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