Tools of the tradePosted by: Ren
I’ve spent many years working in restaurants; preferring the far more lucrative, far less sweaty job of chatting up customers in the dining room while serving food, instead of being confined in the kitchen cooking it. Along the way, I’ve racked up many hours working closely with chefs, hanging out with chefs after our shifts, and crushing on many a young chef in my own personal time. In the years of rotating through various restaurant doors, I’ve taken my share of notes on what happens on the other side of the burner, and picked up a few tricks of the trade to take with me.
These five tips that I’ve seen in professional kitchens are ones that I’ve stolen and repurposed in my own kitchen, helping me stay organized and making my nightly dinner prep run a little smoother. Because whether it be in San Francisco, New York, London, Shanghai, or anywhere else in the world, a restaurant kitchen cannot be anything if not organised, and must remain so for fear of putting everyone (as they say in ‘the biz‘)—in the weeds. With a handful of organisational rules for your home, you’ll be one step closer to humming like a professional kitchen.
The Tape and Sharpie system
If you step inside the cool and dark cave that is a walk-in refrigerator of a professional kitchen, you will likely notice a methodically labelled system. Most kitchens I know adhere blue painters’ tape to any bin or container of vegetable, meat, sauce, or dried goods, and label it with the name of the ingredient as well as the date. I keep my own roll of painters’ tape (or masking tape) along with a Sharpie or other permanent marker readily available on my kitchen counter, and anything that is about to go in my freezer gets labelled right away. Because after day or two in the freezer, it’s hard to tell whether what you’re eating is the chile stew from the other night, or the beef curry from ten months ago, or whether the container in the back of the freezer is fish stock, chicken stock, or apple juice. Not things you’d like to swap in a recipe.
Mise en Place
Many chefs will tell you, the mise en place is one of the most important elements of a good cook (any episode of Master Chef will also tell you this). Mise en place translates from french into “Get your sh*t together”. Just kidding, it really means “putting in place”, and is a crucial element to any line cook’s repertoire. Having all pre-cooked ingredients and garnishes prepped and neatly organized on the counter will enable you to work quickly and efficiently once the cooking process begins.
Not Just for Takeaway: Plastic Containers
There were a few drinks that I regularly poured when I worked behind the bar at a restaurant. One was vodka soda (I was in LA, after all). Another was the Cosmo (thanks to a Sex in the City revival of the drink). And the last, were litres of soda, poured from the soda fountain into large cylindrical plastic takeaway containers. This last drink order was for the chefs that worked in the kitchen, who would without fail fill up a container every day before service, and again towards the end of the night. In the kitchen, these cooks used these round takeaway containers for everything—to hold garnishes, mix ingredients, temporarily store their mise en place, and finally, even as containers to eat and drink out of. At home, I’ve taken this idea, repurposing any old take-out plastic containers that are left. While I still drink out of normal glasses, I am known to use my plastic containers for everything—from prep, to storage, to temporary rubbish bins, to handy scooping utensils for things like detergent or cat food or rice.
En Pointe: Keep your Knives Sharp
A chef’s knife is like an extension of their own hands, and if you’ve ever seen a professional cook work in the kitchen, you’ll see how expertly they’ve learned to cut, dice, julienne, peel, mince, segment, tourne, or filet any ingredient. I’ve also seen chefs completely geek out over a knife collection, debating ad nauseum whether Japanese vs. German make the best cutlery on the market. The one thing they all agree on, however, is that a sharp knife is of utmost importance. Despite what you might think, a dull knife is far more dangerous than a sharp knife. If you don’t have access to a place with knife sharpening services in your neighbourhood, invest in a wet stone, a simple sharpening steel, or even a quick and easy electric sharpener.
Not Just a Pretty Accessory: The Kitchen Towel
In every cooking show, you’ll see a kitchen towel draped over the shoulder of a chef, who is usually running around the kitchen or sweating into a large pot. This isn’t simply for show, because it’s actually a very helpful element when cooking a large meal. A kitchen towel, draped in the threads of your apron or over your shoulder, can be used to wipe your hands, the counter, to lift hot pots, wipe plates, and more. I have a few nice kitchen towels that I keep, admittedly for show, draped on the towel rack. My other towels are all well-worn, well-used, have burns and stains and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve washed and wrung these handy kitchen accomplices.