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Getting started in the Professional Kitchen

The best chefs know how to get organized for optimal production and efficiency. Their organization begins with a professional attitude, arriving early, appropriately attired, and having an adequately honed cutlery set. Here are additional tips to help you to be productive.

Start with a Prep List

Professional cooking requires food to be prepped in stages and batches to various degrees of readiness and then finished and assembled to order on the line. All operations should have a checklist to work from so that nothing is forgotten in the prep stage. If the operation you work at doesn’t have a prep sheet, make one up yourself. Analyze every menu item and every recipe to determine what can be prepped ahead without losing quality. Soups and sauces can usually be prepared ahead of time and held in a holding unit. Steaks and fish can be cut and seasoned but must be cooked to order. Risotto can be par-cooked and finished to orderOnce you determine what needs to be done, you must decide how much of each item to prep. By analyzing sales, you can see how much was sold on a given day of the week. Even though most restaurants now have sophisticated Point-of-Sale (POS) systems that provide this data, it’s a good idea for every station to have a form that records how much was prepped and used for each shift.

Work Station Organization

Generally, you divide your work day into prep and service phases. Prep work is everything that needs to be done before you can open for service. A prep station setup may be a little less formal than at the actual service time; however, the organization during prep is just as important as the actual line work. If you’re not organized properly, you won’t complete your work in time for service.Every kitchen station, whether a prep station or a line station, should be set so that all tools, equipment, and mise en place are within arm’s reach, from left to right and from top to bottom. This will minimize extra steps and make your timing more efficient. Make a checklist of everything you need for your station and do a check-off at the beginning of service.

Work Flow

Look at your station for an overall sense of workflow. When setting up your line station, consider which menu items need the most room to execute the plan accordingly. Workflow always has its challenges, and sometimes obstacles arise where you have to change a setup because of other factors like a new menu item. Be prepared to modify the workflow of a station in any way that will allow the best execution.

Station Setup Checklist

  • Keep food, tools, and utensils within easy reach

  • Set up in a continuous flow from left to right or right to left

  • Grab handfuls of bulk product and place them next to the cutting board

  • Move the finished product off the cutting board for better efficiency

  • Keep sharpening steel handy for periodically honing your knife

  • Keep a sani-bucket off the work table, store it on the lower shelf away from food

  • Have a container of tasting spoons near you when you are cooking; also, have a container for the soiled tasting spoons as well

Consolidate Prep

Many dishes have common ingredients that can be prepped together for better efficiency. Some preps may be shared among more than one station. Good communication and teamwork help to streamline kitchen prep for you and your fellow cooks. In some kitchens, prep cooks will handle the bulk preparation and distribute it to stations as needed. It is common to do simple tasks like peeling onions or chopping garlic during slow times to stay ahead of the game.

Do Your Prep Work

Nothing is worse than running out of food in the middle of a rush and having to prep it on the fly while you have orders to fire. Likewise, if you over-prep an item, you are wasting time and food too. Follow the 125% rule and have enough to cover if you get a run on a particular item.

Keep Your Station Organized and Clean

There needs to be a place for everything and labels to match them. If there is not a spot for something, you must find one. Periodically stop to wipe down and re-organize your station. Never work in a cluttered environment, as it displays sloppiness and a lack of professionalism. A cluttered station usually leads to poor procedures that produce inferior results and can also be unsanitary. Have a sani-bucket near your station to periodically wipe the station down.

Space Limitations

A professional kitchen often lacks enough space, so you must get used to working in close quarters. Everyone is vying for space, and chefs can get territorial. This is where working efficiently and economically will benefit a cook. Don’t spread out and take over someone else’s space. Always clean up after yourself, and don’t leave a trail of leftover equipment or unclean areas after you finish a prep. Make sure you return communal equipment or food items like herbs and spices to their proper location so the next person can easily locate them.

Equipment & Smallwares

A top frustration among foodservice workers is the lack of equipment in a kitchen or the fact that parts are missing or broken. Equipment gets abused and worn out; parts can get damaged or lost. No one can perform up to speed without the proper equipment. The chef and management must invest in the tools to help their crew work optimally. An instilled sense of responsibility on the culinary team's part will also help address some of the issues. Cleaning and maintaining the equipment begins with the people who use it on a daily basis. Storing the equipment properly, including parts and attachments, after it is cleaned will help to prolong the life and make work less frustrating because you won’t have to do a scavenger hunt to find something when needed. Inform the chef when equipment needs repairing or when tools get worn out and need replacing.

Get Used to Improvising

There is never enough time, space, or equipment to do an optimal job. It is important for a cook to understand this and to find the best medium where they can produce a great product, given the situation at hand. Improvising happens in multiple ways and must be addressed by thinking on your feet.


  • A food product is back-ordered, and you must substitute at the last minute with another ingredient

  • A sauce breaks or an entrée gets burned and must be either corrected or re-fired

  • You’ve run out of hot food holding space at a busy event and must use an enclosed cart and a Sterno to keep food hot

  • An oven breaks down in the middle of service, and you must consolidate items into a different oven

  • The dishwasher walks out in the middle of service, and the cooks need clean plates for service

  • Every situation is different and must be addressed with a clear head in a calm and methodical manner. Losing your cool and getting angry will never help the situation but only prolong the problem solved. A professional chef knows never to let last-minute hurdles get the best of him or her.

That's a wrap folks! Have a great weekend, and we will see you on Monday with a follow up to this thread on menu planning, recipes and shopping. Looking to develop your inner chef? Join one of our online culinary programs today!

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