Lessons From The Kitchen

Prior to joining the more traditional 9-5 workforce I spent two years as a pastry chef. After college I had no idea what I wanted to “be” so I went to culinary school to pursue a passion. It was there that I was taught the importance of efficiency. You see, in a professional kitchen you need to be able to turn around an order quickly and accurately. The faster you’re able to get a plate out to the table, the sooner the table will have eaten and departed and the next party seated. The more tables you can turn over in a night the more you can profit.

My culinary curriculum was structured largely around efficiency. We were taught cooking methods and communication skills to ensure greater consistency of efficient performance. This type of specialized training – found in culinary programs worldwide- makes working in a variety of kitchens easier because there is a base hierarchy of priorities – efficiency, flavor, presentation, etc- and methods to achieving them. In the years since I have left the world of baking I find myself using a lot of the principles I learned in culinary school to navigate my professional activities. In the spirit of spreading some of those lessons in hopes it helps you become more consistent and efficient I have put together this list of lessons from the kitchen:

Be Prepared: Line & pastry chefs alike spend a good portion their day preparing their stations; chopping, mixed, sorting, storing everything they’re going to need to complete their orders. They need to look ahead and see what is on the menu then plan and prep accordingly.

What if you were to look ahead at your day every morning –or at the close of the day look towards tomorrow- and prepare mentally and physically for your day’s menu? I try to do this every day and I spend a good deal of time gathering the research, prepping the files, reading the emails that will contribute to the larger tasks of my day. It has helped me maintain a fresh perspective of my priorities and eases the anxiety of last minute stress and unexpected hiccups.

The Economy Of Steps: In school we were taught about The Economy Of Steps. Basically, the fewer physical steps you needed to take to prepare a dish the more you were able to contribute to a profitable restaurant workflow. If you were going to the freezer for eggs why not get all the refrigerated items were going to need for the next two hours? Continually walking back and forth across a kitchen eats up time and energy. Keeping your mind in the game and an eye on the larger list of things needing to be done made a chef much more effective in a kitchen.

The basic premise behind this principle, that the more aware you are about every step in your day the more efficient your personal workflow will be, is one many professionals could invest in. Instead of repeatedly checking in on your email, go every two hours. Focus on what needs to be done there then move on to the next task. If you’re going to be making an office supply order, check with everyone before closing out your order. You will be saving someone else in your company some time and therefore contributing to the larger, hopefully profitable, workflow. Take a few days to challenge yourself to be more in tune with your economy of steps, it may reveal a few time saving patterns you may have been overlooking.

Establish A Leader: In every kitchen there is a head Chef. They’re the boss. If they tell you to do something, you don’t argue, you do it. If there is something you disagree with you address it with them after service so as not to disrupt the larger workflow. The head Chef is responsible for establishing the flow of the kitchen, they work with the expediter to get plates out on time, they make the big on-the-spot decisions. If something goes wrong it is his credit that is tarnished. On the other hand, if something goes right he receives the praise and, if they’re a good Chef they’ll openly share accolades with their entire kitchen. The rest of the stations in the kitchen are part of a well established chain of command headed by the chef. Acknowledging this and abiding by it, even when you may not agree with the decisions, is what keeps a kitchen’s service moving. Smart head Chefs will also encourage an open dialogue with their line outside of service to make sure everyone is happy with their role. 

While the strict chain of command doesn’t transpose to a number of industries the recognition of a leader is certainly an asset for an efficient worker. I notice this most in meetings. If, at the beginning of every meeting, a leader were identified to keep the group on task and moving through the items at hand most meetings would be far shorter and more effective than if they are left to an open ended chat. Even if an agenda has been established you need someone who will be responsible for making sure people are heard and topical focus is maintained. This is a particularly useful approach to virtual conferences where there is a tendency for people to talk over each other.

Eat Your Own Product: A good chef tastes his or her goods. It is the only way to make sure their customer is getting what they ordered.

How often do you put yourself in your customer’s shoes? Try it. Place an anonymous order, call customer service with a fake complaint, or simply imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of your work. Being aware of your output will reinvigorate your approach to how you get there. No matter how many clients you have, or how great your profits, if you wouldn’t want to be your own customer you are doing something wrong.

These four lessons are just a few of the ways my kitchen experience has influenced my 9-5 career; while I still do a good deal of baking they are the only skills I learned in culinary school I currently use professionally. Although I never expected to walk away with much more than a killer croissant technique I’m happy I’m am now able to share some of the business acumen I got from my culinary education.