How does a restaurant kitchen work?
July 21, 2010 8:43 AM   Subscribe

How does a real restaurant kitchen work? I've been watching "Hell's Kitchen" and, yes, I know it's a reality show and thus somewhat or largely fake, but having watched it, I now really don't understand how any restaurants actually produce food. Have you worked in a restaurant kitchen? How is it different? Why does my food always come out on time and nothing is raw?
posted by tamaraster to Food & Drink (34 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
You may find Bill Buford's Heat right up your alley.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:44 AM on July 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

Well, if you showed up at a restaurant on its very first (or second, or third) day open, things probably wouldn't run too smoothly, either, and it also wouldn't be the chefs' first time cooking whatever it is you've ordered.
posted by phunniemee at 8:46 AM on July 21, 2010

Best answer: Read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. My wife worked in restaurants for ten years and says if anything, it's toned down. Great book and it has lots of procedural detail about the organised chaos of an average kitchen.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:49 AM on July 21, 2010 [11 favorites]

Weird question. Exactly what do you want to know? It is entirely different from home cooking. Its more like a batch production line. Depending on the size and ambition of the place they can go from having 1-2 people in the restaurant to 20+.
posted by JPD at 8:50 AM on July 21, 2010

Hell's Kitchen seems to seat everyone at once, which doesn't happen in reality. I'm pretty sure they don't turn over tables there, so the whole service is basically "you're slammed for two hours".
posted by mkultra at 8:53 AM on July 21, 2010

I'll chime in that both Heat and Kitchen Confidential were great reads for this. I read Heat first and found it slightly more fun to read, but a line cook I met out in San Diego said KC was far closer to the real thing.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:00 AM on July 21, 2010

Best answer: The day begins with prepwork, where all of the mise en place that can be prepped ahead of time is prepped; meat is butchered, pasta is made, salads may be prepared, bread is made, etc. Once the restaurant opens, the coordination begins. Depending on the size of the kitchen, duties are usually broken down into something like this (details will differ) someone working a grill, someone working an oven/broilers, someone on cold prep, and someone working on expediting/finishing the dishes off to serve them. One of these people will usually act as a kind of quarterback and will call out what needs to go in what cooking appliance and at what point -- they are responsible for timing the cooking of things so that everything is the right temperature at the right time. One person may perform one or more (or all) of these roles. As the fussiness of the food increases, you are likely to see an increasing division of labor. Some of these roles are higher status than others.

The amount of food that is already prepared and is simply microwaved or rewarmed in the oven differs with the quality of the restaurant and how well the food reheats. The expediter will apply garnishes, some sauces, etc., and make sure that everything on the order is correct and then will "ship it" or "send it" to the wait staff.
posted by proj at 9:02 AM on July 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

Thirding Kitchen Confidential. I worked in multiple restaurants a lifetime ago, and also temped in multiple factories. The only differences between those environments is that:

a) kitchens are hotter,
b) factories are cleaner, and
c) there's a lot more fucking between employees in a restaurant.
posted by coolguymichael at 9:06 AM on July 21, 2010 [8 favorites]

Why does my food always come out on time and nothing is raw?

On this note, notice that food does often come out over/under cooked, but that as cook skill increases, the likelihood of this decreases. Chefs go to culinary school for things like this and learn to cut things to very specific, similar sizes and thicknesses and closely monitor temperatures to ensure that they control the cooking speed and that everything is cooked correctly.
posted by proj at 9:09 AM on July 21, 2010

I thought the Disney movie Ratatouille had a pretty fair portrayal of how a real kitchen worked, probably due to the fact that the great Thomas Keller was an adviser to Pixar for the movie.
posted by I am the Walrus at 9:17 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Weird question. Exactly what do you want to know?

Why is a weird question?

I've wondered the same thing.

*When you order pasta, is there some kind of vat of proto-sauce, and the other ingredients are tossed in a pan with it at the last minute?

*When you order something that clearly would take longer than the 25 minutes between your order and it showing up to prepare - how does that work? Does it get crammed in a microwave at the very end and the 25 minutes are just for show?

posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:19 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes. As many things that can be par-cooked, par-boiled, par-broiled, pre-chopped, etc. without sacrificing quality will be. Again, there is a continuum along which these things operate -- some restaurants buy pre-made apps and fry them. Some restaurants make everything and microwave it.
posted by proj at 9:21 AM on July 21, 2010

*When you order pasta, is there some kind of vat of proto-sauce, and the other ingredients are tossed in a pan with it at the last minute?
Depends on what the sauce is. It is something that is a result of a long-braise its pre-preped up until a certain stage (maybe herbs and/or fat of some form to be added for example) then it is finished. If it is something a la minute the have a the raw ingredients pre-prepped and make the dish while you wait.

*When you order something that clearly would take longer than the 25 minutes between your order and it showing up to prepare - how does that work? Does it get crammed in a microwave at the very end and the 25 minutes are just for show?

See long braised sauce example (unless it is a crappy place in which case they are waiting on other things and then nuke your dish when the other things are almost ready)

It is a weird question because it sort of doesn't go anywhere - its very very broad and chatty.
posted by JPD at 9:25 AM on July 21, 2010

Best answer: I've worked grill and fryer in a small burger joint. Assembly line is the word. I can only talk for my joint, but here's how we did it.

When you have a smaller menu, as in a burger joint, you keep some stuff on the go in the assumption that it will be ordered in the near future - hot dogs in the steamer, a basket of fries. How much to keep in the hopper depends on the time of day and season and the look of the crowd.
Food waiting to be prepared lives in two places: in large amounts in the storeroom/coolroom, and in smaller amounts brought into the kitchen and stored near the workplaces for easy access. Knowing how much to stock is usually based on the season.

Some items are pre-prepared in multiple stages; the amount pre-prepared again depends on the time of day and season. French fries, for example, work like this:
1. The kid in charge of handling the potatoes does his work the night before, throwing the potatoes in the cleaning machine (basically a big vat with rough sides in which the potatoes get jumbled around until the skin is off), then runs them through a slicer, then throws them into huge tubs of water and hauls these tubs into the cool room.
2. In the morning, whoever is on breakfast duty (usually only one cook handling both fryer and grill) does batches of pre-frying between orders, then these get put in tubs and go back into the cool room.
3. Come lunch/dinner, the fryer fills up a big container of pre-fried fries by the fryer, and will usually cook them in fairly large batches as orders come in.
If it's busier and you run out of pre-fries, the pre-frying has to get done while you're also handling the regular frying, and that's not as good because a) you don't have time to let them drain as well and b) they're much tastier after they've had time in the cool room between fries.
If everything has gone to hell then you fry the raw potato strips straight through to the end, but they're not anywhere as good as pre-fried so you want someone with experience overlooking the prep chain to make sure that never happens.

Everyone keeps an eye on the strip where the orders are hanging, and knows who they have to keep an eye on to time their deliveries. Fries take less time than burgers, for example, so if I'm working the fryer then I wait until I see the burgers getting flipped for the first time before I put the fries in; of course, if it's busy you're just permafrying.
The grill cook knows that burgers are long and hot dogs are fast, so if a burger+fries order comes in a burger goes on the plate and they know everyone else will follow. If it's a burger+fries order, then the grill cook waits to see the fries on the order counter before assembling the hot dogs. Etc.

So you've got:
- Experience. Someone who knows how much food is going to have to move for a given day and time of day, so you get the right amount of food pre-prepared and don't run short or have to throw stuff out
- Organization. A place for the bits that you need, when you need them. Refrigeration if necessary, a container with an oil-catcher for pre-fries, whatever.
- Skill. People working the line have to have the skill to understand where their part fits in to the order not only in space but in time.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:27 AM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and there's lots of communication- "how long on the steak?" "hold that meat, the onion rings are still in the freezer" etc. It's my job to know how long it takes to make my bit so I can coordinate to ensure that my bit arrives at the same time as everyone else's.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:34 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

N'thing Kitchen Confidential. A good friend of mine is a former chef & says yep, it's pretty much the way Bourdain describes it, both in terms of the assembly line aspect, and the shenanigans that kitchen staff get up to.
posted by usonian at 9:53 AM on July 21, 2010

I found Kitchen Confidential to be a fun read, but a tad sensationalized. I felt Heat gave a better indication of what a functional kitchen looks like.
posted by Dmenet at 10:13 AM on July 21, 2010

Don't forget all the coke done off cutting boards when things slow down. Sex in walk-ins/bathrooms and lots of pot smoked out back while on break/taking trash out. And the beer- the lowboys are meant to keep your back up mise, but really hold the 12 packs to get you through service.
posted by TheBones at 10:16 AM on July 21, 2010

This is something I have wondered about from watching the same show and others, but just as much about what and how can advance food be prepped and how this may be translated into cooking more complex meals at home. (That this question is chatty is a bizarre suggestion to me - 'how much of what you see on the TV show is faked or misleading and what is the reality?' is perfectly answerable, surely).

It's more the prep side of it, rather than the organisational side, that is the more intriguing to me personally although I'd love to know how a proper kitchen works (rather than a burger joint - sorry to be snobby, although I am sure there are similarities). The concept of finishing off is relatively logical, to my mind, but how do you find out what or how much (% cooked) can be cooked for preparation and how long does it last in that condition? How much of the professional kitchen concept can be transferred to (for example) an unemployed bloke sitting at home all day wanting to improve his kitchen skills (my home made bread is now awesome and easy, but I need more to keep me entertained!).

I wondered about all kinds of pre-made sauces and things in my fridge to be transformed into different end products in half the time, but I don't know where to start to find that kind of thing out. I hope this question turns some of that kind of information up as well as the rest of the procedures.
posted by Brockles at 10:24 AM on July 21, 2010

Best answer: I worked at Earls for a summer, first as a dishwasher and then as a line cook. Like JPD and proj have said, everything that could be was prepped and portioned out early in the morning; when I helped out with this, I did things like putting five chicken tenders at a time into a bag, or putting a certain number of ounces of penne or shrimp into a bag, or cutting strawberries and putting a certain number of ounces into a tub. Most of the prepped food was stored in fridges under the line, all portioned out and ready to go. The line was divided into about six stations, including appetizers, salads, someone running the griddle and the french fry fryer, someone running the forno oven, and someone doing desserts. Each station would be set up for the dishes that the person working at that station would need to make. The appetizer station, for instance, had access to a salamander, a microwave, and all of the sauces and the fridge with all of the components facing in one direction, and a fryer, a stove, and all of the dishes in the other direction. That way, the appie person could make all of the appies on the menu (which was maybe seven or eight things) without walking more than a couple of steps. Similarly, the salads station had a huge case full of romaine lettuce, a scale, all of the dressings, a drawer full of mixed greens, and a fridge containing things like avocados, or the corn and bean mix for the tex mex salad, all within arm's reach. New people, when they were first being trained on a station, would take a list of the recipes home overnight and try their best to memorize them, then on their first shift they would be trained, and then on their next couple of shifts they would be monitored by someone to make sure they were getting all of the ingredients into a dish.

Even though the line was divided into stations, many people were trained on more than one, if not all, stations. When it got really busy, at lunchtime or on Friday or Saturday evenings, there would be maybe ten people on the line, and they would double up on certain stations that were more likely to be busy, such as salads or appetizers. If people became overwhelmed they would just yell out that they needed help, and someone else would come from another slower station to help out for a few minutes until it was back under control. The orders were entered by the waitstaff into a computer in such a way that, ideally, the orders would be split up and sent to the appropriate printers, which were distributed along the line (I think there were three or four) - for example, if someone order a caesar salad, some chicken tenders, a steak, and a piece of cake, the caesar order would go to the printer closest to the salad guy, the steak order would go to the forno guy, and so on. Sometimes if someone ordered a steak and a salad, both orders would go to the forno guy, and he would call out to the salad guy that he needs a side salad. I'm not sure exactly how the bills were split up by the staff or the computer, but I know that I would never get an order for a steak or a dessert while I was working at the appetizer or salad end.

Each item on the menu was assigned a bill time, which ranged between three minutes for a side salad to about ten minutes for something like a steak. If a bill came through with two dishes with very different bill times, like a steak and a salad, the salad would be delayed until the steak was almost ready so that all the dishes for a table would come out at roughly the same time. Everyone knew all of the bill times for the dishes they were trained on, and the importance of getting things into the pass-through under the bill time was repeatedly hammered into us. On busy nights, when some of the bills would take twenty minutes to put together, we would get a stern talking to. Typically the chef, who obviously knows everything about all the recipes, would hover around the pass-through and monitor the quality of the food before it went out to the customers. Dishes that got through to the customer even though they were raw, or that were so over the bill time that the customer refused to pay, were called "lost sale-kitchens" because they were the kitchen's fault. Obviously, if someone or something was causing a lot of lost sale kitchens, that would be worked out ASAP. Usually we didn't have more than one or none on any given night.
posted by Dr. Send at 10:31 AM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

To answer Brockles's question, our restaurant kept detailed records of the amounts of everything that we sold, organized by day of the week and time of the day (usually a lunch vs. evening kind of thing). This chart was used as the basis for ordering more food, and as the basis for determining how much food would be prepped for any given day. Fridays and Saturdays would always be bigger days, so more food was prepared accordingly on those days; this was never too difficult because a typical Friday would be pretty much the same as any other Friday, even though the difference between Monday afternoon and Friday evening would be huge.

Not that much was actually cooked during the prep stages, aside from sauces, pasta, dessert cakes, and other things like that that would easily last a whole day. If prepped food was left over at the end of the day, it was usually kept, because all of the perishable food was stored on the line in fridges. The food would be arranged the next morning so that any leftovers from the previous day would be used first. I don't think anything was kept for more than about thirty-six hours.

Sometimes we would run out of something. If it was something that needed prepping, like a sauce, or something that needed portioning, like tenders, someone would go into the back and prep it while someone else looked after their station on the line. If the prep depended on an ingredient that we were actually out of, our options were to either tell the customer that we were out of the thing, or (if we were desperate) to run down to Safeway and get some more of whatever we were missing. This obviously didn't happen very often.
posted by Dr. Send at 10:42 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Kitchen Confidential and Heat are great reading recommendations. Kitchen Confidential was written to answer your very question from the perspective of a veteran chef. Heat gives you the novice's perspective on a professional kitchen. I would also recommend The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman for a more journalistic perspective. The first is an account of Ruhlman's time at the Culinary Institute of America, the second profiles two different chefs whom Ruhlman spent time observing (Michael Symon and Thomas Keller). I'm not really a fan of Ruhlman's writing style, but there is some interesting information in his books.
posted by spinto at 11:31 AM on July 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

If you can find a copy somewhere of Anthony Bourdains No Reservations TV show, Season 4 Episode 10, Les Halles where he actually goes back and does a double shift it's a pretty good insight in whats goes on during service.
posted by Ferrari328 at 11:45 AM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

The reading list spinto gives is good. I worked in 4 restaurants over 10 years; Kitchen Confidential is witty and captures the spirit of the industry, but it's both amplified in terms of wildness in service to Bourdain's bad-boy persona, and very specific to what is probably the most cutthroat, fast-paced, difficult restaurant culture in the world, the NYC area.

It would help to have more specific questions. Parcooking, as mentioned above, is one major secret to getting all your food out on time at the perfect degree of doneness. Backward timing is another - if four different dishes are ordered, you start cooking the one that takes the longest first - say, a chop. Service time will be when that one's done, say 20 minutes from now. Then working backward from the chop service time, you know that pasta will need to be started 10 minutes before service time, fish needs to be started 7 minutes before, etc. And you just do everything in the right order.
posted by Miko at 11:59 AM on July 21, 2010

It all depends on the restaraunt. I worked at some small ones.

We had a prep area, cooks area,line prep area, and salad/dessert area.

the prep area handled things like stuffed lobster, stuffed shrimp and things like that . The cook area handled things like steak, pasta dishes and things like that.

we didnt have everything portioned out. you would just put a certain amount in each dish.

Some things are made were made before hand like soup and just heated up and kept warm when needed .

In the restaraunt i worked in the dishwashing staff would do things like peel vegtables and get fried appetizers from the fridge for the cooks and things like that .

The line prep area was incharge of making sure the tables had all there food and the food looked good.

Like i said each restaraunt has everything setup their own way.
posted by majortom1981 at 12:01 PM on July 21, 2010

Best answer: This is something I have wondered about from watching the same show and others, but just as much about what and how can advance food be prepped and how this may be translated into cooking more complex meals at home.

I've noticed that on Hell's Kitchen they often have the contestants cooking several fussy dishes with wildly different senses of timing, all at the same time. I'm not sure how likely this is to happen in a restaurant, but getting scallops with a side of risotto perfect and at precisely the right moment is pretty hard, even if you're only doing it for yourself. Certainly much more room for error than plating up steak frites.
posted by Sara C. at 12:01 PM on July 21, 2010

P.S. - also, others have noted that front-of-house management dovetails with kitchen management to make the food production work. It's not usual in most places for all guests to be seated at once - that guarantees that the bar, kitchen and waitstaff will indeed be slammed. The role of the host/hostess or shift manager is to moderate the pace of seating to create as even a flow of work as possible. Sometimes the kitchen will call the host/manager in to advise them to back off or slow down the seating pace to allow them to catch up; sometimes they'll also ask waitstaff to stall off, if things get really backed up. But controlling the speed at which new tables sit down is crucial to controlling workflow in the kitchen and bar.
posted by Miko at 12:01 PM on July 21, 2010

something to remember about shows like hell's kitchen is that the contestants are under a whole additional layer of pressures that your friendly neighborhood line cook probably is not. they have cameras in their faces, they are sleep-deprived and isolated, and they are in a competition. and not all of the contestants are experienced line cooks, so they struggle to find the rhythm that a well-functioning kitchen staff would have.

and, of course, they are giving a lot more air time to the few dishes that get messed up in a night than the dozens (hundreds?) more that are going out without issue.
posted by jimw at 12:43 PM on July 21, 2010

Here's (some? most?) of that episode of No Reservations where Bourdain goes back to his restaurant on YouTube.

(Another vote for Kitchen Confidential. Such a fun book. It launched his career outside the kitchen)
posted by CunningLinguist at 12:48 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hey, thanks. I appreciate all of the replies very much!
posted by tamaraster at 1:16 PM on July 21, 2010

Not really answering the question, but for more Anthony Bourdain goodness, he wrote a wonderful little biography of Typhoid Mary (which does, at least, give some idea of what turn-of-the-century kitchens were like).

His eulogy for Harvey Pekar was also one of the best.
posted by the bricabrac man at 2:30 PM on July 21, 2010

There was a great article in the New Yorker 5 years ago about The Egg Men of Las Vegas. You can read a few pages via google books.
posted by vespabelle at 4:59 PM on July 21, 2010

I read somewhere that the "diners" that come into Hells Kitchen often eat take out from another restaurant. I have no idea what percentage it is, but I am pretty sure that the contestants are not feeding every table. Not only would it take far too long, but they are paying people to sit on a sound stage and look like they are eating.
posted by toni_jean at 3:31 AM on July 28, 2010

I've always wondered about that, toni_jean. It looks like there are so many diners in there, and at to the degree they are typically in the weeds it seems like it would take them all night to feed that massive crowd of people who all sat down at the same time.
posted by Sara C. at 5:37 AM on July 28, 2010

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