Skills I Learned In A Professional Kitchen

After spending more than 10 years in grueling restaurant kitchens I decided to hang up my apron (for now). I still cook every day, but now it’s for my family, who are still very tough critics.

While the atmosphere at home is a lot more relaxed, I still take my professional experience and apply it to cooking at home, no matter how simple the task. The skills and lessons I’ve learned are invaluable, and many translate perfectly to the home kitchen.

Here are 13 things I learned working in a professional kitchen that will help you stay clean, organized, and elevate your cooking.

1. Be Prepared And Organized Before Anything Hits The Pan

spices in bowls

This is commonly referred to as “mise en place” and translates to “everything in its place”. It’s one of the first things taught in culinary school, and it goes without saying in any professional kitchen.

Before you actually start cooking, you should have all of your ingredients measured, cut, and easily accessible. This also means you should have a plan of action and a clean organized area with all of the utensils you’ll need.

In professional kitchens, prep is the hard part and takes up 90% of your time. That’s what makes cooking fast, fun, and easy. Try this at home and it will be a gamechanger.   

Here is our Beginners Guide To Meal Planning. 

2. Keep A Small Trash Can/Bowl Next To Your Cutting Board

This simple addition to your prep area will help you stay clean, organized, and efficient. Cutting board space is precious real estate, and it can quickly become overrun with peels and waste in between trips to the trash can.

Having a place to put your waste that’s within arms reach will keep your cutting board clean and clutter-free. Plus, it will minimize the crumbs and other bits that always end up on the floor.

Rachel Ray even cashed in on this idea with her Garbage Bowl. But, no matter what container you use, this is a pro move.

3. Keep Your Station Clean At All Times 

clean

I know, enough with the cleaning and organization already! This is the last one, I promise.

Nobody wants a huge mess to clean up after they’re done cooking or eating. Cleaning as you go will not only make the final cleanup easy, but it will help you stay organized and focused on cooking or prepping.

I don’t know how many chefs I’ve heard say “cluttered station = cluttered mind”. And while it may sound like a Yoda joke, almost any time a fellow cook was behind (a.k.a. “going down”), they also had a messy, disorganized station.

4. Season And Taste As You Go

salt

Don’t wait until you’re ready to plate your food before you taste it for the first time. This can lead to adding excessive salt and other spices at the end that won’t have time to properly meld with everything else in the pan.

As you season and taste during the cooking process, aim for balance. This is a hard one to explain, but dishes shouldn’t taste specifically like salt, sugar, pepper, etc. Instead, you should get notes of each ingredient without one thing overpowering another.

5. Don’t Forget The Acid

acid in the food

The extra “something” that you can’t quite place in your favorite restaurant dish is likely acid. Adding a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar to a dish is an easy way to add complexity and keep it from tasting flat. 

It’s common for the head chef to taste any food before it leaves the kitchen, and the number one thing a cook will hear during this time is, “it needs more acid”.

6. Knives Must Be Sharp

roll knives

A common saying in the kitchen is “a sharp knife is a safe knife”. If you’re using a dull knife, you have to use a lot more pressure when cutting and this can easily lead to the knife slipping and possibly cutting your hand.

Not only will a sharp knife protect you from getting hurt, but it’s also much better for the ingredients being cut. A dull knife tends to bruise and crush things instead of slicing through them. Herbs and vegetables will not only look better when cut with a sharp knife but will also last longer in your fridge.

7. Taste Your Pasta Water

tasting water

It takes a lot more salt than most people think to properly season water for cooking pasta. Adding a teaspoon of salt to a gallon of water is going to do basically nothing. Might as well skip it altogether. But, the only way to know for sure is to taste it, just like anything else you cook.

Next time you’re making spaghetti, add the amount of salt you normally would and then taste the water. It might sound crazy, but your pasta water should taste like the ocean, so go ahead and add a few more spoonfuls.

8. Use Your Pasta Water As An Ingredient

The secret to the rich sauces that perfectly coat the noodles at your favorite restaurant is as simple as pasta water (and maybe a touch of butter).

When you boil pasta, a lot of starch is released into the water. And that starchy water is the secret to a rich emulsified sauce.

When you drain your pasta, save a cup or two of the cooking water. Then, when you’re mixing your noodles and sauce (and you should be mixing your noodles with your sauce), add some of the water and stir it really well. The starchy water will help thicken the sauce and make it coat the noodles.

9. Knife Cuts Don’t Need To Be Fancy But They Should Be Consistent

chopped carrot

You don’t need to perfectly brunoise or bonnet your vegetables when you’re cooking at home. But, you should aim for cuts that are all about the same size.

This has less to do with presentation, and more to do with evenly cooked ingredients. If you have carrots that are cut in all different shapes and sizes, by the time the large ones are done, the small pieces will be mush.

Uniform knife cuts = Consistent cooking

10. Deglaze, Deglaze, Deglaze

pan cooking

One of the simplest ways to get more flavor into a dish is by using the brown caramelized bits that end up stuck to the bottom of your pan.

Whether you’re searing meat or sauteing garlic and vegetables, it’s common for small bits of food to brown and stick to the pan. This layer, sometimes called the “fond”, is full of flavor, there for the taking.

While your pan is still on a hot burner, add a big splash of wine, vinegar, stock, or even just water. Now gently scrape the bottom of the pan to release all of the flavors that would otherwise have been washed down the drain. 

11. Cook With Stock Instead Of Water

better than water

Another trick to add more depth of flavor to any dish is to use a flavorful stock in place of water. This is something that can be done when cooking grains, braising vegetables, or even just deglazing a pan.

If you use homemade stock then you get huge bonus points. But, a high-quality store-bought one can also work wonders. Just make sure the stock is delicious and matches the flavors you’re cooking with (i.e. don’t use fish stock in a chicken dish). 

12. Don’t Get Trapped By Recipes

pan

In a professional kitchen, you have to follow recipes to the T. That keeps things consistent so guests know what to expect no matter what day it is and who cooked their food.

Cooking with a recipe at home is a great way to explore different dishes to find things you like and maybe some you don’t. But, you should try to approach recipes as guidelines. They provide you with a roadmap but feel free to take a few detours.

If you don’t have a minor ingredient that a recipe calls for, don’t give up and order out. Chances are, if you don’t have parsley or the right kind of vinegar, you can make a substitute and it will still taste great.

Being able to adapt and alter recipes will make your food more unique and make you a better cook.

13. Replace Plastic Tupperware With Deli Containers

food containers

Last, but not least. Get rid of your mismatched, various-sized plastic Tupperware and replace them with inexpensive deli containers

I’m sure you have some lying around from your favorite take-out joint, but they deserve a permanent place in your home.

In professional kitchens, these are used to hold just about everything. From individual ingredients and knife cuts (mise en place) to finished sauces, and quarts of iced coffee to keep us going through service.

The best thing about these is that they nest and stack perfectly so they take up almost no cupboard space. And, what’s even better, all three sizes (8,16, or 32oz) use the same lid!

This is the end to the horror that is the unorganized cupboard of mismatched plastic containers, which lurks in so many homes.

Try To Have Fun And Always Keep Learning

three friends cooking

While professional cooking is a whole different animal, there is a lot that can be translated to make you more efficient at home. And, there are plenty of easy tricks that can elevate even the simplest food.

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William Mack

About the author

William is a classically trained chef, who spent years cooking in top NYC restaurants before bringing his talents home to Colorado. Now a stay-at-home dad, William has brought his passion for professional cooking home, where he continues to cook and bake for his wife and daughter.

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