Anyone who has tied on an apron in a professional kitchen understands the physical nature of the work.  We know about the aching muscles, the throbbing feet, the faltering knees, and the heat – did I mention the heat?  But we don’t often take the time to stop and pay attention to the intellect of the cook and the broader skills that few careers can boast.  Great cooks and chefs are highly intellectual individuals who are challenged to apply those skills and aptitudes every day.  Unfortunately, it is rare to hear of anyone pointing out these essential abilities or the need for them if one is to be effective in the job.

So, for all who are sweating on the line every day, for all who are dipping their toes into the rushing water of a culinary profession, and to all chefs who think they know their worth – here are the unheralded skills that cooks and chefs apply each and every day without much fanfare:

[]         MATH

Yep, that’s right – cooks are adept at using math every day in the kitchen.  They apply these principles while expanding recipes, using fractions with units of measurement, working with percentages (especially in the bakeshop), portioning products, determining yield of products through fabrication and cooking, using geometry to determine precise vegetable cuts, and working within the parameters of recipe costing.


Working backwards from a finished plate of food – cooks must prioritize work based on how long each step will take, as well as pacing of a ‘la minute work on the line to ensure that every dish on an order is ready at the precise time for plating.


From the moment a cook walks through those kitchen doors he or she is building a strategy for the day.  “How will I approach today’s prep, what can I defer till a later time, based on who is scheduled for a shift – how must I adjust the work that I do, and given the reservations for tonight – which items might move and which items will take a back seat to demand.”  Sometimes the strategy is systemic and doesn’t waver, while at other times each day will be unique. 


Especially in operations where there are significant numbers of banquets and special events – the cook is assigned a function and must either align with a project strategy already developed by the chef, or in some cases build and manage that project independently.  All of this is done within the parameters of standards of excellence and timing.


Even the best-laid plans can go astray when the unforeseen gets in the way.  The best cooks and chefs will constantly work on scenarios so that very little is classified as a surprise.  If left to chance – whatever could go wrong – will.  This is the principle of Murphy’s Law that every cook subscribes to.  The best cooks solve problems before they arise.

“In its simplest form, Murphy’s Law states: If anything can go wrong, it will. However, as with many successful business theories, the original law has been extended over time to cover specialist areas, several of which are given below:

  • Project Planning: If anything can go wrong, it will. Usually at the most inopportune time.
  • Performance Management: If someone can get it wrong, they will.
  • Risk Assessment: If several things can go wrong, the one you would LEAST like to happen will occur.
  • Practical creativity: If you can think of four ways that something can go wrong, it will go wrong in a fifth way.”


The best cooks take the time to study the background of a dish or a cooking process.  A person who has never studied the history of a dish such as Cog au Vin is far less likely to master it than another person who understands the ingredients, why they are used, how they are used, the type of people who consumed it, their socio-economic background, the indigenous nature of the ingredients used, how it was presented and how it might have been celebrated by those involved.  So cooks are often compelled to learn more about a dish or process as part of their skill development.  One does not learn how to make Kansas City BBQ without living in KC and apprenticing with a pit master who was born and raised there.

[]         ART AND DESIGN

Food is the ultimate art form and every plate of food that a cook touches is truly a canvas that was analyzed and approached with an eye for color contrast, symmetry, dimension, consideration of negative space, applying different textures, combining geometric shapes, and maximizing the three-dimensional nature of the dish.   Additionally, the cook considers all human senses in the build out of that dish: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch – no other art form is that fully engaged with the senses.

[]         PSYCHOLOGY

There is psychology at play whenever team members are reliant on each other to perform a task.  The kitchen team is a fragile organism that requires understanding, compassion, support, critique, anger management, and passion.  All of the aspects of understanding oneself and those around you are at play at every moment in the kitchen.


Communication in all of its forms is essential in a well-run kitchen.  Verbal, body language, written communication, and eye contact are used by cooks – all the time.  Whether it is checking what and how you say something, the manner with which you give a directive, offer critique, write a prep sheet, enter info in a log, prepare a recipe, or simply give a nod or make eye contact with another player on the team – communication is critical.  Cook’s learn to be masters at this essential skill.

What is most interesting about these unique skills is that they define the difference between a cook and a great cook, a chef and a remarkable chef.  These skills are also very transferrable – thus great cooks and remarkable chefs can quite easily transition into another career track as a result.


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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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