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Organization is a necessity in restaurants, where multiple cooks have to be able to communicate and work without constantly asking, “Do you know where the Maldon salt went?” Though they often have romantic streaks, chefs tend to be pragmatic when it comes to kitchen organization. As Chef JJ Proville of L’Oursin in my hometown of Seattle says, “Everything has to have a place where it lives and everyone has to know it.”
Chefs must choose systems that are durable, well-priced, and can handle the swirl of a busy Saturday night. So I checked in with Proville and some of my favorite chefs in Seattle to see what strategies they use to keep their kitchen pantries in order. (Consider this, also, to be an indirect guide to some of my favorite Seattle dining spots!)
You’ll find a Sharpie in the jacket pocket of most restaurant cooks. Why? In so many restaurants, humble but critical labels get made on the fly by writing on strips of tape. It’s the quickest, most convenient system to let cooks tell each other what’s in a given container, and how long it’s been sitting around.
Most often, it’s blue painter’s tape. Renee Erickson, whose several restaurants include the landmark oyster bar The Walrus and The Carpenter, makes sure it’s kept handy. “It’s often tied on a string hanging from a Metro rack, with Sharpies attached and scissors nearby to cut the tape.”
I love to use the same system at home, though I’m sloppier and usually just rip the tape, considering it a virtue to be labeling at all. If you want to make your tape look more pro, either cut it with scissors or plant a tape dispenser near your work area, like they do at L’Oursin, a favorite French-y restaurant of mine with a knack for aromatic cocktails and stellar seafood. Here’s a picture of its expediting station with the blue tape prominent (and a Sharpie-on-a-twine-leash nearby). Remember, convenience is key to consistent labeling (which is why blue tape is so much more reliable than a label maker for everyday labeling).
2. Label the shelf, too
This is a little next-level (read: the kind of thing I keep meaning to do but haven’t achieved myself). If you are trying to get other people to follow your system of organizing, make sure to label the shelf, too. Here’s a shot of L’Oursin’s very tiny, but crisply ordered, walk-in shelves.
3. Consider Heavy-duty plastic, where appropriate
Most chefs I know are torn on the issue of plastic containers. There is visual and environmental appeal to glass containers. But glass can be a hazard in the busiest parts of a restaurant. “When I first opened, I put almost everything in Mason jars,” says Lauren Feldman of Vif, the sunny café and wine shop that serves picture-perfect open-faced smoked trout tartines. “But as they broke, I replaced them with plastic.”
Like many restaurants, Feldman favors the solid, squared-off restaurant-grade plastic containers, known casually (no matter their brand) as Cambros, which is the most popular brand. They are super durable, and have lids that seal very tightly to keep food in and odors out. Restaurant-made containers stack quite solidly, too: You can carry a little tower of them from one end of the kitchen to the other without them tipping over.
Even if you’re not a fan of plastic food storage, it can be a very helpful organizer. Proville says bigger Cambro-style containers are also great for consolidating the odds and ends that curious cooks tend to acquire along the way, “like that little bag of tapioca flour you picked up once.” You can find heavy-duty plastic containers at your local restaurant-supply store.
4. Deli Cups, Too
Those clear-ish, round polyethylene containers with interchangeable lids are not the most beautiful nor most durable containers in the world. But like blue tape, they are ubiquitous: a staple of organization in almost every restaurant I know, always abundant when the more expensive containers mentioned above can be in short supply. They are light, cheap, airtight, and maybe most importantly in cramped kitchen quarters, highly stackable.
5. Use glass when it counts
Because it's breakable, glass isn’t great in the highest use parts of the kitchen, but it’s a beautiful way to display colorful ingredients outside the most hectic parts of the kitchen. At Kamonegi, chef-owner Mutsuko Soma supplies each table with a clamp-top jar of house-blended shichimi, the seven-ingredient seasoning used to finish bowls of her handmade soba noodles. The spice library at L’Oursin is stored in chic Parfait jars on mounted shelves in front of a mirror.
6. Grab space where you can get it: even the banquette!
Restaurants are almost always short on space, so ingredients get stored on high shelves, on top of the walk-in, in lofts, and—this was totally new to me—underneath the seats in some banquettes. Both L’Oursin and The Walrus and the Carpenter have lift-top banquettes where back stock of vinegars, oils, beans, and rubber gloves can be stashed. Cooks have to make sure they’ve stocked-up well. “Once we are opened,” says Erickson, “If we have forgotten something, we are in trouble.” Though not all of us are able to build banquettes for extra storage, you might look for smaller benches or stools with some hidden storage.
7. Put the stuff you use most in the most prominent spot
Don’t be caught with your olive oil in the banquette. Keep most-used items within reach on accessible shelves or the counter. Or conversely, says Shota Nakajima, who crafts refined-but-homey Japanese cuisine at his restaurant, Adana: “Put the random stuff on the top shelf.”
“Everything has to have a place where it lives and everyone has to know it.”
Chef JJ Proville of L’Oursin
8. Reuse glass bottles
When a good container comes into a restaurant kitchen, it’s likely to be cleaned and repurposed. Feldman buys olive oil in big tins, so when she needs some near the cooktop at Vif, she decants it into a pretty wine bottle and places a convenient pourer into it. At Adana, they store their hand-steeped liqueurs, like cherry blossom liqueur and yuzu-cello in repurposed bottles.
9. Buy in quantity for jolly effect
Erickson often deploys packaging graphics for a little punchy detail in her restaurants, like the tinned fish boxes that stack up at tiny Barnacle Bar and the barricade of kosher salt at the top of a high shelf The Walrus and The Carpenter. She told me she was annoyed when Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt changed its packaging recently, and hoarded the old boxes for display purposes for a while. You won’t crank through salt the same way a restaurant does, but if you have something you use frequently—whether that is tinned sardines, chicken broth, or canned tomatoes, you might like to play with the pop-prettiness of multiples.
10. Daiso! (If You're Lucky to Have One Near You)
I was admiring the neatly stacked and labelled shelf at Little Uncle, the tiny restaurant home of intense Thai dishes, and owner Poncharee Kounpungchart told me the little containers were from the Japanese-everything store, Daiso (check here for U.S. locations). At Adana, too, tiny Daiso stainless steel containers are good for pinching ingredients like kombu salt and sansho powder.
11. Keep smells at bay
Chefs ultimately care about food, and as I talked to them, everyone reminded me of details that help keep ingredients tasting their best. Erickson says she’s careful to keep caps snug on bottles of ingredients like olive oil that can degrade with oxygen. Soma shows me the airtight seal on her bulk soy sauce container and urges home cooks to look for airtight bottles of the easily oxidized ingredient in consumer sizes. She also thinks about the effect of storing ingredients near each other. “I keep flour and buckwheat away from smelly foods…I don’t want them to smell something like cumin.” Nakajima also mentions this issue, saying that plastic wrap isn’t good enough to keep potent foods like kimchi from impregnating fat-rich foods like butter with its smell. Make sure you store your fattier foods in something really airtight, not just a thin layer of wax paper or plastic wrap.
12. Take Inventory
Kitchen systems are always evolving, and periodically, chefs take a break to clean and tweak their organization systems. For chefs, it’s a constant process of refining systems so they work for a whole kitchen-full of employees. But don’t be grim about it, says Nakajima. “Every three months or so, I close the restaurant, and clean it completely. I order pizza and we drink beer and listen to good music. Might as well make it fun.”
Which of these restaurant tips are you likely to use at home? Let us know!
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