31 December 2011

Ten Top Lessons from Restaurant Kitchens

Dear Lissy,
Dad and I have spent a good bit of our working years in professional kitchens, both restaurant and institutional.  That experience has changed how I manage my home kitchen.  Here are the top 10 lessons I've learned from the pros in food service.

One:  Quality equipment pays for itself.  
Your daddy made sure I had the best he could afford from Day One. Literally.  My wedding present was a Kitchenaid Professional mixer, and we used my first paycheck to purchase the set of Calphalon I still use almost 20 years later.  Even when I wasn't a very good cook, and I would rather have spent the money decorating, he insisted on top quality tools and equipment.  Now that I am a good cook, I appreciate his wisdom in purchasing things once.  I'm currently employed in a restaurant where the owner/manager likes to bring equipment from home or pick it up at Wal-Mart.  Major frustration.  The performance levels of home kitchen smallware is light years away from Vollrath and Cambro.

Good knives are an important part of any kitchen.  I like and use Sani-safe knives that were a gift to us when we left the college. They're not terribly expensive, but they have carbon steel blades that re-sharpen easily and are weighted well.

Just recently I've learned how comfortable -- and functional -- chef's jackets (or baker's whites) are compared to an apron.  I'm in the process of switching over to that restaurant standard this year at home.  I love my "muffin hat" that I wear to cover my hair while I bake at the restaurant, but I probably won't be wearing it at home unless I'm cooking gifts.

Two:  Stocking a pantry, fridge, & freezer to pre-determined build levels is more economical than shopping to a menu. 
 I buy almost everything on sale, and keep as much in my cabinets, fridge, and freezer as will fit.  I usually have whole flats of canned foods under our bed, too.  Although I write a general set of menus, my shopping is simply to replace what I've used up in the last week, much like a restaurant "build list".  Very occasionally I will make a special dish that requires a particular ingredient, but most of my recipes can be made without additional purchases.  Most people think buying in bulk is cheaper, but I've found it's about 50/50.  I like having the "food in the bank" so to speak, but often smaller sizes also have smaller unit prices.

Three:  There is a difference between clean & sanitary.  
Clean:  The absence of dirt and foreign particles.  
Sanitary:  The absence of microorganisms that cause disease.  

As a general rule:

  • Every pot, pan, prep board, and utensil needs to be washed clean and sanitized with either very hot water or a solution that includes a quarternary cleaner (like bleach), air dried, and stored in a clean and sanitary location.  
  • Every surface should be sanitized before prepping food, and cleaned thoroughly after every service (meal).  Dishtowels and rags shouldn't be left out to be re-used. Launder them after every service.  Sponges need to be sanitized daily.  Run them through the dishwasher in the top rack, or store in a quat solution in a sealed container overnight.
  • Hair should be tied back or covered.  Hands need to be scrupulously clean or gloved.  If you have a head cold or cough, tie on a mask.  Wear a clean chef's coat or apron when preparing food, too.
  • Unheated foods (lettuce, fruits, etc.) tend to be the cause of foodborne illness.  Once you've handled raw meat or eggs, clean and sanitize your work surface and your hands.  Don't store salads below raw meats in your fridge.
  • Clean the fridge and pantry out weekly, the freezer and storage areas monthly, and pull out your equipment a couple of times a year. 

Four:  Technique is king.

A good cook, or chef, relies heavily on technique and basic ratios. There is a proper way to dice an onion, bone a chicken, or clarify stock.  It is an absolute joy to put together a meal when you aren't glancing at a cookbook every 5 seconds.
One classic example is the basic steak.  When I was a noob in the kitchen, I served steak hot off the grill (or broiler).  After a stint in a professional kitchen, I learned the meat needed to rest, and allowed it to stand under a foil tent in a warm oven for 15 - 20 minutes.  While talking with Uncle Pat, a chef at a 4 star restaurant, I learned that they immediately immerse their steaks in a bath of hot melted butter to temper. While I probably won't be melting down $5.00 worth of butter to make four star steaks, a quick brush with melted butter while they stand makes a big difference.
Once you master about two dozen basic techniques, you hit a zone cooking that rivals any joggers' high.  Baking, while still based on ratios, is much more precise.  Even a baker relies heavily on good technique, though.
Another technique near and dear to my heart is bread making.  Until you've made bread with an experienced baker, the recipe seems rather vague and complex.  Once you know how each step of the process should progress, bread making is incredibly satisfying physically and emotionally.

Five:  Good chefs use all 5 senses, good meals appeal to all 5 senses.
Grammy Bea used to tell me to "make it till it looks right, and cook until it's done".  Very frustrating for a new wife, to say the least!  In reality, after cooking for thousands of hours, you will find yourself relying on cues from sight, smell, sound, taste, and feel rather than recipes, timers, and thermometers.  Give yourself a head start by thinking about how your recipe looks, feels, smells, sounds, and tastes while you're learning.  Nine times out of ten I pull items out of the oven within seconds of the timer just because I can smell when they're done.   I make bread entirely by sight, smell and feel.  Steaks and hamburgers rely on touch (beef progresses from soft to springy as it cooks) and sight (juice color rising to the surface) to determine doneness.
For the loved ones eating your cooking, make sure your meals not only taste and smell good, but look appealing and incorporate a variety of textures (feel).  For us, sound has a lot to do with good manners.  Whining, bickering, slurping, scraping, and banging are trained out very early on.  We enjoy laughing and talking about our day or a favorite topic while we eat.  Eating meals together as a family influences children's behavior and school performance more than any other variable -- it's vitally important to make that time count.

Six:  Label leftovers.
In restaurants and institutions, every leftover, prepped, or opened item in the fridge and pantry is labeled and dated.  I don't date every box, can, and jar I open, but I do take a few seconds to label & date leftovers on the side facing the fridge door.  If a family member sees:  Upside down chicken pot pie, 12/30/11 they're a lot more likely to reheat it for lunch than if they're faced with a container full of unidentifiable bits.  I'll also know when I clean the fridge on Monday that it needs to be tossed if it's more than a couple of days old.

Seven:  Fresh is better than fancy.
Get in the habit early on of making as many things as possible from scratch.  It takes very little time, is incredibly economical, promotes better health, and just tastes better.  Avoid processed pre-prepared foods like the plague, and buy as fresh as you can afford.  Grow the herbs you use most.  Pick up a couple of fresh lemons each week.  Keep good quality olive oil on hand.  We would rather have a simple baked chicken, barley pilaf, garden salad with homemade dressing, and crusty loaf of bread than an elaborate meal requiring boxes, bottles, and cans.  When money is super-tight, a fresh salad, homemade soup, and piping hot bread sticks can be served for about the same cost as hamburger helper and canned biscuits.  Which would you rather have?
Food has fashions, too.  Your menus should reflect the weather and keep up with current trends.  Part of keeping a restaurant or institution vibrant is rotating menus, introducing new items, and featuring seasonal foods.  While your family will always have favorite recipes, keep your menus fresh and new.  When you sense  your family is bored of a recipe, retire it for at least a few months and replace it with something new.

Eight:  Consistency is crucial
In the restaurant world, chefs are accused of "overmenuing" themselves.  Overmenuing means they've got more ambition than skill or time.  It's more important that you have consistently good meals on the table day in, day out than that you can cook a dazzling meal once a week or for company.  Almost anyone would rather have a juicy pulled pork sandwich, coleslaw, and crispy oven baked fries than a pork roast that could double as sawdust, a barely ripe fruit salad, and watery potatoes au gratin.

Nine:  Insist on top quality spices and condiments.
Only the top restaurants in the world are able to afford to buy in every single item at the same quality.  When you're faced with a budget, choose spices and condiments that are the best you can afford, even if you have to buy store brand pasta, compromise on a cut of meat, or substitute a fruit or veggie for one that's in season.
Quality condiments instantly upgrade a meal.  
Baked goods move up a notch when you buy the cinnamon from Penzey's or another quality spice vendor.  A good mustard makes a statement with Kielbasa and cabbage.  Freshly grated nutmeg is outstanding in any white sauce based dish.  We're particularly fond of a certain brand of sweet red pepper relish with everything from cream cheese and crackers to fajitas.  I'm nuts about pomegranate jelly from Trappist Preserves.  It's not particularly expensive, but it's not store brand apple jelly either.  Many store brands are identical to national brands if you take the time to look online.  It's my hope to get to the point where I'm able to grow and make a good number of our herbs and condiments, but right now, I'm just too busy to make that a reality.

Ten:  Details make the difference.
Heat the plates.  Drop a lemon slice in the iced water.  Use cloth napkins.  Grate fresh Parmesan for the spaghetti and meatballs.  Serve an appetizer when the meal is running late, or a special dessert on a night you're serving soup as the main course.  Nice restaurants pay attention to every detail from the moment you walk in the door until you leave.  The details raise meal prep from a duty to an art.  They speak volumes about your creativity and character, too.  I can remember being incredibly disappointed at the lack of attention to detail at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse years ago:  missing  lightbulbs, a chilly draft, crumby carpets, and barely lukewarm vegetables ruined what should have been a top notch dining experience.  On the other hand, we loved a little hole-in-the-wall Greek restaurant that delighted in the details right down to the homemade rose petal jam.

Working in restaurants has allowed me to streamline and excel at meal prep.  I'm still waiting for a six star range, 45 second dishwasher, and weekly delivery truck (I hate grocery shopping!), but by and large cooking is an area of my God-given duties that brings a great deal of joy.

Wishing for one of your "professional hugs",


  1. great post! thanks for sharing your insight and tips. I learned a few things reading this :)

  2. Thanks for these tips. I am in the process of buying quality equipment. Thanks for the reasons as to why - this will help me to stay committed to spending the money.

  3. My mama taught me the lesson about quality equipment: I got a kitchenaid stand mixer when I moved out on my own, and have gotten one piece of fabulous cookware for every Christmas since then. My mom's philosophy was that if I had good equipment, I'd enjoy the cooking! And it's turned out to be true.

    But the rest of these I'm learning as I go...thanks for the wonderful list. I'll share these with the budding cooks in my life, so they don't have to learn ALL their lessons in the school of hard knocks!

  4. Love your blog posts (especially this one). I've been wanting to start a blog for my daughter on homemaking and love the approach you use. I might just refer to your blog posts on some of these topics that I am still working on mastering.

  5. Fantastic advice. My wife is an excellent cook who knows flavors and takes pride in her cooking. My 32 yo son has her same innate gifts and love of cooking. I am passing this on to both, as they will instantly relate to your enthusiasm.

    For much of my life the evening meal has been the most important event of the day. Not just for the nourishment, but for the communion.

    Thank you for acknowledging the same!