Help me organize my kitchen like a pro
May 25, 2014 8:17 PM   Subscribe

The other day, I was at a restaurant where the chef cooks the food directly in front of customers. I realized that by watching her, I was able to observe certain things that I don't normally glean from recipes and cooking videos. I could see not only the techniques she used to cook the food, but also how she organized herself to make the process so efficient. This got me thinking of how I can organize my cooking for maximal efficiency, especially when preparing food for groups:

  • The layout of my workspace (location of garbage can, appliances, arrangement of cupboards, etc.)
  • Where to place knives/utensils/pans/dishes/rags for easiest access (e.g. racks vs. hanging vs. on a magnetic bar)
  • What kind of handy equipment restaurants use but home cooks often neglect
  • The most efficient cleaning supplies (scrubber pads with handles/microfiber cloths/bleach)
  • Proper multi-tasking
  • How to keep hands and equipment clean, prevent cross-contamination, not make a mess, etc.
The closest thing I have found is the book Home Comforts, but I'm looking for something more specific (or in a more visual/easier to digest form).

Tips, pointers to resources, and so on greatly appreciated!
posted by ElEmigrante to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Knife Skills might be part of it.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:46 PM on May 25, 2014

Dull knives are unsafe, but more to the point of your question, they will slow down your knife/prep work and make you less efficient in the kitchen. Putting knives on a magnetic bar will dull them quickly as nicks and dents will accumulate when a knife is removed and replaced. I use a rack and clean/store my knives as soon after use as possible, and they now go a long time without resharpening.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:47 PM on May 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

You may want to read a chef's take on mise en place. Anthony Bourdain writes about it in both Kitchen Confidential and his Les Halles Cookbook. A quote from the latter (although he goes on to say more in the book):

"For the professional, one's meez is an obsession, one's sword and shield, the only thing standing between you and chaos. If you have your meez right, you are "set up," stocked, organized, ready with everything you need and are likely to need for the tasks at hand. You know where everything is. You know how much you have. (The right amount, of course.) As a result, your mind is similarly arranged, rested, and ready to cook — a perfect mirror of your work area.

In less metaphysical terms, having your meez together means that you have cleaned and cleared your work area in advance and have assembled every item of food and every utensil and tool you will require, and put them in accessible, comfortable locations, ready for use."
posted by jeri at 8:55 PM on May 25, 2014 [13 favorites]

You can get books on restaurant kitchen design that are super fun to read. When we were doing our kitchen, we looked through those and picked up some elements to copy. We got these tiny clip on plastic buckets to put on our counter - you can have a countertop rubbish bin, to dump all the peelings and trimmings as we work. The bin is like three steps more away, but this tiny thing makes a huge difference to work speed. We also re-arrange our drawers to move frequent used items up and group like with like. All my cake baking stuff is in one drawer for example.

When I cook, I put out multiple small bowls (ramekins and small metal bowls) to put ingredients into. I've learned to prep everything (cut, mix dry stuff, etc) in the first stage, then I can assemble as I go and it's so much faster.

I don't have the counterspace for it (tiny tiny kitchen) but if I did, I would get a giant chopping board on the table and a chunk of marble (for cold rolling and prep) next to it. We hang our boards above the countertop instead.

We also went to restaurant supply shops to look at the stuff they had for sale and mock-ups. That helped us figure out what was useful, e.g. stainless steel everything!
posted by viggorlijah at 9:12 PM on May 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nthing Jeri !!!!!

But you know what?

You can stand at your workspace with a pad and paper, close your eyes, start visualizing EVERYTHING that you use during prep and cooking....

- Is all of that stuff within arm's reach & in your line of sight?


Then make it so!


My wonderful husband has learned (just by seeing me pull out the stuff I use and leaving it out the same way week after week) of the importance of not altering my equipment & seasoning mise en place.

(I kid! I totally threaten him and blow up when my shit gets moved if I am in the middle of cooking and something is missing. Hasn't happened in years, tho;))

Knife block, spatulas, spoons, strainers - all within arm's reach.

My main prep area is between the stove and sink, with cutting board.

Salt, pepper, frequently used oils that don't need a fridge or to be shielded from sunlight are arm's reach on the counter, but not in direct sunlight.

Fridge is similarly organized.

Less often used items are on shelves or in cupboards -BUT- definitely organized into categories. ("Like items go with like," is the hard and fast rule.)

Tip: any vessel on an open shelf gets washed before use, because dust is not tasty!


There's your start.

In essence, anyone should be able to walk into your kitchen and cook successfully because by looking around & opening a few cupboards, everything should, "make sense."

Hope this helped!!
posted by jbenben at 9:34 PM on May 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've cooked a little professionally and I have a rockin' kitchen at home where I make amazing meals and heavier projects like brewing beer. My place is very tiny, 475 sq ft total, which means my kitchen is very tiny. But it works. It works HARD. Nobody can turn out large cooking projects faster than me. OK, here are my tips.

1. Every tool has a home. I know, without having to even think about it, that my Melitta coffee maker is in the front of the second drawer directly to the left of the stove. Every item has an exact place, even my mixing bowls are set in the same place in the same order every goddamned day. I can't stress enough how fast you can move when you just reach out to the right place and there is the thing you need. And, like others have said, put the things you always use within easy reach.

2. You need a large place to put your cutting board down and a small counter near the stove. You need to do a lot of chopping for most recipes. Have space around your board to set this stuff aside. If you can do all your cutting board work in one go without worrying about where you are going to put all this crap, you will be faster. Then you can transfer it to the stove for efficient progress through the recipe.

3. Frankly, smaller kitchens are better. They don't look glamorous but I can take a carrot from the fridge, rinse it in the sink, dice it on my board, and throw it in the pan without moving more than two square feet. Most restaurant kitchens are way tiny.

4. Knives go on a magnetic strip close to where you usually set down your board.

5. Do not crowd your kitchen with tons of crap. Most kitchens I have worked in have only sported basics and junky basics at that and turned out lovely food. Keep your counters clear and your equipment spare. Clutter is the enemy of efficiency.

6. The bars and restaurants I have worked rely heavily on bleach water. Every shift gets a new bucket of bleach water and you take a soaked bar mop with you to your station. You clean all surfaces with this. Even knives you use briefly will get swiped with this and put back on the wall. I have adopted this to my home with a spray bottle of bleach water. If I butcher a chicken, the board and knives get washed, the counter gets cleaned and sprayed with bleach water. I use baking soda paste to scrub something really stuck. Vinegar makes appearances in cleaning. My cast iron and carbon steel get scrubbed with salt and oil. Other than soap, no other cleaning products get used in my kitchen - I try to keep things edible. Pro kitchen tip: We used to clean the griddle tops with pickle juice.

7. Always plan on making a new recipe twice. The first time through will always be a shit show. That cook looks so efficient because she has done that a million times.

8. Garbage can as close to your board as you can get it. My sink, cutting board, and stove make a tight little triangle.

9. My best piece of equipment that restaurants use that few home cooks do is a mandolin. You will zip through prepping veggie slices. I wouldn't do Vietnamese fresh rolls without one. However, that shit is SHARP, so, be careful!
posted by Foam Pants at 1:37 AM on May 26, 2014 [27 favorites]

To the great advice above I'd add two things: plan your prep and cooking order ahead of time and clean as you go.
posted by digitalprimate at 5:50 AM on May 26, 2014

1): Nthing meez. That's just core. Unless the ingredient will brown/wilt/spoil in a short period of time (and steps -- like ice water, etc. -- can't be taken to preserve it), make sure that it is prepped ahead of time and kept in plain view. After that, keep your gear simple and well-cared-for; having to stop and clean old gunk out of your food processor or to sharpen a knife is deadly to a smooth flow. This mindset applies to the order in which things are executed, too. Plot out the timing of steps so that you can be working the entire time you're in the kitchen.

2): I just laugh when I see the average "dream kitchen" shown in home design magazines and such. The vast majority of pro kitchens are incredibly tight spaces. This is partially due to needing to build them into existing structures, where actual dining space is at a premium, but also because a cook needs to be able to basically pivot in place and reach everything. (I think this has changed somewhat with the advent of public-facing kitchens like the one described in the OP, where things need to look "clean" and open, but the individual stations typically still function this way.) My new apartment has a generous L-shaped counter, but it amuses me that I instinctively claimed the section 90 degrees/zero paces away from the stovetop.

3: Coordinate with helpers ahead of time. If a friend or loved one is going to assist, make sure they understand their task and the importance of its timely completion. If they are hoping to sip wine, snack, and chat, boot those jokers out. THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS. (If chillin' is a mutual goal, just do their stuff for them ahead of time, so that disruptions of the social aspect are minimal, e.g. "Yeah, that show's great... Can you stir that pan? I love the costume design...") It's likely a reflection of my own shortcomings, but one of the biggest stressors in my romantic relationships has been SO's who refuse to take point one (above) seriously.

4): Clean as you work. Keep a sturdy towel tucked at the waist to wipe down surfaces and tools, and to double as an oven mitt (assuming you haven't gotten it wet). Have your trash can as close as possible (not under the damn sink, behind a cupboard door), but not so close that it's a hazard. Working/cleaning/working adds a pleasant punctuation to your rhythm, and means a more relaxed after-dinner vibe because there are fewer things to wash up.

5): Never forget that you love cooking, though. As you are busting ass through your prep and assembly, always take time to enjoy those magical little chemistry displays, neat changes to smells/textures, etc. Cooking, no matter how efficient/regimented/anal-retentive, is about aesthetic pleasure.
posted by credible hulk at 6:05 AM on May 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

A trick I discovered through making pottery is to work one handed. It's a technique used when making slip casts. You have to mix the plaster by hand to make sure there's no lumps. However you only do this with one hand, keeping the other clean so that you don't have to wash your hands before moving to the next step.

I've adopted this in my cooking. If I'm handling raw meat I handle it with one hand only. Holding the knife in my clean hand. This way if I need to get a dish out of a cupboard I don't need to wash my hands as I can use my clean hand. Also when I come to wash my hands I can turn the tap on with my clean hand, thus preventing transfer of bacteria to the tap.

I second the comment about mandolins. They are worth every single penny. I brought myself a cheap one just in case it turned out to be one of those gadgets that collect dust. However it makes chopping onions etc so fast and much easier.

I keep a pack of antibac wipes handy, as well as kitchen towel and antibac spray for cleaning. Also try to keep everything off your work tops. I've just been through a streamlining process and have tried to minimise anything that is permenantly on my work tops, this has helped enormously. I've got rails and racks on my walls that stuff gets stored in. As well as a three tier wire rack (supposedly a bathroom one) that takes up very little counter space but holds a lot of my frequently used herbs, spices and oils. I also hook my antibac spray onto the rails, as well as my small pans. My larger pans are on a shelf above my cooker.

The microwave and freezer are fantastic too. I'll bulk buy onions and mushrooms. Then I'll prep them all, cook them, then freeze them. Mushrooms are great microwaved, as they release a lovely amount of juice that you can freeze to use in a mushroom risotto. Microwaving onions is great as it saves so much time getting them soft and allows you to do something else with your time. It reduces the time needed to make caramelised onions. Having mushrooms and onions pre-cooked and frozen in portions makes cooking meals so much easier. The texture when you defrost them is just the same as they are freshly cooked. Another great thing to pre cook and freeze are oven roasted cherry tomatos. Again I do a bulk batch and freeze in small portions.

As for multi tasking, try keeping some light hand weights in your kitchen. When I'm baking, once something is in the oven and I've got some time on my hands I'll do some exercise. I also have a tendancy to dance round the kitchen when I'm cooking. I do a bit of belly dancing so I can isolate my hips, this means I can continue stiring pans or chopping veg while doing a hip shimmy or hip lifts and drops. Maybe not the multi tasking you were after but worth bearing in mind. After all if you're cooking delectable food any calories burnt off in the process means less to burn off after :-)
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 6:02 PM on May 26, 2014

9. My best piece of equipment that restaurants use that few home cooks do is a mandolin. You will zip through prepping veggie slices. I wouldn't do Vietnamese fresh rolls without one. However, that shit is SHARP, so, be careful!

I love my mandolin!

I used to be terrified of it and have to weigh the benefits of increased efficiency versus how the taste of freshly sliced human flesh would work in my coleslaw, BUT then I bought a 20$ filleting glove and I can slice with impunity.
posted by cacofonie at 8:03 AM on June 4, 2014

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