For many students of the culinary arts, dreams of working in a fast-paced professional kitchen tend to feature pure artistic expression, friendly dialogue with coworkers, and plenty of pretty natural lighting.
We’re not going to tell you that this scenario is outright impossible. There are plenty of gorgeous high-end restaurant kitchens that fit this description fairly well.
But here’s where things get sticky: once you’ve actually secured a job for yourself in a professional kitchen, you’ll probably get a fair bit of training, but no one’s going to hold your hand once you’re actually on the clock.
Professional kitchens are often hectic, and no one’s going to have the time to walk you through each of your responsibilities on a regular basis.
Sure, there might be a relatively short grace period when small mistakes are somewhat understandable and are therefore tolerated, but if you really want to be a functioning part of the kitchen and one of the gang, you need to be on the ball at all times, no slip-ups, no excuses.
Intimidating? Yes, it is, but it’s also just how things are. The customer comes first, and to create a memorable dining experience, everyone needs to be operating at maximum efficiency.
Knowledge, organization, and teamwork are all important traits for culinary professionals.
Stefano Chiarugi is a seasoned professional chef, no pun intended. Chiarugi has worked with the Wynn in Las Vegas, chef Scott Conant, Lugo restaurants in New York and Atlanta, and Il Pellicano Resort in Porto Ercole Grosseto, Italy.
Chiarugi’s talents have taken him all over the globe. His latest phase is heading the kitchen at Ecce-llente!, the signature restaurant of the California Fruit Building in Sacramento, California.
Who better to share restaurant kitchen efficiency tips? Chiarugi shared some of his influential expertise and talked with LNGFRM as part of our deep dive into the realities of professions in the arts.
Organization in the kitchen
Being organized is just that important. We really can’t stress this enough, and as Chiarugi explained during our conversation, we’re not just talking about knowing where all your ingredients are, though that’s also part of the equation.
“Organization in a kitchen is always the first rule. There are too many things to think about in a restaurant that cannot be left to chance, both out of respect for the recipes and respect for the rest of the staff. To succeed, both mental and practical organization is absolutely necessary.”
Being organized makes things easier for you, but it also makes things easier for everyone else in the kitchen, optimizing workflow and making sure that the risk of human error is minimized.
As Chiarugi noted above, organization refers both to physical space as well as your own headspace.
Organizing your workspace may seem simple at first, but your workstation will be changing, in little ways, with great frequency. When you’re working on multiple dishes, your work station will quickly become more cluttered than you might like. You need to leave plenty of room for multiple projects, and as Ratatouille communicated to us years ago, “Keep your station clear!”
But keeping your mind organized as well is just as crucial when you’re in the heat of the moment. Each dish has its own requirements and cooking times. Memorizing ingredient lists and the steps behind the preparation of each dish will make it that much easier to manage multiple orders when things start to get busy.
Knowing your teammates
So let’s say you’re the most well-prepared line cook in the kitchen. You know the dishes inside and out, your techniques are second to none, and you keep a pristine workstation at all times, whether you’re at work or at home.
Good job, you’ve done your homework and you’re eager to get started.
I’ve got some good news and some bad news.
Here’s the bad news: the human element of starting a new job in a professional kitchen is something you can’t really prepare for. Every person, every team, is different, and you can never know exactly what to expect. Every coworker is a wild card, and keeping that in mind will be helpful moving forward.
Here’s the good news: getting to know your coworkers and learning how to work with them and communicate well can be exciting and just plain fun.
Here’s what Chiarugi told us about the process of learning more about other members of the staff.
“In a new workplace, the importance of knowing your collaborators is extremely important. I like to understand everyone’s skill levels and personality types so that I know how much I can ask of them. Establishing a mutual sense of respect with your staff is highly satisfying.”
If you’re in a leadership role, as Chiarugi is, gaining knowledge about other staff members and their abilities affects management style heavily.
Not everyone works well under the same leadership style, and each person has their own limitations, especially when their workload increases significantly.
While everyone needs to maintain professionalism and efficiency, taking note of their quirks will help out significantly in the long run.
Importance of communication
Staying on the topic of teamwork and getting along with staff members, verbal communication is an absolute necessity in any kitchen.
If you need help or you’re ready to pass a dish on to the next person, you can’t keep that information a secret.
In many instances, communicating clearly and frequently is also a safety measure. If you’ve already attended culinary school, then you know all about the basic lingo kitchen staff members need to use when carrying got or dangerous items through the kitchen.
Communication prevents unnecessary accidents and, as Chiarugi communicated to us, it improves a restaurant’s overall service model.
“When dialogue and communication are not fully utilized in a kitchen, the situation degenerates into disasters where the customer suffers, and when the customer is not satisfied, everything starts to crumble. Efficient communication between cooks, chefs, and the maitre d makes perfect service possible.”
Even when you’re having a bad day and you don’t feel like talking very much, you still need to. Simply put, it’s part of your job to talk to your coworkers. Whether things are slow or ludicrously busy, that kind of professional openness eases stress and prevents problems.
Let’s talk briefly about when things go wrong in the kitchen.
Mistakes happen and they don’t always spell disaster, but they do need to be accounted for, especially in situations where the customer takes notice.
“When a dish has problems, the first thing I do is talk to the cook to understand whether the problem is his or if we need to solve problems in the work chain. If a customer complains, I, as a chef, need to speak with the customer and the kitchen staff so that future problems are avoided.”
When a customer has a problem with a dish, the buck stops with the chef, no matter what. Even if the problem was actually caused by a specific staff member, it’s their responsibility to oversee every single dish that leaves that kitchen.
Regardless of your role in the kitchen, avoiding mistakes is important. Your coworkers will like you a lot better if they know that they can rely on you.
If you find yourself repeating a specific mistake, then it’s certainly an area that you need to focus on and improve upon, even if it means practicing during your free time.
Positive changes and personal growth
Happy people make for happy workers, and if you find yourself in a workplace rut, don’t be afraid to look beyond the kitchen for answers.
Even the most mundane kitchen tasks are inherently creative. Your work will be impacted negatively by a lack of interest in that work and by negative attitudes.
At the risk of sounding slightly sappy, working as a culinary artist can help drive personal and professional growth.
Chiarugi, in particular, feels that he has benefited a great deal from his experiences as a chef.
“During my time as a chef, I have learned to have respect for people, for traditions, for culture, for friends, for work, and for food. If you put all these things into a recipe, you’ll have the perfect dish. Working hard and working with different people changes you in a positive way, and that’s something I’ve always loved about my work.”
Yes, working in any professional kitchen can be more than a little challenging, and yes, starting out in a kitchen where everyone else already knows each other very well can be intimidating, to say the least.
You might make mistakes, you might even have some disagreements with some other members of the kitchen.
There will be days when the rush is so real that you’ll barely have time to breathe before more orders come piling in.
Your legs will wish for a chair and complain to you through your nervous system.
But it gets better. You’ll show up every day, your legs will get stronger, you’ll make fewer mistakes and you may start to enjoy some after-shift drinks with your coworkers.
Over time, you will grow, and you’ll have a hard time remembering what things were even like back at the start. If you stand far enough away, you’ll be able to see the progress.