A professional kitchen is a well-oiled machine maintained by routine. Throughout my time as a server, line cook, and barista at restaurants and cafes, I relished the solace of opening in the quiet hours before sunrise, in preparation for the unrelenting rush. But the final guest served wasn’t the end of the day: Energized and exhausted, my team bonded as we scrubbed every surface and dish, swept up every crumb. The unhurried routine was a relaxing practice in winding down after the nonstop stress of kitchen work.
As one of thousands of restaurant workers who lost their job during the first wave of the pandemic last March, I, like many others trying to mentally escape the confines of quarantine, coped in my home kitchen. Though too much feels beyond any one person’s control these days, I’ve gained peace of mind by treating my home kitchen like a professional one. In keeping everything as cleaned and organized as I would at work—as well literally bringing in some restaurant tools to my home—I’m set up for success. You can do it too: Here's how.
Every night I go through my own personal “closing checklist” for the kitchen: I sleep better knowing that I’ll start fresh the following day. After dinner, I pile the dishes into the sink and wash them immediately. If you walked into a restaurant and last night’s dirty dishes were still on the tables, you probably wouldn’t eat there—hold your kitchen to the same standard. It’s much easier to get dishes done while they’re still on your mind (and before they crust over). Plus, I’m sure standing over the sink after a meal helps with digestion in some way or another.
With the dishes drying, I take a sponge or rag (much more sustainable than going through half a roll of paper towels every night) to wipe down every surface in the kitchen, not just the counter where I did my food prep. In a restaurant, the stove, dining tables, and counters are scrubbed nightly; Your kitchen might not require a floor-to-ceiling scrub-down, but it can be fun to shamelessly knock all crumbs to the floor—albeit, to be swept up immediately after.
Don’t forget horizontal surfaces that may get messy in the cooking process, though: wipe smudges off the fridge with a gentle food-grade cleaning solution like a 1:1 mix of white vinegar and water. With every surface sparkling clean, all that is left is a thorough sweep—meaning under all surfaces and baseboards, not just around them.
Finally, I put away any dry dishes and take a look around, knowing that with a clean kitchen I can dive right into whatever recipe I want the next day. Any professional chef will tell you that with a proper closing checklist, opening shifts are a breeze with little to do when everything is already in its place.
Though performing these simple tasks at the end of each night might not seem like much, the routine makes a world of difference in maintaining a clean and organized kitchen. Just throw on some music—some loud punk or rap music always keeps me energized—and get to cleaning like it’s your job. You’ll end every night with confidence.
The routine of a kitchen checklist ensures cleanliness and organization, but why not take it a step further. I’ve incorporated a few tools used in professional kitchens at home that have become indispensable in providing further control and consistency.
Every kitchen I’ve worked in uses Cambro food storage containers. Thick plastic with measurements engraved into them, the standard size and shape of these clear containers made sure we always knew which ingredients were where, and how much we had of each. Still, these containers can be hard to find outside a restaurant supply store, and are best suited for storing large portions of raw ingredients like flour and sugar. Plastic deli containers, however, are equally helpful for keeping loose ingredients, as well as leftovers, contained and organized. Regardless of volume, deli containers easily stack for smooth pantry- and fridge-storage, and the lids are universally sized.
"First in, first out" is the hard and fast rule of any restaurant refrigerator, meaning that the oldest food is to be used first—and you can’t always rely on your memory. With dissolvable food labels, you can easily mark the date and contents of your ingredients and leftovers to make sure everything is used before they spoil.
Duct tape has been my label of choice in the past (masking tape works too), but they often leave a sticky residue on my containers that's difficult to remove. To save your new containers, dissolvable labels rinse right off with hot tap water.
The hard truth about most home ovens, especially if they’re not new, is that their temperature will never be exactly what you’ve set. Most are only off by a few degrees, but after a few batches of burned cookies and some research, I found my oven ran over 30 degrees hotter than the set temperature. Cheaper than buying a new oven, an oven thermometer gives you the most accurate and consistent temperature-reading, and for restaurant-quality meals, consistency is key.
Chest freezers were about as valuable as toilet paper during the first wave of quarantine as people looked for more storage for their larger-than-usual grocery hauls. While I don’t condone hoarding, it was tough to fit even a couple weeks’ worth of food in my small freezer. In hindsight, I can’t believe I was able to feed myself before doubling my freezer space. Now, all my big-batch meal prep, like beans and grains, and (deli container-packed!) leftovers have plenty of space, as do basics like butter and frozen vegetables. Plus, the efficient use of space means I can experiment with more frozen recipes like ice cream pie and make-ahead dinners.
Smaller home kitchens require an efficient use of all livable space—professional kitchens are the same. When you hang pots and pans on a pegboard, instead of cramming a pile into a cabinet, equipment becomes both organized and a decorative statement. One look at Julia Child’s kitchen in Cambridge should be all the convincing you need.
Most pegboards are easily installed, but for renters and less-handy individuals nervous about putting holes in the wall, heavy duty Command strips work just as well.
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