At one of the restaurants I worked while in school, it wasn’t uncommon for us to serve about 400-500 on a Friday night; doing lunches during the week, we easily would serve over 150 or so (which is awesome for a stand-alone, non-corporate restaurant). After a year working there, I was moved to probably THE busiest station in the restaurant. This restaurant was known for its wood fire oven and the flatbreads we cooked in it; this oven was a beast measuring in at 8’x6’… lots of room in that baby and I kept it rolling at a toasty 650-700 degrees. The key to working this gigantic oven that had orders coming off of it non-stop was to move fast and have lots of backups on hand. Not only did I have to coordinate everything going on in my oven, I had to coordinate with the other stations in the kitchen to make sure that my flatbreads, roasted chickens, or seafood stews were finishing at the same time as their salads, burgers, and steaks. It was an intense job but it was the most fun I had had at that particular restaurant.
One of the hardest things to do in a kitchen, I struggled with this as well when I was new to cooking, is timing out everything so that all of the components of a dish come together at the same time. It is a skill that takes a game plan, some basic knowledge of cooking times, and always being in motion. Here are my basic tips for working safely and speedily in a kitchen!
The French have this crazy term that is used throughout all of the culinary world and it is THE most singular thing that they beat into our heads in our Basics class in culinary school. This term means, roughly, “everything in its place.” In essence, we have our ingredients all together (preferably measured out), our equipment is out and ready to go (i.e. pots and pans and any other things we’ll need to be able to execute a dish), and we have our recipe ready to go! Having our m
ise en place is having our game plan put together. We are familiar with our recipe (not necessarily memorized), we have our ingredients right where we need them and we have the correct tools to carry out what we need to. Mise en place makes or breaks a service in a professional kitchen and makes or breaks a home cooked meal. This is essential! If you take away nothing else from this post, please always remember MISE EN PLACE.
This comes from practice in the kitchen and becoming more and more comfortable with what’s going on around you. As you cook more, you’ll begin to learn that a medium rare ribeye will take about 8 minutes to cook; that butternut squash takes about 45 minutes to roast in the oven; that dried pasta takes about 7-9 minutes to get to al dente. The more you cook, the more comfortable you become with putting a dish together.
When I worked at this super busy restaurant on their oven station, we had a dish that I had to help with in the cooking process; it was our Roasted Chicken. This dish was soooo yummy; you would get half of a chicken roasted in the oven on top of a sweet potato puree and a roasted bell pepper and olive ragout, topped with a chicken reduction and some roasted garlic cloves. Talk about delicious! Anyway, the oven station had the privilege of cooking the half chicken; now the chicken took about 20 minutes to cook all the way through in my toasty 650 degree oven. As the oven cook, it was my responsibility to let the sauté cook (the one picking up the rest of the dish) how much longer my chicken was going to take so that he knew when to heat up the rest of the components for the dish. If we had timed it out correctly, by the time my chicken was done and on his station, the plate already had everything on it, we just needed to sauce it and garnish it. When I first started working that station, I was very timid about the chicken because we never want to ever serve raw chicken and my timing would be off because I didn’t have the practice yet. However, the more I cooked that dish, the more accurate my timing became to the point where I didn’t even watch the clock anymore and the sauté station would have to play catch up with me. I could feel when 20 minutes, 10 minutes, and even 2 minutes were over. It became second nature.
The more you cook, the more comfortable you become, the more accurate your cooking times will be.
My philosophy when cooking a dish is until it’s the food is plated, you never stop moving. Always be doing something in the kitchen to get ahead on your dish. If everything is cooking and you’re just waiting on everything to come together to plate, clean! My dear husband will cook for me occasionally when he has the time and when I am just exhausted from a long day of work (shocker, I don’t always cook at home!) which I enjoy and I love him for it. When we were first married, his dinners (poor guy) would take sooooooo long from beginning to end. Part of it was that he didn’t have a ton of experience with having a game plan or knowing the cooking times of certain items so he was either waaay ahead of himself or he would constantly be playing catch up to make everything come together at the same time. When dinner did get done and we had finished eating, it would take everything I had to not look into the kitchen… I would have to find something else to do while he cleaned up everything. Part of this problem was when he had down time, he wouldn’t do dishes as he used them and then that just compiles until it’s one huge mess at the end. As we’ve gone on in our marriage, I’ve taught him how to clean as he went so that he doesn’t use all of the spatulas in our kitchen or run out of forks for just one thing. Now it’s much better, dinner still takes a while to do but I no longer wait 2 hours for a chicken dinner and I can go into my kitchen after dinner without it looking like the after effects of an atomic bomb. He has come a long way and I am so proud!
In the restaurant that I shared my little story with you all about, I was struggling to keep up with the hectically fast paced kitchen when I first started. I was put on the pantry station (I did all of the salads, cold appetizers and desserts… yeah a lot going on all at once) and was having a hard time getting all of the dishes done that needed to be done when they needed to be done. The owner/ head chef came to me one day and told me a little secret which I have applied to every kitchen job since then and other aspects of my life as well. He told me “Marlee, you need to set up your station like the cockpit of an F-16. Set up your station the exact same way, every day, so that it becomes just muscle memory for you. You’ll reach over by your tomatoes to get your apples because that’s where you put them every day; you put your salt in the same container and in the same place every day; you put your knife, your mandolin, your steel, your cutting board, your bowls all in the same spot every day and you’ll get faster.” That was probably the best piece of advice I got from that job and have carried it with me since. I stress that at every job and at every station I’ve worked because it works!
When you know where everything is, you work faster and safer because it will all be where you know it ought to be. Don’t let anyone mess with your mojo, take control of your kitchen, be the boss of your space and have confidence that you can get a meal out in less than an hour (unless the recipe calls for a longer period of time)! Don’t let the dishes pile up in the sink and think “I’ll do them after dinner;” do them while dinner is cooking because believe you me, I hate cleaning up a ton of dishes after I’ve finished cooking and eating a delicious meal!
In review, the keys to working faster and safer in a kitchen are:
- Mise en place (have a game plan!)
- Know the correct cooking times of items being cooked (have confidence!)
- Never stop moving (there is always something to be done until your dish is put together!)
Let’s implement these steps into our cooking this week shall we! Maybe even try it out for Sunday dinner. Tell me how these steps have helped you increase your confidence and sanity in your kitchen. Happy cooking everyone and remember, it’s just food!