Many of us remember the original MacGyver series in the 80’s where Angus MacGyver, a rogue scientist who worked for a fictitious government agency, used his uncanny problem solving skills to get him out of some pretty hairy situations. Sometimes with a paper clip and gum wrapper he was able to disarm nuclear weapons or stop some vise clamp walls from crushing him like a pancake. Many people looked forward to watching each week and storing up some survival ideas “just in case”.
Every career, especially those that involve tactile skills, has discovered those few “hacks” that can be pulled out of their bag of tricks when the moment requires some immediate problem solving. Cooking is no different than any other field in this regard, so I thought it might be useful to point to some of the hacks that line cooks use to save a potentially out of control situation or simply get through a busy night. The key with all of these is to survive without sacrificing the quality of work or the integrity of a dish.
If you have worked the line for any length of time then you are probably aware of most of these, but just in case here are a few that might save the day:
 KEEP YOUR PANS ON THE READY
Line cooks who work the sauté station are acutely aware that their pans must be screaming hot before a protein hits the surface. Even with flames at full throttle this can take a minute or so and slow down the action. A simple trick is to store your sauté pans in a hot oven so that they are ready whenever you are. This saves a few seconds and can help a cook to keep the pace of cooking.
 SAVING A BROKEN HOLLANDAISE
A hollandaise is a sauce that is comprised of the fewest ingredients, yet if prepared incorrectly or stored inappropriately will fail consistently. If that sauce begins to “break” (clarified butter separating from egg yolks) there is a quick hack to bring it back. Add a few drops of boiling water to the broken hollandaise and whisk with reckless abandon. If that doesn’t work try adding another egg yolk while whisking.
 60 SECOND HOLLANDAISE ON THE FLY
It’s brunch and your Eggs Benedict station has been hit hard – turning to that bain holding hollandaise, the line cook notes that there are only a few portions of hollandaise remaining for an ever-growing number of orders. Have no fear – clarified butter is likely already on the line, eggs are readily available, and lemon wedges are at your fingertips. If you have a blender then hollandaise can be made in 60 seconds. The same method: egg yolks, a few drops of hot water and blend until the yolks turn pale yellow and fluff, turn to medium speed and gradually add the clarified butter in a steady stream, finish with a pinch of salt, fresh lemon juice and a few drops of Tabasco – voila! The only difference is that with this method you will need approximately twice as many egg yolks – the flavor is slightly richer, but otherwise just like the product made by hand.
 TRICK THE NERVES IN YOUR HANDS
Handling very hot products from a water bath or slicing a roast can be painful and sometimes an impossible task. Keep a bowl of ice water at the ready and dip your fingers in between handling the product and trick your brain into thinking that the heat doesn’t matter. It works!
 FORGOT TO SOAK THOSE BEANS
Of course we all have done this – you forgot to soak those dried beans overnight for a cassoulet, and here it is 3 p.m. with service looming at 5. Sort, rinse, and add your dried beans to enough water or stock with a teaspoon of baking soda. Simmer (don’t boil) and the baking soda will break the structure of those beans in no time. Make sure you don’t boil the beans or they will tend to blow up and lose their integrity with this method. Next time – plan ahead!
 FAST AND EFFICIENT SHALLOTS
Cooks love using shallots as a full flavored, yet sweet and mellow alternative to onions – especially on the line. Instead of slicing or mincing the shallots – puree them in a blender. The shallots actually melt in the pan and are less likely to burn or add harshness to the dish.
 AVOCADOS READY OVERNIGHT
You need some avocados for service tomorrow and they arrive from your vendor – hard as a rock. Keep them intact, cover them with flour, and store at room temperature overnight. The next day they are soft and ripe.
 HOT COFFEE TO COOL DOWN
The heat on a busy line can be unbearable. Standing over a battery of open burners cranked to “10”, flames leaping from a char-grill, or a 760 degree open hearth oven can actually leave a cook with what resembles a few too many hours outside in the July sun. Dehydration is a real problem among line cooks and it is common to find a cook losing a couple pounds of weight in sweat after a night on the line. Keeping hydrated and finding some form of relief from heat that is intense enough to cook a person is of primary importance. Some might think that cold beverages are the answer, but in fact, a steady stream of warm drinking water or even hot coffee will provide even more relief in the long run.
 PAR POACH EGGS
Back to brunch and that steady stream of Eggs Benedict orders – timing is essential and this dish requires a variety of different cooking steps: poach the eggs, toast the English muffin, grill the Canadian bacon, and brown the hollandaise just before pushing the finished dish through the pass. Any step saving method will help. Eggs can be pre-poached (about 80%) and better controlled if done in advance. Poach the eggs with simmering water and a touch of vinegar, transfer to ice water to shock and stop the cooking, transfer to refrigerated pans, and wait for the orders. When needed, transfer the pre-poached eggs back to a water bath for 20—30 seconds, just enough time to warm them through, and they are ready for assembly.
 SIMPLE – KNIVES NEED TO BE SHARP
This is not a hack, but rather the most basic of time saving methods in a kitchen – keeping a cook’s knives sharp is an absolute. Right next to every cooks knives should be a steel and clean towel for wiping down knives that are constantly attended to.
 MEMORIZE YOUR STATION MAP – KEEP YOUR ORGANIZATION
Next on the basic time saving methods is to have a well-designed station map that defines exactly where every ingredient and every tool is placed. Just like a pilot memorizes his or her array of controls and meters, so too must a line cook memorize where everything in a station is placed. You should be able to grab for anything without even looking. The follow-up is to make sure that everything is always returned to its place on the map no matter how busy you are.
 WORK CLEAN – NO MATTER HOW BUSY YOU ARE
An efficient station is ALWAYS clean and cooks are always cleaning as they go. When station cleanliness begins to slip then the cook will start that slow and steady demise that eventually leads to chaos.
 BLANCH – SHOCK – REFRESH
Again, the trick is to look for ways to save a few seconds here or there without any compromise to quality. One such method employed in most restaurants focuses on vegetables. Par blanching vegetables and shocking them in ice water, drying them and keeping them ready for a quick refresh when needed helps with timing, helps to maintain their nutritional value, and keeps them looking bright, crisp and fresh.
There are dozens of quality hacks that cooks use- always making sure that quality is never sacrificed. These MacGyver methods can help to keep a kitchen humming at peak efficiency and help to save the day when a curve ball is thrown as a surprise.
What are your favorite problem-solving techniques in the kitchen?
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training