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5 Things I Learned From Working in a Restaurant Kitchen

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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.

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?

Tags: Lists, Advice, Restaurants, Interviews