There is rarely a day goes by that I don’t think about how nice it would be to eliminate much of the stress in life. Of course those visions of sitting on the beach, cocktail in hand, shades in place, and the waves creeping up on the sand between your toes, are great to think about, however, life goes on and for the most part, those utopian visions are relegated to vacations and Jimmy Buffet records. Stress, in the right dosage, can be helpful. Stress, when you are in control of it, helps us to accomplish many tasks and allows us to constantly strive to do better. Too much stress – well, that’s another matter. Let’s talk about the stress of details in a professional kitchen.
Contrary to the intent of the book: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, by: Richard Carlson, small stuff is what the restaurant experience is built on. Sweating the small stuff separates the great restaurants from the average and the great cook or chef, from one who gets by. If I can paraphrase, it was Chef Charlie Trotter who wrote:
“Chefs must always work towards perfection. You may not reach that far, but if you try you will likely achieve excellence and then you will at least be able to sleep at night.”
Charlie Trotter (paraphrase)
Details, details, details – this is what defines a great restaurant, this is what drives people to talk positively about your operation, this is what separates the incredibly successful from those that get by. Think about some of these tasks or standards that may seem incidental on the surface, but they truly set the tone for great food and great food experiences:
SHARP KNIVES: Cooks who keep their knives properly honed are able to slice through vegetables and proteins without bruising the delicate fibers or muscles that give the product its unique texture and flavor. The job of slicing, dicing, or cutting is very fluid when the edge of the knife is ready to work.
UNIFORM VEGETABLE CUTS COUNT (EVEN AFTER SCHOOL): Uniformity impacts the appearance, the flavor, and the consistency in cooking of ingredients that a cook works with. When a guest sees the accuracy of a well-handled knife, the stage is set for an experience to remember.
KEEP YOUR STATION CLEAN: No matter how busy, a cook who keeps his or her station clean –always, is able to work more efficiently, producing higher quality food, and doing so without unnecessary stress.
KEEP YOUR PANS HOT: So much of the flavor and appearance of a dish (meat, poultry, seafood, or vegetables) comes from mastery of the Mailard reaction (caramelization in cooking). This will never take place without using very hot, well-managed pans. Many line cooks will actually keep their sauté pans in the oven until use, ensuring that the ingredients will sizzle when they hit the pan.
BACKUPS FOR EVERYTHING: Don’t run out of mise en place! Enough said. Small stuff with big implications.
KEEP YOUR SIDE TOWELS DRY: Dry towels protect hands. Wet towels do not mix with hot pans. Burned hands reduce the efficiency and focus of line cooks. A lack of efficiency equals miss-fired items, poor preparation, and inconsistent results. Thus – dry towels are critical. A small thing with big implications.
MAKE SURE YOUR PANS ARE CLEAN – BUT A LITTLE CARBON HELPS: The inside of your pans should be spotless and the pans properly seasoned (a future article), the outside of your pans may actually benefit from a little carbon build up. That carbon helps control the transmission of even heat.
CHECK ALL OF YOUR PLATES: The plate is the cook’s canvas. A canvas that is not perfectly clean will detract from the final product. Yes, the dishwasher is responsible for clean plates, but checking them yourself is comparable to a pilot walking around his or her plane before sitting at the controls and preparing for take off.
PICK YOUR GARNISHES IN ADVANCE: That garnish, maybe even a simple cluster of herbs, becomes your signature on the plate. Even if the expeditor is the one to place it on the dish, you want to make sure that your signature reflects the quality of your efforts in preparing a menu item.
MAKE SURE THE RIBBON IN THE PRINTER IS FRESH AND THE PRINTER PAPER ROLL IS CHANGED: If you have cooked on a line, you will know how important this is. When the board is full of tickets and you are desperately trying to keep track of all preparations, the last thing you want to do is try and fool around with the damn printer. Frustrated cooks never prepare food as well as one’s who are in control. Think “Murphy’s Law” before the start of any service and change the paper and ribbon.
EAT WHEN YOU CAN (USUALLY BEFORE SERVICE) EVEN IF IT IS ONLY 10 MINUTES: Stay nourished and stay hydrated. You will burn mega calories during a shift. Without food and hydration, your process of thinking and problem solving will be greatly diminished.
PRACTICE YOUR SCALES: Back to another great quote from Charlie Trotter –
“Cooking is exactly like making music.”
In music, disciplined artists are constantly practicing scales to train their fingers and their ear. In the kitchen, great cooks are constantly practicing the foundations of cooking so that when the time comes, they can build on them, in some cases improvise, but in all situations know that the foundations will always serve them well.
A COOKS ATTITUDE IMPACTS THE FLAVOR OF WHAT HE OR SHE COOKS: Positive, confident, attentive, organized, focused cooks will always be in a position to make better food than someone who hates their situation. If you can’t come up with that positive attitude then you really need to rethink your career.
Restaurants are a business of small stuff. It is every detail that makes a memorable experience. From the attention to landscaping, exterior signage, parking lot cleanliness, bathrooms, ambient lighting, polished brass, spotless windows, level tables, pressed linens, attentive and professional service, exceptional china and glassware, and quality flatware, to every piece of food placed on a plate, it is the detail that demonstrates your commitment to greatness.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC