Chefs are acutely aware of the importance of their line crew and care is typically taken to hire those who have a complementary chemistry and skill set – team is critical to success. But, how much similar effort is placed on defining the role, and investing the time to hire right, and support the efforts of the prep cook? Furthermore, are chefs taking full advantage of the integration of an accomplished prep cook as a member of the team?
Behind every dish on a chef’s menu are foundational preparations that when done properly can set the stage for excellent line work and beautiful/delicious menu items. In the wrong hands, these dishes will inevitably suffer and the line team will find their positions far more challenging. An accomplished prep cook provides the road map for excellence.
Behind every refined sauce is a properly prepared stock; the foundation of every exceptional soup is a solid broth; every braised item finished on the line begins with fabrication, searing, caramelized mirepoix, proper seasoning and low and slow braising under the careful eye of a prep cook. Those beautiful vegetables are likely received by the prep cook as farmers and vendors seek the eye of approval on the freshness and quality of their ingredients; vegetable prep, salad dressings, rotation of a bounty of ingredients; clean filleting of fresh fish from the regional fish monger; exact cuts and portions on those steaks and chops; the step-by-step process of preparing and roasting meats; and the list of prep cook responsibilities goes on and on. The prep cook is such a critical member of the team – not any less critical than that exceptionally fast and organized line cook with a great palate. So, why do so many restaurants view that person(s) who may never finish a plate, but is the blueprint for every item that leaves the kitchen as any less important?
What are the attributes of a great prep cook and where might a chef find the best candidates to complete his or her team?
 TIME TESTED – FOUNDATIONAL SKILLS
There will always be room for individuals to learn a great deal about cooking while contributing to the work in the prep station, but someone needs to possess a range of cooking skills that is only surpassed by the property chef. There should be little patience for a person in this position who seeks to learn how to fillet fish, cut steaks, properly make stocks and soups, or execute cooking methods with a high level of competence and confidence.
When properly designed, a system that relies heavily on the prep position to set the stage for cooking success will contribute to the excellence of a restaurant food program and unify a team determined to thrive.
 FLAVOR KNOWLEDGE
The palate of the prep cook is as important as that of the line cook who finishes a dish. Where the line cook may put a specific signature on a flavor, it is up to the prep cook to maintain consistency in flavor even when the ingredients he or she works with may vary. To this end, it is critical that the prep cook know how to modify processes to end up with that level of consistency that the line cook requires.
 MASTERFUL ORGANIZATION
Multi-tasking for the prep cook is an essential skill. Unlike the line cook who works with a mind-numbing number of simultaneous a ‘la minute preparations – the prep cook will work with a multitude of processes that require varied cooking methods and techniques, and a wide gamut of timing. Prep cooks must complete all of these tasks in a prescribed amount of time – requiring efficiency and an understanding of priorities.
 THE KITCHEN SAGE
The best prep cooks are a resource for others who work in the kitchen. They must be fully aware of ingredients and their role in a dish, all of the essential cooking methods, problem-solving techniques, how to pull necessary flavors from each ingredient, and possess an encyclopedic knowledge of cooking for others to tap into.
 A PROBLEM SOLVER
The success of a restaurant menu begins at the point of ordering and ingredient receipt. The prep cook is the first person to identify problems (missed deliveries, short orders from vendors, adjustments to projected customer counts, inferior ingredient flavors, items out of season, etc.) and find solutions so that the line team can still execute their jobs and produce consistent results. To the best prep cooks – this is second nature.
 A STICKLER FOR CONSISTENCY
The best prep cooks are those who are always focused on doing every task as it should be done. From the consistency of a brunoise or julienne, to the portioning on steaks and fish, to the flavor profile of those stocks and sauces – the attention to detail by the prep cook will truly define how well the line crew can perform their magic on the plate.
 A PENNY PINCHER
Cost control begins with how well the prep cook watches nickels and dimes. Full utilization of ingredients, attention to storage and product rotation, exact portioning, and finding ways to re-energize leftovers is a significant part of this cooks job description.
 A COOK WITH THAT ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT
When the prep cook takes control of his or her station then the whole energy in a kitchen changes. Ownership to a cook means that vendors will step up their game, daytime kitchen staff tend to follow through with their work, the kitchen stays organized and efficient, and the job always gets done. This spirit of ownership is one of the key elements that define a successful operation.
I find it interesting that so many restaurants view the prep shift as an entry-level position for the least skilled kitchen employees. In many cases this is where the culinary school intern will cut his or her teeth, or where that energetic dishwasher finds that first opportunity to handle a knife and a hot pan. Without taking away from the traditional logic behind that – if, in fact, the prep position provides the foundations for all finished cooking, then wouldn’t it make sense to hire and support real talent on the prep shift?
Think about the systems in your kitchen, the delineation of responsibilities, and the way that you define your culinary team and begin to view the role of prep cook as much more than that entry-level position – in fact, view it as the foundational position that defines your cuisine.
So how do you fill this position with the right individuals and where do they come from? Here are a few thoughts:
 Look to those retired chefs who have an interest in staying connected to the kitchen, who are likely less interested in the rate of pay, and far more focused on keeping their hand in it. Think about the level of expertise that these individuals can bring to your kitchen. They may only be interested in a few hours of work each day, or a few days per week, but the quality of their contribution can be significant.
 View the prep position as less of a steppingstone, and more of a career role in the kitchen. Let the rate of pay reflect the real skills and productivity that the position requires.
 Hire people with a connection to the cuisine. Whether that connection is ethnic heritage or simply a love of the type of food on the menu – this dynamic should never be underestimated.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training