5 Things I Learned From Working in a Restaurant Kitchen

September 17, 2014

Today: Our Community Manager Catherine Lamb shares the lessons she's learned from working in a restaurant kitchen.

chopping vegetables

For the past six months, I've spent my Saturdays working in a restaurant kitchen. I'm a "trail" or, if you're fancy and French, a "stage," which makes me basically a part-time apprentice. It's a very nice kitchen, staffed by chefs and servers who are good at what they do and are also overwhelmingly cool people. Armed with my beginner's set of knives and the knowledge that I knew nearly nothing, I came into the kitchen ready to absorb everything I saw and chop until my arm fell off -- which it very nearly did.

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I learned many things while working in the kitchen -- like how to make garlic confit, and the trick to perfect hash browns -- but there were 5 lessons that really stuck with me. I pass them along to you, with the hope that they might inspire you to give up your day job (or at least your Saturday mornings) to try your hand at kitchen life.

5 Things I Learned Whlie Working in a Kitchen

1. Work neatly, work efficiently.
On my first official day in the kitchen, I was tasked with making the breakfast family meal to feed all of the front of house and back of house staff. I had two hours to make a meal for forty-ish people. Ten minutes before breakfast was scheduled to be served, my eggs were nowhere near cooked, two chefs were helping me warm the tortillas for breakfast tacos, and my station had a tower of dishes piled haphazardly on top of my chicken-smeared cutting board. I was concentrating on keeping the sweat dripping off my nose away from the scrambled eggs I was stirring when one of the chefs came over to my station, picked up all my dirty dishes, wiped down the area, and put down a clean cutting board, all in about 15 seconds. "Work clean," he said. "You always have to work clean. That's how you stay organized."

More: Are you craving a breakfast taco right now? Sub in ricotta for scrambled eggs, and prepare for cheesy, spicy goodness.

Working in a professional kitchen is an adjustment because, unlike working in your home kitchen, there are many other people, plus sharp knives and hot boiling pans and health codes. The only way to impose some order on the chaos is to work clean. Wipe down your station every time it becomes messy, keep clean, dry towels around your waist, and have your sharpie tucked into your sleeve for speedy labeling. Don't focus on reusing dishes and cutting boards like you (or at least I) would at home -- it will just end up wasting time. Start anew, start clean, make sure everything is just so. It's the only way to keep some level of sanity. 


5 Things I Learned Working in a Restaurant Kitchen

2. Be open and learn.
If you're going to work in a kitchen, be sure to bring a notebook. Don't worry, it won't mark you out as the new kid on the block -- most chefs carry them around. Then when you learn a cool new trick, like how to avoid cutting yourself on a mandoline (wear two pairs of gloves), or when someone shows you the most excellent, mouth-tingling recipe for bacon jam, you can write it down. In the rush of a kitchen, there's no way you're going to just remember.

And don't forget to ask questions when you have them -- this goes for out of the kitchen, as well. By and large, chefs are happy to teach you things, as long as you are happy to learn and seem genuinely interested in doing so. After all, you're voluntarily spending your weekends in a loud, windowless kitchen handling hot objects and sharp knives, just because you really like making food. And that counts for something.


5 Things I Learned in a Restaurant Kitchen 5 Things I Learned Working in a Restaurant Kitchen

3. Take pride in your tools -- and your work.
The chefs I met at the restaurant were funny, irreverent, and tough. Those things I expected. What surprised me was how genuinely they cared about all aspects of their job, from how their mushrooms were prepped to the quality and maintenance of their tools. For example, chefs could go on about their knives for hours. Several of them spent time trying to teach me how to sharpen my (very "beginner") ones, which I'd picked up the day before at Broadway Panhandler, with a wet stone, looking genuinely horrified when they saw how I'd mutilated the edge. Knives are sort of like chefs' babies, and they care for them accordingly. But they also value their fish spats, tongs, microplanes, etc., cleaning and tucking them lovingly into preordained spots in their knife bags at the end of each day.

More: If you want to cook meat like they do at your favorite steakhouse, make sure you have these 7 essential tools at the ready.


5 Things I Learned in a Restaurant Kitchen 

4. Go the extra mile.
Working in a kitchen is sort of like being a shark: Stillness is the enemy. You must always be moving, working, stirring three things on the stove while remembering to take the bacon out of the smoker. You don't stand around idly, unless you want to get called out by the sous chef. Also, standing around doing nothing is boring; nobody becomes a chef for the money, they do it for the thrill, the creativity, and the energy. So when you're in a lull, help out -- start cleaning the walk-in fridge, ask other chefs if there are any tasks that need doing, start prepping something you'll need tomorrow. Because the quicker you finish your work, the quicker you'll be drinking happy hour pints with the rest of the crew. Plus, people will notice the extra work you're doing and you'll get brownie points, which you can cash in later when you need help emptying a giant bath of hot water from the sous-vide cooker.


5 Things I Learned Working in a Restaurant

5. No excuses.
This lesson was perhaps the hardest one I had to learn. One day I was tasked with prepping the mise en place for a morel sauce, which required that I slice shallots into a paste, then pat out all the excess moisture. I had to do enough of this to fill a quart container. It took me roughly four hours. When I was nearing the end, one of the head chefs came up behind me and said something like "Jeez, are you still working on that?" I, totally flustered, my bandaged hands revealing multiple inexpert run-ins with the microplane, started babbling something about having to go upstairs to get the shallots, and the microplane being dull, and having to help someone chop snow peas, and... He stopped me and said "No excuses. Don't make excuses. Just say 'Sorry, Chef, I'll do better next time.'" 

In a restaurant kitchen, there's no time or use for excuses. If you don't finish your task, say sorry and work faster -- or ask for help. Pride has its place, but what really matters is getting the job done, and getting it done well. 

Have you spent time in the back of the house? What are the most important things you learned?

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jasmine Subba
    Jasmine Subba
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    Chris Hockley
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


Jasmine S. October 6, 2017
Thanks for sharing your information. I am a newbie in this industry just 3days of intern ongoing in a restaurant. i am finding it quite difficult to adjust with the environment. I mean I dont really know much and I am just watching the chefs whole days and I no actual works to be done. Could you give me some tips? thank you
C S. October 9, 2017
Jump in! Don't wait to be given a task, ask for them. Be positive, be helpful, ask questions. Smart questions. Most cooks want someone willing to do whatever needs to be done, even if that means chopping parsley or offering to wash up stuff. Just keep going!
Laura415 June 3, 2016
Having worked with a number of chefs who were teaching classes in a pro kitchen I'd say working clean is the number one thing. It increases efficiency and makes it easy for the chef to see that everything is prepared and ready for service or the class as it applied here. That and if you are trailing a chef then being observant and trying to anticipate the chefs needs. They love that.
I keep a tiny galley kitchen clean and shipshape so I can cook for larger groups and parties at my place. I'd never be able to manage it without cleaning as I go. Not to mention that, at home, if I clean up as I go it makes the after party clean up so much less arduous.
tinabeans August 12, 2015
I'm curious how you got started staging! Did you literally have to knock on the back doors of kitchens? How did you decide which restaurants to contact? I ask because I'm thinking of doing a project where I work in various kitchens around NYC for a year, and write about my experiences. :)
Morgan W. July 7, 2015
it's "whetstone".
Sean R. June 3, 2016
If we're going to split hairs, some people refer to Japanese water stones as "wet", versus sharpening stones that are lubricated with oil (or nothing at all) as "whet". I've always found the distinction interesting.
Steven B. December 5, 2018
If splitting hairs, those Japanese stones are called water stones, but not wetstones by anyone who knows what he is talking about. They are wet when you put water on them, but they are not called wetstones to distinguish them from oil stones by anyone who knows what he's got. When people say "wetstone", do they spell it to you so you know they are not calling them "whetstones"? It's interesting actually that you have always found that distinction.
Chris H. July 7, 2015
2 hours to make a family meal...I'm jealous. In my first kitchen job, I had to fit it in with all my other prep. Luckily I was able to use leftovers from brunch...but it was still hell.
frizz October 12, 2014
I am not sure what the other glowing comments are about; this seems like a lot of words to say, "ooh, look at me, I cut shallots at a restaurant." The rest is common sense. Prepare, be clean, and learn.
rachiti October 12, 2014
Not sure what I was supposed to take away from does not translate well to a domestic setting. It feels forced. When one has to wash all of the implements by hand, re-using bowls, measuring cups etc. IS more efficient as long as you're selective. Also, with limited space to stack dirty dishes, the stack of dirty dishes would soon necessitate stopping everything to load the dishwasher. As for writing things down - this article overlooked the most basic - note changes to YOUR recipes each time you make something differently and it works better.

The only useful tip in here involves sharpening one's knives. I don't know how many people I've encountered who are afraid of a sharp knife when a sharp knife is what prevents injury time and again.
Gina P. September 25, 2014
Great read! Any advice on starting to stage? Currently in culinary school, and I've heard of people literally walking up to the back door of the kitchen and asking to stage for them. It this actually a legit approach?
Wes September 25, 2014
That's what I did...go for it! When i did it I worked for free and most chefs will take free labor especially since you're in culinary school.
C S. September 25, 2014
I targeted a chef who does exactly the kind of fare that I wanted to do. Went in, spoke with a server, left my card & contact info then called the next day and left a message. He called me back for a phone interview, met in person the next day and started on the line the following day. It does happen! Most important advice I can share is go after a chef who can really teach you what you want to learn. And remember that culinary school only teaches you so much.
Catherine L. October 12, 2014
Carolyne and Wes have it right -- find a restaurant that you truly admire, do you research on it so you know its cuisine, then go in person and see if you can speak to someone about staging. Most places are very receptive; if not, ask them if they know any other restaurants that are open to that sort of thing!
Cinnamin September 23, 2014
Loved reading this! It's nice to know the dynamics of a real kitchen. Interesting.
Deborah1654 September 22, 2014
So what's the trick for perfect hash browns?
Catherine L. October 12, 2014
Slice the potatoes thinly (I did it in a robocoup), rinse them to get the starch off, then lay them in an even, thin layer on a ripping hot griddle covered in clarified butter. Put a weight on top (something even, like a sheet pan), then wait until the bottom is crisp and brown. Turn, weigh it down again -- there you go!
Deborah1654 October 13, 2014
Thank you Catherine!
Gao A. January 27, 2015
I am sorry to say, Deborah, but if you serve what Ms Lamb has described and call the hash browns, be prepared to be snickered at. The above is what people who actually cook food call a potato galette. Not to mention that if you decide to squash all the fluffiness out of your poor hash browns, they will be anything but 'perfect'. Then again, her advice comes from someone who 'sliced shallots into a paste'. I can only imagine that she was asked to this as well as asked to get the dehydrated water from dry stores and fetch the dough repair kit. I have ground shallots into a paste in a mortar and pestle, but I cannot recall a single time I was tasked with 'slicing' anything 'into a paste' nor do I think it is even possible to do so. Just saying...
Deborah1654 January 28, 2015
Wow Gao, although I agree the method Catherine suggested isn't what would be considered traditional hash browns, I'm sure the finished dish is delicious. I never dine with or cook for people who would "snicker" at a meal that someone prepared for them no matter what they called the dish. I"M just sayin'....
Todd S. July 8, 2015
Thank you Deborah. You got it before I did. If it takes anyone 4 hours to do a quart of anything I would kick them out in 2.
Deborah1654 August 12, 2015
I like the cut of your jib Todd Steere.
Maddalen September 22, 2014
I dated a chef when I was in my early 20s, and learned both a lot about the back of the house and about working with and respect for ingredients. During a transit strike, I took the dishwasher post at the bistro where he cheffed. It was nonstop and exhausting - all had to be done by hand - but it was a great experience: you're an essential part of a team. Working clean is great advice for a home kitchen - it takes less than a minute to rinse a plastic cutting board and a knife and then give the knife a few swiptes with a steel. The two main things I learned from the chef I dated were not to be afraid of ANY food - just dig your hands in! - and not to rush. Do things RIGHT, and speed will come.
grace D. September 22, 2014
'Work clean' is by far my favourite and most valuable lesson learnt when working in the kitchen, especially if working around a large team as it's always obvious when someone is making a mess. This is such a great article, wish I saw this before I started along time ago, would have saved me some major mistakes haha! I think another important lesson is to drink lots of water, sounds silly but with the heat, noise and pace of a kitchen I always forget to drink and it makes me more angry, slow and impatient with things (3 things you do NOT want to add to your cooking)!
Luke September 22, 2014
As a professional cook myself most of these points are second nature to me. However, they are good tips for home cooks and life in general. You should work clean no matter what you do, it reduces stress and helps you achieve your task much more quickly. Weather it be cooking or filing paperwork. Organization is the key to low stress work. "Work clean" applies to your physical work area but also to your mind. Keeping tasks organized in your brain is how cooks and chefs are able to prep many things at once and sell tickets as quickly as possible on the line. An organized cook is never in the weeds because we know what's working, when the ticket came in and how long it will take to sell it. As far as maintaining your tools, again this doesn't just mean knives and spatulas it also means your body. If you're going to be on your feet for 12 hours a day or more, you logically want to take care of your feet, knees and back. If you are handling sharp knives and assembling dishes with your hands, use good knife technique and keep your hands clean. That said, I have cuts and burns all over. This will happen in a professional kitchen! Take them in stride, sanitize your tools and work surface and don't make that mistake again. Take care of yourself and accept knowledge freely understand that we all make mistakes (even chefs) and it's not the end of the world if you screw up. Lastly, never use a dull knife. If you cant slice a tomato with your chef knife effortlessly it's too dull and you deserve to get that gnarly cut.
janet V. September 21, 2014
I noticed most of the comments about this article were positive, but I have to say that when I read this I thought to myself, "This is exactly why I don't work in a restaurant." Cooking to me is too enjoyable to be stressed about the very things you encountered. My friends always say to me, "You should open a restaurant, or at least work in one." I say to them, "No thanks, I enjoy cooking too much for that, and besides, my customers are always happy because the meal is free. That said, thanks for sharing some useful tips even for us happy home cooks.
bart September 22, 2014
Wise decision.. You cannot compare home cooking with professional kitchen.
Friends dont complain because they like it or because its for free? Try cooking top culinairy dishes and charge big money to the bored millionairs who are your customers. You'll get complains you never held for possible. Cooking at home is free of obligations, high expectence and stress. Boring....
rachiti October 12, 2014
Bart - Your friends and family must be rather boring. Cooking at home is not free of obligation, high expectation or stress. Yes, the stress factor is less because I finish cooking when I finish cooking even if it takes more time than anticipated but that is all. If you cook for yourself and others with discerning palettes then there are high expectations. After the first bite of a new dish or one where we altered the recipe we usually use...we always take the time to assess the dish. I note any changes in order to always aim for even more satisfying versions of everything we cook. My husband and I actually stopped dining out because the quality of food was so often sub-part. These days the only exception we make is for a single steakhouse which dry ages their steaks & uses a proper old-school grill (my husband knows the type...he used to work repairing catering equipment). Aside from this one location, I have yet to be impressed by another's cooking in a very long time. It's not worth my time to go out for potentially mediocre food when our home cooking is superior and completely customized to our palettes.
merle B. September 21, 2014
Great post!
I have to say, these lessons apply to lots of positions.
Letty F. September 21, 2014
30 years back of house me agrees to all of the above... This list of 5 lessons learned, complete with your descriptions, could be handed to every new hire in a kitchen. Great post.
C S. September 21, 2014
I believe that being open to learn and no excuses go together! While working with a chef on a catering job recently, I was assigned a task. I thought it was taking me forever and felt badly! So i asked the chef if there was a more efficient way to perform it. His answer was that I was doing it just as he would - and i was doing it quickly! So never be afraid to ask for better, more efficient ways to perform. And then accept that maybe you should trust yourself too!
Borrowed S. September 21, 2014
I'm starting a two week stage tomorrow! This is a great article for a newbie!
steven September 21, 2014
I wish everyone I'd worked with understood that last one. I learned it early on and its greatly improved my value in all of my chef's eyes. Just say sorry and don't do it again; and don't get your feelings hurt when everybody teases you about whatever stupid thing you did. I always remember the rules from Wedding Crashers, "No excuses, play like a champion"
Wes September 21, 2014
After graduating from college I worked in a French resturant as a waiter while saving some money for a four month trip to Europe. Years later we went for a second seating New Years Eve dinner at a French bistro in Houston. After a lot of wine and champagne and an awesome dinner the French chef came out with a jeribaum of champagne. The night before I had a dream that I asked the chef if if I could come and work in the kitchen. I told him I work for free to further my cooking skills. So I just asked him! He handed me a card and said to call him the next week which I did. We set a night to come in and my first task was to chop veggies and filet some fish. Chef demonstrated technique and I was on my own. The most memorable lesson that I still use today is making chicken stock. Worked there one or two nights a week for a year and after several months I was cooking on the line. The time flew by and it was a blast!