded it all into the refrigerator on the line. The servers caught up on some dirty dishes.

Finally, Charles took one heaving deep breath and pushed back from the grill. He discarded his latex gloves and washed his hands carefully and thoroughly at the sink. He surveyed the dining room with satisfaction. He could take this domain as his own, to feed and control, to pull pride from and to occupy his days. Something amusing must have occurred to him, because a small smile creased his face, but only for a moment. He collected himself, drew a new pair of gloves from a box, pressed down his shirt, and returned to the line.

American fast food epitomizes a corporate dream of dehumanized replicability.

My argument about short-order cooks could probably hold true for just about any male professional cook, from the butchest BBQ master to the most intellectually self-congratulatory tweezer-nerd. But I would argue that the lack of creative freedom inherent to short-order cookery puts its practitioners in a higher order of dude-ness. And please, let’s not quibble over “elevated diners,” or, god forbid, “finer diners,” with their “takes” or “spins” or “plays” or “playful twists” on classic American chow. This kind of cuisine may be delicious but it isn’t short-order, not in the classic sense. Diner food has no “artistic” (expressive/feminine) flourishes. It should be as stoical (unemotional/male) as the person who prepares it. Charles may be a short-order savant, “the reason we have the Rockstar,” as one Waffle House exec told me. But the steak and egg breakfast he cooked for me tasted much the same as ones I’d had before in a Waffle House. In fact, that may have been Charles’s greatest gift: the perfect, generic, anonymous, abstract, idealized, sameness of his cooking.

That kind of uniformity, which is essentially male, brings up a problem with my general theory about the short-order cook: Men aren’t supposed to like self-abnegating labor. We’re too arrogant and pampered and privileged. Besides, it’s anticompetitive. How can anyone “win” when the point of the game is not to be noticed?

Like any modern food service corporation, Waffle House has a keen interest in consistency. The company will happily tell you about how it has “quantified” and “created standards” that range “across systems.” They have a vice president of “culture” and an HR department that they refer to as the “people team.” They can tell you about the time and motion studies they have done, and how they tested the Rockstar qualifications in Orlando and New Orleans before making it official. They value efficiency, and the best way to get it is by rigidly defining what their employees do and how they do it. I return to Bourdain, borrowing a description of a line cook that I will appropriate for short-order:

What most people don’t get about professional-level cooking is that it is not at all about the best recipe, the most innovative presentation, the most creative marriage of ingredients, flavors and textures; that, presumably, was all arranged long before you sat down to dinner….[T]he real business of preparing the food you eat… is more about consistency, about mindless, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over and over again in exactly the same way.

Being rigidly defined is not a happy-making thing. People don’t like it. What’s more, efficiency in this context really means ceding control of your destiny and placing it in the hands of a company. You make the same thing over and over, exactly as you are told, as fast as you can. You do it in clothes the company lets you wear. Rockstars do not move into management.

This kind of uniformity can only be achieved through the suppression of the individual, and a byproduct of that suppression is the suppression of the individual’s dignity. Combine this element of the work with the social pressure exerted on American men to adopt a pose of “rugged individualism” and you can have a short-order cook with a very bad attitude. So, when we see displays of manliness in repetitive workspaces, whether it’s an oil rig, a factory line, a law firm, a Hollywood studio, a Waffle House kitchen or the White House, it can be understood as “toxic masculinity,” as the internet would have it, or “hegemonic masculinity,” in academic terms, or more simply, overcompensation. You show your dick when life cuts off your balls. Of course, none of this happens with Charles. His attitude is perfect. The overcompensation is all mine.


This story was originally assigned to a reputable food publication, which declined to run it.