Restaurants

The Kitchen Habit Chefs Can't Stand

February  2, 2016

As I waited for Angela Dimayuga, executive chef at Mission Chinese Food, to answer the phone, all I could think was, “Why am I calling her to ask her about tape?

She's one of the best chefs in Manhattan—I could have asked her about her grandmother’s sausage-stuffed chicken or her Filipino influence on the MCF menu, why her funky, fish sauce-y mapo tofu tastes so good, or really anything else. Instead I stared at a list of interview questions that started with “Why 3M?”

Not tape's finest moment, apparently. Photo by James Ransom

But as soon as she picked up the phone, it became clear that what I’d taken for a possibly mundane topic was anything but to her. As soon as I mentioned the word, “tape,” she was off, listing her preferences for width, color, cut, edges, stickiness, and quality faster than I could type. As she put it, “I could really nerd out on tape.” As can most chefs, it turns out.

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Tape—or rather, the heated, controversial, back-of-house life of tape—came to our attention when we posted an Instagram of rows of pancakes. Above the the pancakes were torn pieces of blue painter’s tape denoting the differences between each row. And in the comments were objections: “Cut your labels properly @food52!” and “‘Super cute quirky handwriting doesn't offset sloppy torn kitchen tape.”

As home cooks and food stylists we love that you can easily tear painter's tape, even one-handed when needed—so we needed to get to the bottom of this. When we brought the comments to the attention of our test kitchen chef, Josh Cohen, and his assistant chef that day, Chris Roberts, they dove into a rant that lasted the better part of an hour. In a kitchen, “everything grows out of the fertile soil that is tape,” Chris said.

The Tape Rule

At Piccolo in Minneapolis, where Chris once worked, cutting tape was the first thing you learned upon starting. "Tearing it was grounds for being fired," he told me, “service would be stopped entirely if it had been discovered that the Tape Rule had not been followed.”

Doug Flicker, the chef and owner of Piccolo (and Chris's boss), explained the Tape Rule to me:

“First and foremost, the tape has to get cut with a pair of scissors in a straight line, with a small tab folded over for ease of removal. On it should be written the product name, date, and initials of the person who packed the container.”

This Tape Rule was repeated almost verbatim by each chef I spoke with, with only a few moderations. Angela, for example, specified that once the tape has been cut and properly labeled, it has to be properly affixed one inch from the top of the quart container, and never at an angle.

Not following the Tape Rule in the Food52 pantry. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Size (and Quality) Matters

Once, while working an event, Chris recalled, an intern was sent to get more tape. “When he returned with the wrong width,” he told me, “everything stopped. Our manager had to apologize and promise an intern would never be sent for tape again.” Tape—it is universally understood by chefs—is to be no larger than 1-inch wide.

Angela, who special orders 3/4-inch tape (“You don’t need more space.”), always splurges on painter’s tape. “Masking tape,” Angela told me, “leaves a sticky residue when it’s torn off. And sometimes it won’t come off at all, so people will slap another piece on top.”

Everybody Has a Favorite Color (of Tape)

“Every restaurant has a color,” Angela said, “It’s definitely a thing.”

  • Momofuku uses orange (which is also the most expensive color because of its relative rarity).
  • Thomas Keller is known for his use of neon green tape (look closely and you can see it lining his kitchens). When I asked Doug what color of tape he uses, he answered, “French Laundry tape.”
  • Mission Chinese (and Food52!) uses blue: "We don't cook a lot of blue food," Angela said, "so it's always easy to spot."

@danielboulud has taken over our kitchen @bouchon_bistro at @venetianvegas tonight! #UltimoDinner #KitchenTakeover

A photo posted by Chef Thomas Keller (@chefthomaskeller) on

But Why?

At a small level, this attention to detail sounds ridiculous. “Saying it out loud, I sound so anal retentive,” Danny Amend, who has cooked at both French Laundry and Per Se, said. But put into perspective of a walk-in refrigerator during a fully-booked dinner service, it’s necessary. Josh told me, “Cooking is about mental clarity. If your mind is cluttered with the badly cut tape and the walk-in isn’t pristine, it isn’t going to work."

Tape also functions as a means of quality control, from the bottom up. Angela said that at each prep station is a bus bin for dirty containers. “If the labels in the bins haven’t been removed,” she said, “it’s because that person is rushing or nervous—it’s something we always look for.”

Photo by James Ransom

As Danny put it, “An attention to tape shows you’re paying attention to the quality of the food, including how you’re presenting your finished product.

For some, this respect is taken extremely literally. Chris refuses to eat at restaurants he knows are using cheap masking tape, but Doug said he wouldn’t go that far, then quickly added, “Though I certainly wouldn’t work in a kitchen where someone didn’t cut the tape.”

172 Comments

Sheph November 9, 2018
I love this article and am using it in my class to better explain why we do what we do. #greentapemoments #culinaryedchat #culinaryed
 
Katelong01 April 13, 2018
Bless your heart. Nerd out is right. If torn tape disurbs your Wah, cut away by all means. But remember, “post hoc ergo propter hoc” is a fallacy. Not everyone who makes good food is not OCD.
 
Steven W. November 27, 2017
I used to work in kitchens from steak houses to Rockefeller Resorts and I have never heard of people being that obsessed over tape...must be a recent thing.<br />
 
Pisanella September 16, 2017
Is it just me? I try to uncheck the tick box so I don't get any more follow ups and yet again I'm getting notified of the latest comment! What is a person to do????
 
raymond D. September 16, 2017
They must have put tickertape on their brownie
 
tamater S. September 16, 2017
Pisanella, I came here to stop getting notices on this thread, and was able to uncheck the box.
 
raymond D. September 16, 2017
The tape reminds me of my first kitchen boss..he was a gem!
 
Victoria A. September 2, 2017
Blue tape all the way--it's especially useful as a band aid so thAt you can see it if it falls off...no one wants to find a regular band aide in their food.
 
Steven W. September 1, 2017
32 years in the kitchen and I have always torn the tape. Relax people. I will agree that masking tape leaves a mess .
 
Christopher S. July 31, 2017
So. . . . Day Dots are out?
 
Mia July 30, 2017
P.S. - every piece of tape pictured here was ripped, unless you're using jagged edge scissors.
 
Mia July 30, 2017
You can tear the tape people, chill out.<br />
 
Rochelle W. July 29, 2017
I've used for decades what my mother always used while I was a child - freezer tape. It doesn't leave a sticky residue, it is easy to remove, adheres well and is (at least for me) the perfect thickness.....3/4". I guess if I want to have colors, I'll be scouting out the painters tape selection.
 
David July 23, 2017
I had been looking for a way to label my foods in my kitchen (at home), and nothing seemed to work. Tape rolls were either too thick (2" duct tape), or stuck too much (masking tape), or were not efficient (clear tape). After reading this article, I realized I needed to be using painters tape. I went looking for a roll at my local hardware and office supplies stores. The blue tapes were too dark for my tastes. The green ones were way more expensive. I found a 1 1/2" thick roll of yellow painters tape and was intrigued. I brought it home and cut it in half (making 2 rolls 3/4" thick) on my bandsaw (admittedly, not a usual tool for most cooks/chefs). It was the right size and right color, but cumbersome to use, and not efficient in the effort required. Being that it is a 3" diameter hole in the middle, I went looking for one. The hardware stores only had hand-held tape dispensers - for huge rolls of packing tape to be used in sealing boxes. The office supplies store had 1, but it was over $30. So, I took some scrap plywood and cut pieces to make my own, including a 3" diameter wheel to be mounted in the middle. I took a broken jigsaw blade and mounted it in the tip of the dispenser, so I could pull-cut the tape just like we do a normal tape dispenser or a stretch of foil or plastic wrap. Then, I drilled a hole in the top so that I would have a permanent place to hold my marker. <br /><br />Now, with one hand, I can pull a piece of tape, cut it, and apply it to the food container, and still use one hand to grab the marker and label the contents.<br /><br />Now, my several full tea jugs are all labeled so that I know which tea is which. My homemade salad dressings and sauces are all labeled so that I know which one I am grabbing without having to open it for a smell. Things in the freezer are all labeled and dated. <br /><br />In a professional kitchen with team members who are trained and follow strict guidelines for correctly placing food in their proper positions in the walk-in fridge or freezer, or pantry shelf, this might not be an issue. But, in a home, with 3 kids and a wife/spouse/partner, where everything gets moved around and pushed to the back of the fridge(s), there is no telling where things end up residing. <br /><br />Having the labels is a real Godsend, and this article was an epiphany for me with regards to the proper labeling medium, and all I had to do was figure out an efficient dispensary. REGARDLESS of criticism by other readers, my success after reading this article is the BEST REASON to continue publishing such hintful articles. THANK YOU!!!
 
Alexis V. July 23, 2017
This is a great article and conveys the need for clarity and professionalism in a kitchen. I worked as a kitchen assistant in an hotel restaurant for several years during my teens, and have carried those good labelling habits with me ever since. Content, amount, and date on packaging help me with my meal preps, rotations of frozen packages and much more Thank you.
 
Lisaaw July 23, 2017
I have been cooking for 32 yrs and if I had the time to use scissors to cut tape I still don't think I would. Honestly everything has a place in the walk in and for the most part during the rush it should be in a place where reading is not necessary. Having worked in locations that relied on generators for electricity I could find items in the dark based on putting them in their proper shelving order. I did work at a place that had sheets of stickers that worked really well as they would dissolve when washed. Really helpful as it was a large catering company where everything needed to be labeled and numbered. Also respectful to the dishwasher who did not need to remove labels that most cooks are too ignorant to do. The comments about not working at places due to their tape shows their age and level of experience. Edwin Cohen said it spot on "when you train your people not to be idiots". Guess what Chris and Doug I wouldn't hire or work with petty minded tape cooks!
 
tj August 5, 2017
Yeah, it's this new generation of Thomas Keller clones. There are many things that have gotten lost with the new Stepford Wives approach to restaurant management. In large part it happens because all the Thomas Keller restaurants primarily hire straight out of cooking school so they can make their staff drink the kool aid. Then their staff progresses and manages other places and opens other places and now there has been a wave of newer restaurant folk who look, talk and act like Per Se employees. They have their own banter. They have their own rules. Some of it is good and useful. I try not to hate them for it. Oysters and Pearls is still a very good dish.
 
Lisaaw July 23, 2017
I have been cooking for 32 yrs and if I had the time to use scissors to cut tape I still don't think I would. Honestly everything has a place in the walk in and for the most part during the rush it should be in a place where reading is not necessary. Having worked in locations that relied on generators for electricity I could find items in the dark based on putting them in their proper shelving order. I did work at a place that had sheets of stickers that worked really well as they would dissolve when washed. Really helpful as it was a large catering company where everything needed to be labeled and numbered. Also respectful to the dishwasher who did not need to remove labels that most cooks are too ignorant to do. The comments about not working at places due to their tape shows their age and level of experience. Edwin Cohen said it spot on "when you train your people not to be idiots". Guess what Chris and Doug I wouldn't hire or work with petty minded tape cooks!
 
BerryBaby July 23, 2017
I keep a roll of masking tape in the kitchen. Use it instead of chip clips and keeping bags of flour, sugar, sealed.
 
edwin C. July 16, 2017
When you have to idiot proof your system, you are admitting you have an idiot system. The French Laundry can not be the standard, because only the 1% can afford it. I'm sure it is great to work there, but again it offers less that 1% of the jobs. When you train your people not to be idiots, and for everybody to know what is in the kitchen store it well you have it knocked. yea we will always have labels and dates. When everything goes into the weeds a smart well trained staff will help more than any label and date on a piece of tape that is cut off perfectly. As everybody should know now the really dangerous points of infection are out side the restaurant. We have a system were we admit the you can't trust the wholesomeness of out meats, chicken and eggs, more and more produce is also suspect.
 
djgibboni July 16, 2017
Yet another reason I'm thankful I cook at home, and not in a commercial kitchen. I can label how I want, not stir everything with tongs, and not have to wear long white sleeves while cooking. <br /><br />Oh, and not have to put up with co-workers with serious OCD issues.
 
Ann-Marie D. July 16, 2017
Bravo to chefs that are showing the world excellence in everything they do.
 
Pat W. May 12, 2017
And some people think I'm anal-retentive because I label all my spices/herbs so the labels are all placed in the 'right' position and then I alphabetize them. Much easier to find then.
 
Helen S. May 12, 2017
That is different - that is smart! Keeps you from searching endlessly for a spice or herb. When we remodeled our kitchen I had a special cabinet that was only 5 inches deep and about 6" tall. It was fitted with glass shelves and all my spices, herbs, vinegars and other things were house there. Nothing got pushed to the back of a deep shelf and I could see everything at a glance. <br />
 
David May 12, 2017
I made & attached wooden spice racks to the insides of the doors of my kitchen cabinets next to the stove. There is a single rack on top just a smidgen above the 3rd shelf, a single rack just above the 2nd shelf, and a double staggered rack above the bottom shelf - I have that on both doors that open facing each other. The bottom shelf has the 14 larger bottles (about 2 1/2" wide) of the spices I use - institutional size, and the racks have 46 of the regular household size bottles. I have no duplicates, and still have some homemade blends on the 2nd shelf that I need to redo my racks to include more space so I can fit them all, and there are still about 4-6 more that I need to buy, but I cannot seem to find Summer Savory at the stores!
 
BerryBaby July 23, 2017
I group mine...Italian, Mexican, Asian, etc. makes it easy say when I'm making Italian grab all the jars without having to hunt for them.