A COOK’S UNWRITTEN, BUT FULLY UNDERSTOOD, KITCHEN LAWS

Painted in Waterlogue

Every profession has its respective “method of operation”; those understandings that every serious employee commits to if he or she plans on a future in that line of work. These “methods” can be viewed as unwritten laws that one quickly learns and burns into his or her subconscious.

I know that there are many examples of “the laws of the kitchen” that are in print, but those of us who work or have worked in what many compare to Dante’s Inferno, are able to embellish on and customize them as our own. In almost every case there are common threads, consistent “laws” that cook’s carry with them from property to property. Here are mine:

[]         My KNIVES are my KNIVES – HANDS OFF!

If you are looking for a sure-fire way to bring a cook to insanity – try picking up his or her knives to use without asking. A bartender inadvertently grabbing a knife to cut lemons on a stainless table or server using a chefs knife to slice bread needs to make sure that his or her insurance is paid in full.

[]         NEVER, EVER, PUT DIRTY KNIVES in the SINK and WALK AWAY.

Can’t tell you how many times this has happened (usually not with a cook’s own knives). A pot washer dipping hands into a soapy sink and grabbing a sharp knife is a cardinal sin in any kitchen.

[]         DON’T be LATE- On TIME is at LEAST 15 MINUTES EARLY.

The system in a kitchen is always a bit fragile. More often than not – preparation for service comes down to the wire. In many cases a cook’s ability to complete mise en place depends on everyone being on his or her game. When a cook shows up late the fragile system begins to crumble and nerves are on edge before the first guest arrives.

[]         MAKE SURE that your MISE is ALWAYS TIGHT.

There is a level of trust that must exist in a kitchen. Part of this trust evolves around each player doing his or her job and ensuring that when the first ticket arrives, everyone is ready for the start of the game and throughout all four quarters. When mise en place starts to fall apart for one cook so goes the rest of the line.

[]         KEEP your HANDS off my MISE EN PLACE.

A cook’s mise is that cook’s mise. This mise en place has been methodically planned out and meticulously executed. When Peter decides to borrow from Paul, that fragile system is again in jeopardy and tempers will be on edge. If a cook needs help with his or her mise – just ask.

[]         I MAY YELL AT TIMES TO GET A POINT ACROSS – DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY.

I know this is a lame excuse, but it is real. The stress level in a busy kitchen is always high and sometimes in order to pull in someone’s undivided attention it becomes necessary to raise your voice to accentuate the importance of an issue. The vast majority of time it is not a personal attack, but rather a means to an end. Some may view this as the creation of a hostile work environment and it can certainly be seen as just that, but when used sparingly it can be effective. The cook or chef must be cognizant of perceptions and follow up with a smile, pat on the back, encouraging comment, or sometimes even an apology.

[]         BEND your KNEES DAMMIT!

The majority of kitchen injuries happen because an employee lifted, reached, or turned incorrectly. Lifting that 50-pound sack of onions can cause serious back problems for individuals who refuse to lift with concern for physical wellbeing. Ask for help, bend your knees, don’t lift heavy items off a shelf that is above shoulder height, etc.

[]         WORK CLEAN – ALWAYS!

Smart cooks, even on the busiest of shifts, always, always, always keep their station clean and organized. To fail to do this will result in system breakdown. A sani-bucket with properly measured bleach or iodine water, a wet rag, plenty of dry rags, and a conscious approach towards cleanliness will always set the stage for a win.

[]         KNOCK FIRST – WHEN LEAVING the WALK-IN and ALWAYS ASSUME that SOMEONE is on the OTHER SIDE.

There are probably hundreds of accidents waiting to happen in a kitchen. Since many walk-in coolers do not offer windows to see what is on the other side, acceptable practice is to always knock on the door from inside the cooler before opening. This must be second nature to all who work in the kitchen.

[]         Say “BEHIND” WHEN you ARE.

Warn people where you are. Cooks are always pressed for time, they are rarely walking without something in heir hands, and every kitchen provides far too many blind corners and opportunities for collisions. When walking behind a person in the kitchen, coming up to a corner, or entering into a room or cooler – always announce your presence.

[]         SWEAT the DETAILS – It’s ALL in the DETAILS.

Everything is important: if you are leaving a pan on the stove to turn and grab additional ingredients – make sure the handle does not lean into a traffic area, if you use a Robot Coupe, mixer, chinois, or mandoline – clean all parts and return after you use it, dicing vegetables for a garnish in a consommé – make sure that the brunoise is perfect, preparing a veal stock as the base for sauces – make sure to caramelize the mire poix. The list can go on and on. Everything is important!

eataly

[]         NEVER SACRIFICE QUALITY for SPEED, NEVER SACRIFICE SPEED for QUALITY, be PREPARED for BOTH.

Of course, there are short cuts that every cook learns, but if those short cuts compromise the quality of a dish, then a cook compromises the reputation of the restaurant, the chef, and the crew and impacts the experience of the guest. At the same time, it is important to know that speed and efficiency are critical components of a successful restaurant. The cook needs to learn both.

[]         HOT PANS and WET SIDE TOWELS DON’T MIX.

Steam burns are the worst – enough said.

[]         If it’s HOT – SAY SO – ALWAYS ASSUME that it is.

Just like announcing your presence near another cook, always state when a pan, plate, or product is hot and potentially dangerous. This goes for communications with service staff, dishwashers, and guests as well.

[]         ALWAYS TAKE CARE of the DISHWASHERS.

The chef doesn’t show up – many people are relieved. A cook doesn’t show up and although others might be upset, they rally to fill the void. A dishwasher doesn’t show up and the place falls apart. Treat your dishwashers with respect, give them a hand on occasion, and feed them well.

[]         KEEP VENDORS HONEST – CHECK PRODUCT when it ARRIVES.

Forget the American rule of thumb that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The way to ensure that you consistently get what you ordered is to challenge your vendors. Assume that everyone is guilty until proven innocent. Vendors and particularly salespersons must earn your trust daily. Make them work for you! If you find a vendor you can trust ALWAYS, then hang on to them.

[]         You START it – You OWN it.

Put a pan on the stove, turn on the flame, add a bit of oil, and walk away assuming that someone else will keep an eye on it for you? I think not. Sear a roast and place it in the oven – it is your responsibility to make sure that the proper degree of doneness is reached. Slide a pan of sliced almonds in a hot oven to toast – if they burn it is your fault (anyone done this before?).

[]         A HANGOVER is not an EXCUSE.

Cooks work hard and sometimes play hard. Just because you had a great time last night and are dragging today with an earthquake level headache doesn’t work as an excuse for not showing up or performing at a substandard level. If you can’t handle the party life it might be time to cut back.

[]         No GLASS in the KITCHEN.

Glass and food do not mix. Use disposables or plastic for your water, if you see a cook using glass – address it immediately, and if anyone ever uses a glass to scoop ice out of the ice machine – show them the door. A broken glass in an ice machine is one of the restaurant’s worst nightmares (next to a fire, sewer problem, or fire suppression activation).

[]         ROTATE – LABEL and DATE – No EXCEPTIONS, No EXCUSES.

FIFO (first in- first out) management of perishable products is a cardinal rule in kitchens. Not only does it make sense from a freshness and product utilization standpoint, it is a critical action piece that your health department insists on.

[]         DON’T ASK ME to TASTE if you HAVEN’T FIRST DONE so YOURSELF.

Taste – Season –Taste! Of course, other opinions will help, but every cook must understand and practice building a palate.

[]         Put EVERYTHING BACK WHERE it BELONGS.

This should have been taught in the home when people were 4 years old, but the chef’s job is not to take on this responsibility with 20 year olds. Spices go back in the same spot, every space in a cooler is reserved for a particular product, all equipment including small wares belong in a specific location. A cook is responsible for station mise en place and for maintaining the same throughout the rest of the kitchen. Do this and life is wonderful. Things out of place effect timing and raise the temper level of every cook.

[]         DON’T OPEN ANOTHER CONTAINER of SPICES BEFORE CHECKING for any OPEN ONES in USE.

How many open containers of kosher salt do you need in the kitchen?

[]         CLEAN UP YOUR OWN SPILLS – IMMEDIATELY.

After lifting incorrectly, the next most common injuries in kitchens are a result of falls. A small amount of liquid on a kitchen floor is an accident waiting to happen. You spill it – you own it.

[]         In THE HEAT of SERVICE- ALL for ONE and ONE for ALL.

No matter what you state of mind is, no matter how many things listed above have gone wrong today, when it comes to service – every cook must be functioning as a team member. You can iron out differences at the end of the shift.

[]         STAY HYDRATED.

When you say, “I am thirsty”, it may already be too late. Cooks sweat and need lots of hydration throughout the shift. Drink water – not soda, espresso, or energy drinks.

[]         STAY PROFESSIONAL – DON’T be an ASS.

There is no room in a professional kitchen for renegades who think that all of this is a joke. This is serious business and your cooperation is essential. If you want to be a rebel and come across as an ass then I would encourage you to look for work elsewhere before the crew decides to straighten you out.

There are many other “Laws of the Kitchen”, more that I am sure you could add. The important thing to remember is that all of these points are true for a reason. This is how kitchens need to operate; this is how successful kitchens are defined. Be a team player and live by the letter of the law.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER

Harvest America Ventures, LLC

www.harvestamericaventures.com

Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting and Training

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  10 comments for “A COOK’S UNWRITTEN, BUT FULLY UNDERSTOOD, KITCHEN LAWS

  1. tony
    November 9, 2015 at 8:45 pm

    A big one not on the list: when chef starts barking orders keep your head down and say yes chef. There’s time later to have a conversation, but right then and there just get it done.

  2. Sean matson
    November 10, 2015 at 1:28 am

    Great article. This should be available as a reference and training manual.

  3. November 10, 2015 at 9:44 am

    Respect the food it’s a living organism that provide nourishment for the soul

  4. Laura
    November 10, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    Expanding on what Tony wrote above… The Chef is ALWAYS ‘Chef’. They do not have any other first name aside from ‘Chef’. Their significant other is ‘Mrs. / Mr. Chef’! It’s a hard-won respect issue that I see dropped fairly consistently. Also, major emphasis on IT’S NOT PERSONAL. Grow some extra skin layers and get over your delicate sensibilities. Another, for me a major one where I currently work, *Maintain the integrity of our kitchen, each other, and our food!* If you honestly don’t give a shit about the food you’re just ‘pushing out’, move on. Care about what you’re doing, where you’re doing it and with whom you are doing it with. Once any one of those components are compromised, kiss any potential success au revoir.

  5. Patrick
    November 13, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    Clean as you go…..

  6. Rob
    November 16, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    Kitchen Rules
    1. Chef is always right
    2. Chef is always right!
    3. If Chef is wrong? Refer to Rules 1 & 2!

    • misterrik
      January 26, 2016 at 5:04 pm

      Actually … I left a good job after 7.5 years because the new executive chef the company hired was awful. How awful?

      Chef: “I’m a white guy. I don’t like ‘spicy’.”

      Me: “Chef, we’re catering a quinceañera for 250 Mexicans!”

      Seriously, he would send barely-seasoned food out to a room full of Mexicans. Nobody that worked there would eat his food. I finally quit because I was the guy who had to stand at the end of the buffet line carving prime rib, while chef hid in the kitchen. I couldn’t stand the idea of my customers looking at me and thinking that I was the one responsible for that flavorless food.

      As one of our most experienced servers put it, “Does he season ANYTHING?!”

      He finally got fired, and I came back. The new executive chef is awesome.

  7. Artie
    December 18, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    all good rules to live by

  8. Trent Taylor
    January 14, 2016 at 12:41 am

    All so very true! I am going to share this with everyone in my kitchen.

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