5 Practical Tips for New Chefs
When asked to pass on some wisdom to young cooks, 'Celebrity' chefs always seem to say the same things: "Prepare to miss every birthday, wedding, any social situation that exists because of the demanding hours", "just put your head down and work", "Stay in a place for a minimum of a year".
These are all very good pieces of advice and more than that, they are very true. But the life of a cook, the real day to day stuff, it's much more mundane than all of that. Knowing that all your friends are going on summer holidays and you're going to maybe have next Monday off won't make you a better cook, and it won't make you a chef.
I started working in kitchens when I was 16, and over the past 15 years I have made incredible, spectacular errors just like anyone else. However I've also learned (both because and despite my mistakes) a lot of things that are of great use to people working in a kitchen, and will help you in real, tangible ways. Walking into a kitchen as a young chef is daunting; actually, it's terrifying. Everyone looks like they've been doing their jobs for a thousand years and to be the new person in the kitchen is to be the one faced with the almost incredible fear that you will be called out. It's a real thing, this feeling; Ginger and I have talked about how impostor syndrome affected both of us in both of our professional lives and chances are that you've also felt it. But the good news is that just getting down to work on the little things helps to keep all of those insecurities in check (a bit, anyway).
Below I've listed 5 tips that I think are essential. Really, five is hardly enough and its not exhaustive, but if I gave you everything now what would you come back for? They are listed in no particular order of importance, and I hope you'll leave your own bits of advice in the comments section.
1. Don't carry things in your apron
It's likely that your kitchen has a number of vessels to transfer your mise-en-place; its even possible that some smart chef has already placed them close to the fridge or dry storage. Use them! They are clean, sanitized, and indeed made for this purpose. Your apron on the other hand, has not been designed to function as a food hammock; its probably got something on it and even if it hasn't when you begin, using your apron to cradle the slightly over ripe tomatoes you need will get it dirty. You'll then have to change your apron which then renders your 'time saving' idea rather pointless. To your chef you'll look dirty, and like you cut corners when you think no one's looking.
2.Sweep the floor
We've all heard stories of Thomas Keller arriving before everyone in the morning to sweep the floor. Why? You'd think that surely he has people to do that for him, so is he on some sort of weird power trip, or trying to look humble while actually keeping eyes on the entire operation? Probably not. Because I can tell you without being able to explain why that a dirty floor makes the whole kitchen look dirty. You should be sweeping the floor on your section (or the whole kitchen depending on the size of it) almost as often as you wash your hands or wipe down your boards. Next time you find yourself with a lull in service take the initiative and sweep the kitchen floor: your chef will likely take positive notice (a good thing whenever it happens) but you might also start to see the difference in the way you view your station.
3. Don't put things directly on table tops
Like aprons, table tops have a specific purpose. Spoon bains exist for spoons, spatulas, fish slices, etc. Table tops are blank slates; the cleaner they are the better your prep and your plating will be. Nothing should go directly on to your table, particularly your prep: if your working with raw meats or fish and then moving to cheese, fruits or vegetables you run the risk of cross contamination from even the slightest bit of bacteria. I know we all have these old school idea of a butcher with his thick slices of meat on his giant block, but bear in mind that a butcher isn't also going to follow up those pork chops with a mirepoix. Use a mise tray or a container, or anything that allows you to avoid putting food directly on your table. Moreover, the chemical you've used to clean that table probably doesnt taste good and almost certainly won't compliment your dish. Even your knives should be left on the board or if you need the space or multiple knives for a job, put a kitchen cloth under them.
4. Be on time
When a chef says you start at 7, that means that he or she expects you in the kitchen, changed, knife roll out, with a look on your face of being ready to work at 6.45! Not in the changing rooms or at the coffee machine at 7. Actually, your chef would be happier if you could be all those things at 6.30, but is 6.45 is acceptable. Any time after 6.45 (even though you were told 7) and you're late; this often carries a punishment which is usually extra jobs that you'll have to fit into your already super tight day. More than likely it will also be a disgusting cleaning job that needs to be done or some other such unenviable task, of which there are no shortages in a kitchen. It may just be extreme scurtiny of your work that day, and it will likely be both. Look, I know how tired you are and I know that the snooze alarm just beckons you. You're exhausted and sometimes just getting yourself up and around is a massive effort. But you know what? Everyone's exhausted. Don't forget what you signed up for, and when you're in bed with those extra five minutes, think about how much better it would be to tack them on to your prep time.
5.Write everything down
In the moment you'll think you'll remember it. Trust me, you won't. There is a reason your chef has multiple clip boards or pieces of paper at the pass covered in lists. Recipes: you've been making it every day for the past year so not a chance you'll forget, right? You will and there will be times when you want your quantities in front of your face. Ordering: at the end of the service the last thing you want is to recall all the things you need and when the adrenaline rush of service wears off you'll be exhausted. So you'll definitely forget something and then tomorrow you'll have to explain to the chef why someone has to run to a store and purchase that thing you need for a premium. Write it down as you go along. Dishes: Sketch out a dish when its presented to you, refer to it, get it right every time. Prep lists: at the end of the night the adrenaline's still pumping and you can clearly see what needs to be done for the next day. Write it down and then the next day, cross things off as you go. There's an unmistakable satisfaction in drawing a line through something and moving on, and it gives you a sense of order.
Working in a kitchen is like being in a vortex where space and time stop having any relevance, and the only thing that matters is the thing right in front of you at the exact time that you'll need it. I guess that's why it looks so cool to people on the outside: the prevalence of open kitchens in contemporary dining attests to the fact that chefs are seen as if they are whirling dervishes, spinning in concert around each other. But within that dance there are countless little dumb moments that no one else sees, and that no one else will make you do. Those are the little dumb moments that make you feel like a chef; once you start to feel that, all the missed barbecues don't sting quite so much.