Watching Rene Redzepi’s chefs from Noma work in the kitchen at Nahm restaurant in Bangkok over a couple of days recently, reminded me how my professional kitchen experience completely changed the way I cook.
Even if you’re a keen home cook who has no intention of going on a reality TV cooking show like MasterChef, or My Kitchen Rules, favourites in Australia, your best investment isn’t necessarily that fancy set of kitchen knives or a sous-vide machine. Just being in a professional kitchen for a day or a week will change your cooking habits for the better.
Life in a Professional Kitchen Vs being a Home Cook
“They’re here to eat my food, not your hair,” said my chef, taking the kitchen towel I had slung over my shoulder and tucking it into my chef’s apron. When Lara went off to Latin America to do research for her first Master’s degree some years ago, I decided to stage (intern) at my friend’s casual Italian café-restaurant in Sydney to keep me out of trouble on Friday and Saturday nights.
Little did Lara know that a restaurant kitchen can be just as debauched a place as a band rehearsal room or a live music venue, which were my other out-of-office hang-outs as a musician when I wasn’t wearing a suit and managing a busy publishing design department, with dozens of staff.
That the chef happened to be the drummer in the band that I had just disbanded didn’t really prove to be a problem. The fact that we both had a penchant for living life to the fullest perhaps was. Because I worked ridiculously long hours in the publishing industry under immense pressure, I relished the opportunity to leave work right on time on Friday afternoon to do my mise en place (preparation) before guests arrived for dinner at my mate’s restaurant. I absolutely loved it.
At that stage of my life I was a reasonable home cook, able to whip up some weekend scrambled eggs or a week night pasta, but I wasn’t really an accomplished ‘hot station’ cook. Oddly enough, I was proficient at pastry and could bake croissants, profiteroles, cakes, tarts, and so on, but I always thought that when making dinner for friends that I should be ‘creative’ with the hot stuff and not have to measure everything to the gram. I was wrong to a great degree.
Lara would agree that my idea of cooking ‘creative’ at that stage of my life was leaving the shopping too late, not prepping early enough, making a total mess of the kitchen, and being overly-ambitious with the menu so that when guests arrived I was a sweaty, usually half-drunk mess, almost ready to surrender to ordering take-out pizza. While the dinner parties were fun, I never really spent much time at the table apart from actually eating.
Around the same time that I was considering changing careers and becoming a chef, Lara met a fascinating travelling American chef, in Australia for a few months, who had enrolled as a student in her scriptwriting class.
He invited us over to dinner and he was a machine in the kitchen. The meal was flawless and the food delicious and imaginative. But what I can remember so clearly to this day was that when I peeked into the kitchen after first course and before the main course I saw that the kitchen was spotless.
The prepped ingredients for the main course were all in small bowls and the dishes we had just eaten from were already washed up. My dreams of being a ‘creative’ chef were brought back to earth pretty quickly. It was time to get back to basics to even be a better home cook, let alone a restaurant cook…
Things I Learnt Working In a Professional Kitchen
Make Shopping Lists
One of the first things I learnt early on was the need for daily and weekly shopping lists. It seems pretty straightforward, but noting that you only have a few portions of risotto rice left means the difference between buying it at the wholesalers or having to — heaven forbid — buy it from a local supermarket at a huge markup. The note that ‘we’re out of basil’ can be fixed at the next morning market visit. To this day, I still keep a daily and weekly shopping list in the kitchen and fill it religiously.
Calculate Food Costs and Portioning
I literally had no idea about how many ‘grams of protein’ I would need per person for the main course of a three-course meal before I started working in the restaurant. I would just go up to the counter at the butcher and say “two of those”. I also didn’t know that buying protein that still needed prep — say a whole chicken verses pre-portioned chicken breasts — affected your costs.
So, if you were making a dish with chicken breasts, buying whole chickens, using the breasts, making another dish with the wings and thighs, and making stock with everything else makes far more economical sense. I still do this with chicken to this day. Nothing gets thrown out. I’d rather debone chicken thighs myself and have the bones to throw into stock.
Always be prepared
The most important lesson I learnt was to have your mise en place ready at least an hour before anyone walks through the door — either at a restaurant or cooking for a dinner party. You can then relax and have a drink. While we never had anything stronger than a shot of espresso before service at the restaurant, I will have a quick tipple before guests arrive when I’m cooking at home — but only after the mise en place is done.
Portioning your garnish, side vegetables or salad in advance leaves you time to concentrate on cooking the key ingredient of your dishes to perfection. Chef Joannès Rivière of Cuisine Wat Damnak here in Siem Reap wipes down the whole kitchen and goes home and changes into clean chef’s whites after prep so he feels fresh for service.
My chef in Sydney hated throwing food out. He didn’t just despise the food costs that accrued but he loathed seeing good produce go to waste. Keeping track and labeling everything in the fridges kept things under control (I still label leftovers to this day at home), but it also gave us the opportunity to use leftovers wisely. Risotto gets used for arancini, ragù Bolognese becomes lasagne and ravioli, yesterday’s leftover bread (house-made) becomes today’s bruschetta.
The other thing I learnt about leftovers is that poorly stored leftovers are wasted money. There’s a reason why, to this day, I have an industrial-sized roll of cling-film on my bench. And while ‘Ziploc’ bags don’t get used as often in restaurants as they do in a home kitchen, they really do save money by not letting ingredients spoil.
They’re also great for storing stock in the freezer in handy portions. I often distribute stock between 250ml, 500ml and 1litre bags, as quite often in Asian cooking you just want a few tablespoons of stock and don’t want to resort to Knorr® Homestyle Stock™!
Practice Good Hygiene
After the most obvious first lesson about people not wanting to come to the restaurant to eat my hair, there were many other lessons I learnt while staging at my friend’s restaurant. Things that are quite obvious to me now, but were altogether new notions back then, such as cooked and raw food not having contact in the fridge (my friend stored them in different fridges), the use of different-coloured cutting boards for different proteins (particularly chicken), and cooling cooked foods down to the right temperature before refrigeration.
However, one of the things that stuck with me is the simple routine of continually washing my hands. The same way that when I’m working on the computer and I finish an edit or a sentence, I sit back and hit save, the same rule applies with washing your hands in-between tasks in a kitchen. I noticed that the boys from Noma had a routine: finish a task, wipe down the bench, wash your hands.
The Long-Term Benefits of Cooking in a Professional Kitchen
When Lara returned from South America at the end of the year, she could see immediately that my cooking habits had changed. My time in a professional kitchen made me more confident when shopping, particularly if we were buying something expensive like Wagyu steak.
I knew exactly how much we needed for four people as a main course within a six-course menu. I was also much better at cleaning up during and after prep. No longer was there a pile of dirty utensils in the sink when guests arrived and every dish had either been cooked or was ready to be fired.
The adrenaline rush of a service is why many cooks choose to stay in the industry so long, for such shitty pay and long hours. The half hour before guests start to arrive, when you have your prep done completely, you have a fresh side towel used to handle the hot pans that have all been cleaned and are ready, and you’re waiting for that first ticket to arrive.
It’s a mix of nervousness, excitement and anticipation, like no other job on earth, besides, I guess, being a rock star living for that one hour on stage. While you won’t get that at home, being on top of your game can make prepping dinner parties for groups of friends lots of fun, and a little exciting.
In the restaurant kitchen, the three or four hours of service — once the tickets come in — generally go by in a blur and the next thing you know you’re cracking open a beer, cling-wrapping and labelling food, cleaning your station, and anticipating sitting in a local bar with your colleagues having a casual debrief of the night.
If you like to cook and you watch those cooking shows, you’re not getting any idea of how a real kitchen works. Putting on an apron and getting stuck into it in a real restaurant kitchen will change how you cook — even as a home cook — for the better.
Pictured above: Myself with Chef de Cuisine Olivier Biles discussing service at Reflets by Pierre Gagnaire in Dubai, just before I cooked a couple of dishes for he and Chef Gagnaire — no pressure! Photo by Lara.