When you’re working in the culinary arts, time is of the essence. Hungry dinner guests demand dishes in a timely manner and your co-workers expect you to keep a fast pace during prep work. If you find yourself lagging behind, you may have to deal with unhappy customers, disgruntled co-workers, or potentially even the loss of your job.
However, becoming a faster cook isn’t always as easy as we wish. While speed often comes with time and practice, there are some steps you can take to increase your pace.
1. Plan Your Day
If you’re searing steaks on the line, prepping salads as a garde-manger, or working in any other kitchen role, you should aim to avoid any idle time. How do you do this? Plan ahead!
Before you begin each shift, think about what you need to get done and what you’ll need in order to accomplish these tasks. By planning the day through in your mind before it begins, you’ll know what to do after you finish a task.
Along with thinking about the day as a whole, take time before each task to reflect on what you’ll need and then prep your station. As many chefs know, taking a moment to practice mise en place can help you get into a working groove. Plus, it prevents you from running around the kitchen looking for your missing ingredients or tools—something that could both improve your speed and keep your coworkers happy.
2. Avoid Unnecessary Steps
While running to the walk-in to pick up some produce or heading to the dish pit to drop off a dirty cutting board are often unavoidable, treat these trips as an opportunity to multitask. Rather than taking one trip to pick up ingredients and another to drop off dishes, combine the two so you only have to leave your workstation one time.
Another way to think about this is the “full hands” policy. By always keeping your hands full–i.e., bringing things with you every time you leave your workstation–you can help make your time away from your station as productive as possible.
3. Perfect Your Fundamental Cooking Skills
It only takes one look at a perfectly seared steak dressed with an herb chimichurri or a salad complete with a balance of flavors, textures, and colors to see that cooking is a complicated art. However, most professional cooks rely on a certain core set of skills each day. By practicing fundamental skills and learning some new tips and tricks, you may find yourself better able to complete these repetitive tasks more quickly, increasing your overall speed and efficiency.
Escoffier students can start their programs exploring fundamental skills like knife work, food safety, proper measurement, and cooking techniques like baking and sauteing. For example, students may spend a few hours julienning and mincing vegetables or spend a day exploring food storage temperatures and cross-contamination.
As students progress throughout their programs, they may then have opportunities to practice and improve on these fundamentals. For example, they might use their new knife skills to chop vegetables for a ceviche during the World Cuisines course, while using their understanding of food safety to make sure the fish was stored at the proper temperature.
“Today classical cooking and learning the basics of true culinary arts skills is not taught in the career world but in school you can learn that, and I feel that it is a core part of culinary arts that every chef should have the opportunity to learn.”*
Anthony Avasakdi, Manager of Culinary & Operator Support Services at Ventura Foods and Online Culinary Arts graduate
So, how does understanding the fundamentals improve your speed? Take knife skills. If you improve your cuts, you may be able to dice onions, supreme oranges, and break down chickens more quickly. Of course, you should also be able to choose the best knife for each job.
By getting the fundamentals right, you can also limit mistakes, which eliminates do-overs and wasted time.
4. Don’t Rush
It may sound counterintuitive, but focusing solely on speed can lead you to become a slower cook. If you rush through deveining shrimp or shucking corn, you may end up with sloppy results that demand you redo your task. Not only does this mean misused time, but it also results in wasted ingredients.
By focusing on proper technique first and your pace second, you may be able to become a cook that brings both precision and speed.
5. Learn from Faster Cooks
No matter if you’ve been in a kitchen for a month or a few years, chances are high that you’ll be surrounded by professional cooks who know more than you do. This is a great thing! If you notice one of your coworkers completes their prep work in half the time it takes you, watch them work and recognize what they do differently.
Let’s take the example of slicing carrots. You may notice your coworker is using a mandoline rather than a knife, or you may realize you’re peeling one carrot then slicing it while your coworker is peeling all of the carrots before slicing them. Use the opportunity to ask your coworker their reasoning behind their choices–this could provide you with new insight or a better way to work.
“My chefs are always right there to help me with any questions I have. And when they grade assignments, they see every step and can help determine what you did right, what you did wrong, and what you need more practice on. You literally have a team of people there for you to help you every step of the way.”*
Brianna Burroughs, Escoffier Culinary Arts student
Along with observing others, don’t hesitate to ask your coworkers or supervisors for advice. They may be able to show you a new technique or offer helpful tips specific to your kitchen.
6. Keep Your Equipment in Top Condition
Just like racecar drivers keep their engines in top shape and construction workers make sure their saw blades are sharp, one of your jobs as a cook is maintaining your equipment and variety of tools. Make honing your knife a regular part of your day and replace any malfunctioning equipment–which may prove to be a safety hazard too.
If you’re working as a personal chef or running a restaurant, make sure you invest in all the tools you’ll need to complete your work. By putting in money up front, you can be able to complete work more quickly, saving both time and money.
7. Keep Your Goals in Mind
Let’s face it, even if you’re a passionate cook, culinary work can sometimes be exhausting. When you’re dicing 50 pounds of onions or standing for eight-plus hours, it’s easy to let your pace slip. To keep up with your tasks, keep your larger goal in mind.
Maybe you want to advance through the kitchen to become a sous chef. Or perhaps you’re simply concentrating on serving diners the best dish possible. No matter your personal ambitions, find a goal and turn to it when the going gets tough.
Becoming a Faster Cook Can Start with Education
As the saying goes, you need to learn to walk before you can run—and the same holds true in the kitchen. Before you can race through tasks with both speed and precision, you need to understand how to efficiently complete these tasks at a slower pace.
Culinary school can introduce you to proper techniques and provide you with mentors who may be able to impart helpful tips from their years of experience cooking professionally. Plus, enrolling in a culinary arts program can provide you with lots of opportunities to practice your skills, which may help you improve your speed.
To learn more about Escoffier’s programs, contact us today.
If you enjoyed this article, read these next:
- What Are the Culinary Arts?
- The Art of Food Presentation
- 10 Must-Read Articles if You’re in the Culinary Industry in 2022
*Information may not reflect every student’s experience. Results and outcomes may be based on several factors, such as geographical region or previous experience.
This article was originally published on October 13, 2016, and has since been updated.