Chef's tips on kitchen tools and gadgets

Hatfield's Restaurant: 1 AM Saturday night

I’ve worked in the restaurant business off and on since I was 16-years old. Granted there were whole years I did my best trying to get away from the sharp knives, angry guests, dangerous flames, greasy floors, empty ketchup bottles, pressed linen, heavy wine crates and demanding hours–but one thing that’s remained constant in my working life is my love of food and my undeniable appreciation of restaurant industry. A restaurant workers’ life may be a pirate’s life, but I love it.

I met my husband while serving at a wine restaurant. That might have something to do with my appreciation of the food/service industry. But beyond true love, restaurants have given me valuable information about food and real skills in the kitchen.

Hoping to save you from long hours and low pay, here are a handful of tips my chef friends have taught me along the way.

Kitchen secrets:

What I love about my kitchen part 2
1. Make the most of a small counter space. Use plastic dining trays as a cutting board

After watching me prep dinner in my tiny kitchen, my chef friend Brian suggested I buy myself a set of cafeteria trays. A perfect solution for a small kitchen, these plastic trays can be can be swapped out in seconds, whereas cleaning a counter top can take minutes.

Plastic cafeteria trays like this one can be found at restaurant supply stores. I found mine at Surfas.

What I love about my kitchen part 2
2. Stay organized with a mise-en-place

French for put everything in its place, the Mise-en-place (or “mise” for short) are the uncooked/prepared elements of a recipe. Ingredients like chopped onions, minced garlic and skinned chicken may eventually all end up in the same pan, but individually the ingredients couldn’t be more different in flavor and preparation.

Though a thorough mise may require extra dish washing at the end of the meal, it will keep a chef organized and focused on cooking. This is especially important when an extra minute of cooking can make the difference between a dish being burned or browned.

how to use an immersion blender
3. Use prep containers to prepare food and store items in one container

When preparing ingredients in advance of a meal, a to-go container is perfect way to maximize a single container for both preparation and storage. Using an immersion blender, you can prepare a creamy dressing or puree a soup in batches in one of these tall plastic prep containers. Pop a lid onto the container and the ingredients are ready to be stored for future use.

What I love about my kitchen part 2
4. Reuse to-go containers for left-overs.

Though this may seem obvious in a green-conscious time, I’m always amazed when I see people throw away their to-go containers. Watch a chef in his kitchen or walk-in, and you’ll see ingenious uses for to go containers.

I’ve been amazed at how resourceful some chefs can be with to-go containers. I’ve seen cookies, cheese rinds, melted butter, left over bacon grease, bones for making soup and tons of other items stored (separately!) in to-go containers. Easy to stack and clean, a reused to-go container minimizes waste and reduces plastic wrap or aluminum foil usage. Do as the chefs do and label your to-go containers with masking tape and Sharpie so you know when you have a clear “use by” date.

What I love about my kitchen part 2
5. Reuse to-go and prep containers for compact freezer storage.

Used in the freezer, to-go prep container can hold soup stock and left-over vegetable scraps to be made into future vegetable stock.

What I love about my kitchen part 2
6. Use sheet trays for prep and cooking

Stronger than the traditional cookie sheet, the sheet tray is a durable and easy to clean metal cooking sheet. Perfect for baking, think of sheet trays as another work surface. Toss vegetables in olive oil and seasonings on the tray and put directly into the oven. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper and bake perfectly browned cookies.

What I love about my kitchen part 2
7. Use squeeze bottles for frequently used oils and sauces

Like a mise-en-place, chefs need to have sauces and oils nearby and in a container that’s easy to access for multiple uses throughout service. Using a squeeze bottle (like the kind usually used for serving ketchup or mustard) is an ingenious way to avoid opening caps or bottles and get access to a frequently used liquid ingredient in mere seconds.

I use my squeeze bottle for olive oil I cook with and have a back up bottle for finishing oil if I’m cooking for more a large party.

My collection of salt
8. Have finishing salt and cooking salts in individual dishes nearby

Though technically this is part of any mise-en-place, I like to think of my salt collection as a permanent installation for my kitchen. My sea salt collection (Maldon, Kosher and a fine sea salt) are always on the counter or on the stove for easy access and fast finishing of a plate.

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Brooke Burton nominated for best food writing

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Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant consultant and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

8 Comments

  1. Leah
    3/4/2009
    Reply

    Brilliant (and your pictures look great, B)! I have a bunch of tricks from my resto days to – grease pencils for writing on containers or sharpies and masking tape – I date nearly everything in my fridge. I’m obsessive about mise, especially in my small space, and I also use a restaurant-style magnet for my knives and stay organized to cook faster. Thanks for reminding me all the great things I learned from my restaurant days that don’t have to do with patience or heavy drinking :)

  2. Elizabeth
    3/5/2009
    Reply

    Brooke,

    Thanks for the idea about the food service trays. I have very little counter space in my kitchen. I can see me flying through food prep as I swap out trays!

  3. matt wright
    3/5/2009
    Reply

    Great article! I have yet to purchase my first squeeze bottle though, but have wanted a few for years! I totally agree about the sheet pan actually. I got a slightly bent one from a restaurant supply store for about $3 I think.. I figured I would just use it for the odd bit of baking.. how wrong was I – a dead useful tool in the kitchen for prep work, and storage.

  4. MyLastBite
    3/7/2009
    Reply

    I love the idea of using trays and have some tucked away SOMEWHERE. Thank you!

  5. lillie
    3/8/2009
    Reply

    i love your suggestions in this post. so clever, but simple. definitely bookmarking this for future reference!

  6. cia007girl
    3/18/2009
    Reply

    just wondering if using a plastic tray doesn’t ruin your knife. i love the idea of having salts out in small containers – and they look very pretty!

  7. […] Working in the restaurant industry can be a wonderful thing, especially for someone who loves to cook. Some days can be more inspiring than others, but the love of food and a constant desire to create beautiful things in the kitchen is the twine that holds the front and back of house of the restaurant together every day. Coming to work has been especially exciting and fulfilling since I began working with the talented and Michelin star rated husband and wife culinary team, Karen and Quinn Hatfield. […]

  8. […] with food preparation, but we can have the next best thing: plastic containers and bottles. In his blog on kitchen tools and gadgets, a chef known as the Food Woolf examines ways in which we can be more […]

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