Kitchen Survival Tips for all Young Chefs

Being a rookie chef isn't always easy. But if you know what to say and how to behave, it can be a far more enjoyable experience. 

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May 3, 2016 8 min read

Chef and author Jacob Burton described your average professional kitchen as being among the most intense and stressful workplaces in the world. That’s especially true for recent culinary graduates, whose distinct lack of experience can make a bustling kitchen seem especially hectic and demanding. Whether you hope to go on to work in a restaurant, hotel, institution or catering company, you must also know how to communicate and get along with your coworkers. A strong grounding in etiquette can go a long way in building a career in the culinary arts.But, as Burton added, it’s easy to make it in any kitchen if you have the “discipline and nerves of steel not to freak out.” It might also help to have some insight from other chefs who’ve conquered their kitchens and now stand atop the culinary world.

Here, then, are five tips for surviving any kitchen setting you might ever find yourself in:

1. If you don’t know, ask questions
As a young chef, it’s easy to get confused by a task you’ve been given or to be thrown off by some unfamiliar term. If that’s the case, just do as Burton suggested and ask plenty of questions. Even if you think you might be a bother to older, more experienced chefs, it’s better to get the help you need now than for someone to continually babysit you. As an extension of this, don’t ever pretend you know how to do something, be it finding a pot or dicing vegetables. Just admit you don’t know something right away and you’ll have more time to learn.

2. Learn from those above you
The man behind the Gourmet Guy blog has several years of experience in kitchens across the U.K. So, when he says that all young chefs should study at the feet of their more experienced counterparts, you know he’s been there. If a veteran chef is willing to take the time to teach you some new technique or help sharpen your knife skills, then you should be willing to listen. Part of that process is making yourself available when you don’t have to be around. If you show up before your shift or on a day off, you might get more time with an especially sage sous chef.

3. Minds your Ps and Qs
Paul Sorgule is a celebrated chef with over 30 years of kitchen experience. In his tenure, he’s developed a list of 26 basic rules for kitchen survival. The most important items, though, emphasize the everyday behaviors. That includes using only your equipment and respecting that of other chefs. Or, never take an overworked or stressed out chef’s yelling too personally. He’s a big believer in things like saying “behind” as you move through the kitchen or knocking before entering. These are all forms of common courtesy, and applying to them goes a long way to establishing your place in almost any kitchen.


4. Always be cleaning

It may be hard to maintain cleanliness in chaotic professional kitchen, but explained that it’s one of the most basic ways to ensure a successful culinary career. If your station isclean, then all of your necessary ingredients and equipment are in order, which saves time when it comes to cooking. Plus, a clean kitchen space improves efficiency in a kitchen. With fewer messes or obstacles to contend with, people can move through the kitchen space smoothly. If you ever have down time, use it to clean up your surrounding area.

5. Avoid making excuses
As mentioned above, it’s important for all young chefs to ask plenty of questions and to always keep an open mind. Food52, meanwhile, would add another item to that list of behaviors: never make excuses to other chefs. It sends the wrong message and creates the perception that you’re not trying as hard. Instead, just tell someone you’ll do better next time. That shows that you’re aware of your rookie mistakes and are actively trying to fix them. Plus, it’ll help further demonstrate the need for help whenever an issue arises.

  1. “It’s vital to maintain the chain of command.”

    6. Respect the hierarchy
    In a professional kitchen, where everyone is working as quickly as possible to cook and plate food, it’s vital to maintain the chain of command. Line cooks may not always agree with the decisions made by the executive or sous chef, but it’s their job to say “Yes, chef” and do what they’re told. As We Are Chefs emphasized, strong leadership inspires respect and pride, which are essential to operating efficiently and keeping morale up.

7. Show up early
When the official start of their shift rolls around, kitchen employees are expected to be already going about their duties. Chef’s Resources advised always coming in ahead of time to wash your hands and set up your station. Running late or missing a shift means more work for everyone else.

8. Don’t distract others
Kitchen workers often talk a lot, especially while preparing ingredients or washing dishes. The Chef Life explained this is fine as long as it doesn’t interfere with the job at hand. When fellow employees need to concentrate on finishing up a dish and sending it out, leave them alone.

9. Treat equipment with care
Every chef relies on his or her tools, and they must be handled accordingly. No one should use another person’s knife, utensil or any other piece of equipment without asking. Each individual’s station is painstakingly set up according to their own mise en place, and interfering with that arrangement is a major offense.

10. Hot stuff coming through
Employees in a kitchen spend their work hours dealing with sharp objects and steaming pans. There’s a constant risk of an accident or injury. That’s why The Daily Meal noted the need to provide verbal warning any time a hot pot is within reach.

11. Know How to Manage Your Time
Time management is vital to a successful chef. As anyone with kitchen experience can attest, it’s easy to lose track of time while whipping up a meal. Between your time in a culinary program and cooking at home, you’ll no doubt come to understand just how busy even the smallest kitchen can become. Between dicing up ingredients, stirring various pots and pans, searing and sauteeing and a dozen or so other tasks, the kitchen can be a place of pure chaos. That’s why it’s so crucial that you learn the proper time management tips. Doing so will give you more control over your meal and keep cooking a fun and fruitful endeavor.

As The Hospitality Business explained, it’s important to know how to properly break down your individual time. Generally speaking, your time should be dictated by two key rules. For one, you want to try to prioritize controllable time. That is, those periods of the day that you have control of, like meetings or prep work. Secondly, you need to minimize the amount of uncontrollable time in a day. You want to make sure you’re scheduling every second of the day to avoid any wasted periods. The same should go for the schedules of any underlings you might have.

12. Be divisive
In most kitchens, the difference between a burnt meatloaf and an award-winning meal is often just a few brief moments. That same logic should dictate the way you deal with various questions or concerns in the rest of the kitchen. As The Hospitality Business noted, the vast majority of the decisions you will make, like what staff member should be handling what task in the kitchen, will only require a few seconds. That way, you’re saving more time for other, more vital questions and for the rest of your kitchen responsibilities. Wherever you are in the kitchen hierarchy, it’s important to make decisions and stick to them as definitively as possible, setting the proper precedent.

13. Make room for reflection
There is a tendency among some chefs and kitchen staff to go into autopilot during their daily routine. If something works, like a specific setup or even a certain cooking technique, then why change it up? However, as Real Simple noted, the best chefs always try to see what they can do better. At the end of each shift, take a few minutes to analyze what happened that day. Did people move between tasks with real efficiency? Was there any period you had some downtime? Were there any tasks that were not completed? By asking these questions, you can give yourself a much better idea of what you could be doing to actively improve your culinary efforts.

Every kitchen is a little bit different. However, following these tips will get any online culinary graduate off to a good start.

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