It’s all too easy to allow yourself to become overwhelmed in your own kitchen. When you’re in the middle of preparing a meal, it can seem like there are pots and pans and ingredients and knives and rolls of paper towels and about a million other things filling up every open area, no matter how much counter space you have. And as most of us who have ever found ourselves in this situation know, a chaotic cooking environment like this is not only stressful and no fun, but is also less likely to result in the tasty, well put-together meal you intended to create when you got started.
This is why you will never find a well run kitchen in any restaurant operating in this sort of disarray. Instead, we professional chefs know the value of culinary mise en place: a place for everything and everything in its place. Through a few relatively simple rules for kitchen management during meal prep, you, too can begin actually enjoying the time you spend in the kitchen, just like we chefs do.
Here are a few of my top tips for keeping things running smoothly when you’re preparing a meal, or even when you’re preparing to prepare a meal:
●Tool time: make sure that your kitchen is equipped with the tools you need for the jobs at hand: a selection of knives (that you keep sharpened), mixing bowls and spoons, one or two cutting boards, at least one of each size pot and pan… and the list goes on. Properly equipping a home kitchen can be expensive, which is why for most people, it takes years before they have all the extras they really want and need, like a KitchenAid mixer or an electric wok, for example. But even before you are able to add these sorts ofbigger “bonus items” to your kitchen’s inventory, make sure you’re not trying to prepare your meals without having the true must-have items on hand.
●Take Inventory: Before you begin preparing any meal, make certain that you actually have all the ingredients available. All too often, chaotic cooking situations arise when the home cook reaches into the pantry for a certain type of spice she just knows that she needs, only to discover that while the spice in question is nowhere to be found, she does have five full bottles of unopened extra virgin olive oil. Planning for meal prep is just as important as the actual preparation of the meal, so make your list, check it twice, and be sure you take it to the grocery store with you before you set foot in the kitchen to begin preparing a specific meal.
●Practice makes perfect: Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t chop vegetables or filet a fish with the same minimalist and graceful movements that you see a professional chef use in undertaking the same tasks. Remember that these are activities that those of us who cook for a living do every day, usually many times a day. And so, just as with any other life activity, we get better and better at something the more we practice, just like you will get better the more vegetables you actually chop.
●Keep it orderly: Non-professional cooks are often amazed at how tidy restaurant kitchens look even at the end of a long night of preparing hundreds of meals. This is because professional cooks know the value of working in a specific order. The best first step is to organize your ingredients into a single area of your kitchen. Place your needed pots, pans and utensils in another specific area. Next comes any marinating and fabricating of proteins, which should then be refrigerated. Fabrication should be followed by chopping of vegetables and long term starches like potatoes. Consolidate each of these ingredients individually. Last, prepare any sauces that might be going with the meal.
●Clean as you work: During all of these orderly preparation activities, you should be making regular trips to the sink to wash and dry items as you use them, and then putting them away. That’s right, clean the kitchen while you’re cooking! It may seem like a radical concept but it really is the way we professional cooks run our own kitchens.
●Save the best for last: The last steps of preparing a meal are the best ones: the actual cooking. Now that you have all your tools and ingredients ready to go, and your kitchen is relatively tidy, you can begin cooking your meats and vegetables, timing things so that you will be able to plate the different items on that night’s menu at pretty much the same time, allowing you to serve it to your hungry eaters at the same time.
These are the basics of an orderly meal preparation process, whether that’s in a restaurant kitchen or your own. But I’ll bet you have some of your own tips and tricks for keeping the kitchen under control and things moving smoothly when you’re cooking, and I’d love to hear what they are. Share your own “kitchen calming” techniques in the comments below.