Running a kitchen is hard.
You need to manage a big team that needs to be efficient and delivers just-in-time. Delays of minutes can lead to angry customers or — even worse — bad reviews.
Chefs work is stressful. They work in smaller shifts of high intensity, preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
They can’t afford the time to do things most professions consider normal. Think to-do lists, project revisions (or preparations), giving orders more than once, etc.
That’s why there are golden rules when it comes to being and working as a Chef. Many other fields can apply these rules, learning from them on how to be more efficient.
#1 Prepare Everything
Rule number one of cooking school?
Before cooking anything you must prepare everything.
Chefs follow a technique called Mise en Place. It literally means ‘set in place’ and refers to having all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you start cooking.
There is no margin of error and this system ensure food ‘just-in-time’.
This system also ensures productivity. It’s all well and dandy when you are cooking one single plate of pasta but it’s a different ballgame altogether when you need to fulfill 10 of them and FAST!
This also means that they use a lot of plates and bowls in their preparation, which leads to our second rule.
#2 Clean Up as You Go
Kitchens can be messy places. That’s why you should clean as you go: ensure good hygiene and no shortage of bowls for preparation.
This ensures that the kitchen stays clean and that the materials are available at a moment’s notice.
There are many people at the office that get coffee and then leave their cups in their desk. Some will clean it after having multiple items, making one trip to the garbage can and throwing everything away (most people are proud to say this is more productive!) while others will clean it at the end of the day/week of until someone picks it up (generally an office cleaner).
A chef would drink the coffee and when he finished he would go to the kitchen and a) clean it or b) throw it away immediately.
It’s also important to notice that leaving the cups in the table will clutter your mind and your vision, leaving you focused on unimportant things.
Chefs, they know all too well and that’s why they pick up the habit of cleaning as they go.
It’s one of the two actions they will do repeatedly while cooking at the same time, which leads to the third point.
#3 Feedback Loops
When we think about chefs there is a mental picture that forms in our mind: a man with a white top hat tasting food from a wooden spoon.
This does not happen by mistake: chefs continuously taste the food every couple of minutes — sometimes every couple of seconds if needed.
They need feel the flavor of the food as it constantly changes. The fire under the pan means that it will continue to pump heat into the food, making it more cooked than one second ago.
It’s important to taste the food to act accordingly to these changes. They can then decide to add more salt or condiments.
This ensures a feedback loop from the chef’s part: as the outcome keeps evolving rapidly, he gathers his own opinion on the flavor. He then makes changes to input — the food, in order to change the output — the flavor or final dish.
The loop done in minutes though, not days, weeks or months as it happens in most workplaces. The reason is obvious: there is an external source — the fire — putting pressure on the output — the final dish. A Chef has seconds to make correct decisions, otherwise ruining someone’s night.
Which leads to the next point, since most decisions are second nature to chefs.
#4 Automating Decisions
Most chefs ask themselves simple enough questions:
Does this need more salt? Yes or no.
Is the onion cooked golden? Yes or no.
Is it time to add the tomatoes? Yes or no.
A chef will ask a lot of questions during the cooking process — either out loud or to himself — as part of the feedback loop in improving the final output.
There are two important takeaways here:
- Yes/No questions reduce the number of possible outcomes, helping make decisions faster
- Chefs reduce the questions to its simplest form — yes or no — which leads to having more questions being asked but far easier ones.
This strips their decision process to their bare minimum, meaning any item can be actionable fast.
However, questions are asked in order to change the output, not questioning the input. If the food needs more salt then there is only one kind of salt to use. And if the soup is ready to include tomatoes, then they take what’s in front of them, already prepared and put it in.
There’s no time to second-guess the input since all the focus should be on the output. Everything else should work accordingly to help the chef be efficient. Which means that a chef must keep his knives sharp, his pots must be rinsed thoroughly and so on.
#5 The Importance of Tools
If you go to any supermarket or chain store in search of buying kitchen knives, you will find an assortment of options on different types, sizes, blades, shapes, materials, blades.
Most of the sets will come with at least three, normally five and sometimes even ten knives in one pack.
It’s obvious why we get this type of deal: it’s part of the capitalist mentality that ‘more must be good’ (and impress your friends whenever they come over). The logical fallacy is obvious: “Dan has an impressive set of knives, he must be a good cook”.
The Chef has none of this nonsense.
That’s why the most important knife in any set or bought solely is called ‘The Chef’s Knife’. That’s the only knife that they need and oftentimes they will cost in the hundreds of dollars.
Having one tool also means keeping it sharp, razoring it often before cooking to make sure that it will slice everything in one go. The clock is ticking and there is no time to cut the same thing twice.
#6 End of the Job
The job doesn’t end with the food but rather after everything is done
When defining goals we often forget the last part of the project. We assume it will be over the minute we deliver the final presentation or launch the product.
A remarkable Chef knows that the work in only completed once the kitchen is clean. The pans and pots need rinsing, knives sharpened again, cutting boards oiled.
Just because the final product — the plate — has been delivered it does not mean that the work is complete.
We can learn from the way chefs work and apply to our professional and personal life.
And — if you don’t take anything else out from this insights — at least you have discovered a new productivity system for the next time you cook.