10 things I learnt working in restaurant kitchens include everything from the value of maths and mise en place to the importance of being clean and organised, why it’s essential to taste, taste and taste again to the value of perfect soffritto. All are incredibly useful in the home kitchen.
I’ve been fascinated by cooking, food and restaurants since I was a child growing up in Australia. I loved the whole experience. I cooked with my mum. I had my own garden at age 15. And I loved going to family dinners at restaurants for special occasions.
When I was in my early twenties I became even more obsessed. Thankfully, I had a then-girlfriend (now wife, Lara) who shared my love of eating out and cooking at home. Things really took hold when we ate at a restaurant, fell in love with the food, and if the chef had a cookbook I bought it and learnt the dishes in it. I still cook recipes from some of those books, such as Rockpool and Tetsuya.
This cooking lark was a relaxing pastime until Lara went to South America do research for her master’s degree. I wanted to be a better cook and I knew that taking this cooking hobby further could be a way to stay grounded while she was away.
The drummer in my band, John, was a chef who owned a little Italian joint in Sydney’s Surry Hills that was a café by day that doubled as a pasta restaurant at night, so many a night after finishing my day job running a design department for a publishing company, I’d head to John’s restaurant to learn how to cook in a commercial kitchen.
What could possibly go wrong with spending my nights at a restaurant run by the madcap drummer of my post-punk pop band? Just how crazy it was is demonstrated in the fact that when I brought John back a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential as a gift after living overseas for a few years, he pulled his own well-worn copy of the book off his bookshelf to much mutual laughter and memories.
In the kitchen, John taught me so much. As have other professional chefs over the years – while writing stories on their restaurants, photographing behind-the-scenes of restaurants, and sometimes getting my hands dirty with a stage (‘staging’ is French for an unpaid internship).
So here are 10 things I learnt working in restaurant kitchens and if you like what you read, see my recent story which kicked off these musings on pro chef lessons for home cooks on precision and why size matters.
10 Things I Learnt Working in Restaurant Kitchens
Learn to Use Your Side Towel
On my first night working in my friend’s casual Italian restaurant, I was given a fresh apron and a side towel to use to pick up hot pans from the stove and to open the oven, and I have to confess to feeling a little cocky. I was still in my 20s after all. I sling my side towel over my shoulder and ask the chef what he wants me to do. Chef says: “First things first: guests are coming to eat my food, not your fucking hair that’s drifted onto a plate, so get that side towel off your shoulder”. I knew I was no longer the leader of the band. I was the drummer being told what time signature we’re working in by the leader of the band. I still use a side towel tucked into my belt when I’m cooking at home.
The Value of Maths and Mise en Place
Mise en place is French for ‘putting everything in its place’. It means ‘prepping’ essentially and I quickly learnt what it meant soon after I started working at my friend John’s little Italian restaurant. I was initially in charge of bruschetta duties – not the most onerous task for someone who can already cook, okay. On my first night I was waiting for the first orders to come in before chopping any tomatoes, tearing basil or slicing baguettes. My chef gave me an odd look.
“Why are you just standing there?“ he asked. “We have 40 covers (seats) in the restaurant and we’re fully booked, so if I were you I’d be slicing at least 90 pieces of baguette, a few dozen cherry tomatoes, and tearing up a big bunch of basil.” His math was based on the fact that most tables order bruschetta as a snack to share at three pieces per plate. I made so many I can still make bruschetta blindfolded and seasoned perfectly to this day.
The Simple Lasagne Lesson
Many years ago, while researching a story, we were dining at an Italian restaurant that made beautiful bread, pizzas, a couple of pastas, and lasagne. It was rustic and authentic. I ordered the lasagne and it arrived piping hot and still managed to be shaped like a brick. I was amazed. “How do you make that lasagne so hot and not end up slopping all over the plate?” I asked the chef at the end of the meal. “Mine tends to flow like lava.” The chef smiled and asked “You’re not trying to serve it just after you made it, are you?”
The chef’s trick, he revealed, was to make it the day before, let it congeal in the fridge, and only remove a slice when an order came in. With his wood-fired oven, the lasagne only took a few minutes to reheat as opposed to at least 20 minutes in a conventional oven. I dare you to try this and filling the kitchen with lasagne aromas. How do you respond to the inevitable question of “What do you mean the lasagne I can smell is for dinner tomorrow?” Tell them they’re having ragù Bolognese with tagliatelle tonight. Make the pasta and lasagne the same night, serve the pasta, and put the lasagne in the fridge for the following evening. And here are my go-to ragù Bolognese with tagliatelle and lasagne recipes for you.
The Meaning of Soffritto
Speaking of ragù Bolognese, I once was doltish enough to challenge a Michelin-starred chef to a ragù Bolognese cook-off for the staff meal of his restaurant. Over dinner the night before we had discussed our favourite comfort food and thought this was a great challenge. The next day, feeling slightly hung-over, I realised this was not a brilliant idea. Even more ridiculous was making it sandwiched between him teaching me one of the most difficult dishes on the menu for that night’s service. I was making notes in between stirring ragù. To make things worse, the kitchen ventilation system wasn’t working and we were soaked through to our skin.
I launched into my ragù Bolognese prep, hacking away at my carrots, celery and onions, while the chef meticulously cut his soffritto (the holy trinity of Italian cooking consisting of finely chopped onions, carrots, and celery) into tiny squares that you could measure within a millimetre with a set of callipers. “Why are you chopping everything so perfectly?” I asked him. “It’s just ragù Bolognese.” “I like my soffritto to cook evenly,” he told me, “And I don’t want someone finding an oversized piece of onion in their food”. To this day I still prep soffritto for my ragù Bolognese in those perfect little cubes.
Why You Need to Taste, Taste and Taste Again
Whenever I watch one of those amateur cooking competition shows on TV, there’s always at least one home cook who presents a dish to the judges without having tasted it themselves during the cooking process. It’s usually because they’re flustered and under pressure and the results are inevitable. Never send a plate of food out without tasting it. But it’s not just amateur home cooks who get this wrong and its remedy is sometimes as simple as a dish being under-seasoned. There have been meals in highly regarded restaurants where Lara has said, “This dish is not exciting. It’s lacking something.” That something has been as simple as a liberal sprinkle of salt.
I once spent a night in the kitchen of Michelin-starred French chef Pierre Gagnaire‘s Dubai restaurant for a behind-the-scenes story for a magazine. Having just arrived after a seven-hour flight from Paris, been to the gym, had a shower, and put on his immaculate chef’s whites, the chef headed into the kitchen armed with a handful of small spoons. He tasted every single sauce, stock, condiment, and purée that had been prepared for service. With some chefs, he’d call them over and pat them on the back and thank them with an honest smile. With others chefs, he looked at them like he wanted to slap them and grimaced as they adjusted the seasoning or began to make a new batch of sauce. Pronto.
The Importance of Being Clean and Organised
As soon as the last dessert order came in at my mate’s Italian place, out came the cling wrap, the cleaning buckets and a six-pack of beer. You’d still be running on adrenaline and eager to get down to the corner pub, but you needed to be methodical about storing meat and vegetables in their right places in the kitchen fridges. Trays and containers were labelled with arrival dates and use-by dates, which helped keep things safe and also helped the chef decide what became the next night’s ‘special’ and when to get the wait staff to “push the lamb rack”. To this day, every single kitchen container in my kitchen has a label and a purchase date. I use a Pentel Maxiflo and sticky labels, which is faster than cutting tape. Even with my squeeze bottles of different oils and vinaigrettes, I put labels on them and then cover the labels with clear packing tape so they don’t fall off as get greasy.
The Odd Ingredient on the Cutting Board Trick
In the days before cooks could use multiple timers on a handheld device such as an iPad, there was a simple reminder that something needed to be checked regularly in the kitchen, such as having to skim a stock or check a reducing sauce: you placed an unrelated kitchen item next to your cutting board, such as a jar of mustard, which has nothing to do with what you’re cooking. In between slicing carrots you’d look at the mustard jar and wonder why it was there until your mind clicked for a second and then you’d be reminded to go and skim the stock. Sometimes when I’m super busy and I run out of something, I place the empty jar or container on the corner of the kitchen table, where inevitably Lara asks: “Why is this empty bottle of fish sauce here?” I put it on the shopping list. That works too.
The Power of Aromas
Back in my friend John’s restaurant kitchen, we’d time the resting of our piping-hot just-baked Italian-style baguettes with the opening of the restaurant, so the fresh-from-the-oven aromas permeated through the whole place. Besides selling more bruschetta, people tended to just order more food in general, because the aromas were not only mouth-watering, they made people feel more at home and want to settle in for the night. Do the same for dinner guests and they’ll feel welcomed. They also might not want to leave…
Because we had limited space in John’s kitchen, the chef made just ten crème brûlées for each service. Not Italian, I know, but he was a traditionally trained pastry chef and could not take them off the menu. The trick to make sure they sold out? When the first order for one came in, John placed the cold brûlée on the barista’s counter in the dining room, brought out his hot brûlée iron, and melted the sugar coating on the surface of the brûlée. The sweet, smoky aromas were so enticing that even customers who had just sat down to dinner ‘reserved’ a brûlée for dessert. I don’t remember ever having the joy of eating a leftover brûlée after service at that restaurant.
The Importance of Working Clean
When I first started cooking, I thought it was akin to being an artist with a freshly stretched canvas and an endless supply of oil paints. Just put on some bebop jazz and open some wine (before doing your mise en place), and use every single dish, pan, spoon, tray, and utensil in the kitchen. And that was just to make soup. Around the same period, I was still working in my friend’s Italian restaurant, where we had a plongeur (a dishwasher/cleaner), so I never washed a dish there – nor at home. I was spoilt and lazy.
Lara had an American screenwriting student in one of her classes who was a well-regarded chef on hiatus in Australia. He was earning a living doing ‘under the table’ (no tax) catering jobs to the rich and famous so he could afford to stay longer in Australia. We became friends and he invited us to dinner at the apartment he was house-sitting for a client. In the immaculate kitchen he cooked us a stupefyingly great three-course meal. In-between the first couple of courses, I snuck into the kitchen for a peek. There was only the mise en place for the next course on the bench and he was washing up dishes from the first course. I’m still not there yet.
Don’t Get In The Way and Don’t Annoy the Grill Guy
If ever you decide to do a stage in a restaurant kitchen, the first rule is never get in the way of anyone. Learn the ballet of avoiding chefs with sizzling pans or waiters with three hot plates on each arm. But most of all don’t annoy the grill guy during service. While the order dockets are on the wall, this guy also has the orders in his head: that lamb rack has to go in the oven in two minutes, that oyster blade steak has been ordered well-done so he needs to crucify it, and the customer wants that bone-in ribeye just under medium-rare so it needs to go on the oven hood to rest for ten minutes. Buy the grill guy a beer or three after service and maybe the next night he’ll guide you through the first orders and share the secret to how he keeps his shit together amidst the chaos and heat. His job is by far the hardest in the kitchen – which is probably why my drummer-chef friend John never promoted me from cooking pasta to the grill station.
There were more than 10 things I learnt working in restaurant kitchens and you’ll find more here on how working in a real kitchen made me a better home cook. Have you worked in a restaurant kitchen? What are some top tips you took away?