Sunday, January 2, 2011

7 Habits of Highly Effective Chefs

7 Habits of Highly Effective Chefs

1. Organization

A good cook is an organized cook.

The kitchen is the cook’s office. You cannot work effectively and efficiently in an office if there are papers scattered all over the place. And you cannot cook in a disorganized kitchen. To start, keep frequently-used appliances and tools in easy-to- access locations. I keep my wooden spoons, spatulas, and ladles in a tall wooden container next to the stove. The food processor and digital scale are kept in the breadbox, the Kitchen Aid and toaster are kept on top of the counter. Appliances which are only used a couple times a month are kept in separate storage cupboards. I find it’s easiest to keep alike appliances and gadgets in their own cupboards and drawers. For example, I have a drawer especially for measuring cups and measuring spoons, scraping spatulas, and other small gadgets like a citrus peeler and apple corer. In my silverware drawer, I keep small knives, tea spoons, serving spoons, and vegetable peelers. Next to the stove is a drawer with tongs, meat cleaver, large knives, thermometers and basters.

We keep a full set of cupboards especially for appliances that we don’t use on a daily basis: The salad shooter, mandolin, cheese graters, juicer and citrus juicer. Then comes pans. We have a cupboard with two pull-out drawers. The top one is for sauce pans and stock pots, the top is for sauté pans and griddles. Finally, serving bowls, flatware, Tupperware, baking pans and cookie sheets all have their own drawers or cupboards.

Recipes and cookbooks should have their own place in the kitchen and should be categorized. If you take the time to organize your recipes into categories (breads, meats, pasta, etc) you’ll thank yourself later!

2. Planning and Preparedness

Have you ever tried to make a meal, while preparing the ingredients at the same time? More often than not, something gets over -cooked, or finished too quickly and is cold by the time the meal is served. Most definitely the cook becomes rushed. A common term in the culinary world is mise en place, which literally means ‘everything in place.’ This term is used to describe the preparation of ingredients and equipment before the cooking process is started. This is where a great set of prep bowls comes in handy.
Basic mise en place
• Preheat oven and set out butter or other ingredients which need to be room temperature
• Marinate or season your proteins
• Ingredients should be washed, peeled or trimmed if necessary
• Dry ingredients should be measured accurately and set aside
• Chop, mince, dice, slice ingredients, measure and set aside in separate bowls
• Ingredients needing refrigeration should be measured last, and refrigerated until use
• Clean and set up any appliances you will need
• If you are not using the ingredients right away, cover them with plastic wrap and refrigerate
Once you have all your ingredients prepared, measured and placed into bowls, put them near your workspace for easy access. I like to place all my bowls on a cookie sheet so I can move them easily from one place to another. Now you are ready to prepare your meal, with all your ingredients prepped and set up near by.

Another idea I find useful is to place my recipes in page protectors. This way they’re free from drips and spills, and you can handle them with messy hands.
Along with mise en place, comes timing. Timing is everything and definitely a learned skill. Knowing how long to marinate a steak, how long to cook potatoes or how long to blanch your vegetables can make or break a meal. But it comes with practice and experience.

3. Creativity/ experimentation

Cooking and baking is not just a skill, it is an art. It is an opportunity to unleash your creativity and passion for food. It’s a chance to color outside the lines and break the rules. I’m not opposed to recipes completely, but I do want to stress the importance of tweaking the recipe to make it your own. Anyone who can read can follow a recipe, but by adding or substituting an ingredient here or there, you can turn any dish into your very own. Experimenting is everything. Try new herbs, spices and flavorings to find what works together and what does not. Combine different sauces or dressings to make a dipping sauce, or try marinating proteins with different beverages you have on hand. A wonderful way to create new dishes is to combine different types of cuisines. Italian-Korean? Mexican-Chinese? You never know what combinations may turn out delicious!

Creativity does not just pertain to flavors. You eat with your eyes first! Try using vibrant colors in your dishes, interesting serving platters, and festive garnishes. Take pride in your presentation. A plate of food can truly become a work of art!

4. Safety/cleanliness

This should be a no-brainer. The kitchen can be a dangerous place! Accidents like burns, spills, slips and fires are a very serious concern. The kitchen is also a breeding ground for bacteria, or in other words, food poisoning! Luckily, a bit of common sense can help you avoid these incidents altogether. A few things to keep in mind:
• Clean as you go
• Wipe up spills immediately
• Alert anyone in the kitchen when walking behind them, especially while handling hot items
• Cook items to their proper temperatures before serving (following temperatures are Fahrenheit)
Steaks and Roasts- 145
Fish- 145
Pork- 160
Ground Beef-160
Egg Dishes-160
Chicken Breasts-165
Whole Poultry-165

• Beware of the Danger Zone (40 degrees to 140 degrees) the range in temperature which bacteria thrive and multiply. Keep cold foods cold, hot foods hot
• Keep separate cutting boards for proteins and produce
• Always use correct appliances and tools for the job
• Always wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap after handling raw meat, and wipe up and drippings with sanitizing spray
• Wash and sanitize all utensils and dishes properly

5. Simplicity

Keep it simple, stupid. Okay, it may be a little harsh. But where has the simplicity of our food gone? Must everything be so complicated? Go to any modern restaurant in any big city, and you’ll see what I mean. Mousse of Something-I’ve-Never-Heard-Of. Essence of This- That- Or- The- Other -Thing. Stuffed-Animal-With-Imported-Whatnot. You get the point. I’m not saying that experimenting with new and funky foods and techniques is a bad thing. But avoid mucking up the flavors of your dish. Season with only the seasonings you need for your dish to be successful. Stay true to the natural flavor of the food you are working with. Pair with complimentary sides. It’s simple: Keep it Simple.

6. Proper equipment and ingredients

As chefs, we cannot produce quality food without tools and ingredients. Let’s first talk about equipment.
Buying quality equipment does not mean you must by the most expensive products on the market. Instead, it should be adequate for the job it will perform, durable, and easy to clean. You should also look for products that can perform several tasks, such as a food processor or a mandolin with different blades. Chefs who use their appliances often should consider these purchases investments. For example, you may buy a quality set of sauce and sauté pans for several hundred dollars, but they will last you many years. Same goes for cutlery. A nice set of knives usually costs upwards of $200, but will be worth the money in the long run. Invest now, save later.

You should also use quality ingredients in your cooking. Again, this does not mean you must buy the most expensive ingredients in the grocery store. Instead, you should buy ingredients that are adequate for the jobs they will perform. For example, say you’re baking chocolate chip cookies. It is not necessary to spend several extra dollars on Ghirardelli chocolate chips when Nestle chocolate chips will produce just as tasty cookies. There’s no reason to buy foreign herbs and spices when you can get the same product in your local store for much cheaper. The organic issue is a whole other story, but many people consider organic produce much more flavorful than conventionally grown food. If you agree, you may want to spend the extra money on organic food if you believe it will enhance the quality of your dish.

Quality products and ingredients equal quality food.

7. Willingness to learn

The two biggest disadvantages chef can have are a closed mind and an ego.
A chef must always be willing to learn. Like any trade, any art, there is always something to learn. The culinary world is advancing quickly. There are always new chefs to learn from, everyone has something different to offer. Keep your mind open to new techniques, new cooking methods, new equipment and new trends. A closed mind and an ego go hand in hand. As do willingness to learn and humbleness. You must remember that there are chefs who are more experienced than you. Chefs who are more recognized and more creative than you. Do not be bitter. Instead, learn from these people to better yourself. Keep an open mind and learn as much as you can.


  1. Keaton, these are some great pointers; I've found for me, the mise is absolutely everything. I get distracted by the sound of my own brain thinking, so if I don't have everything neatly set out and ready to go beforehand, it's a guarantee I'm going to miss a step or three.

  2. Great tips and tricks! I totally agree with your point on creativity. Have fun with it all!

  3. "It is not necessary to spend several extra dollars on Ghirardelli chocolate chips when Nestle chocolate chips will produce just as tasty cookies. There’s no reason to buy foreign herbs and spices when you can get the same product in your local store for much cheaper."

    Hi Keaton-Haven't visited your blog in a while, and I'm so glad I went thru my blog list, and clicked on you blog to see these great pointers you had, re: the culinary tips, and rules. This one certainly stood out for me, which I quoted, because this is so very true. While I love Ghirardelli chocolates, and who doesn't?...especially chocolate chips. I found out, which I did my own taste test in the cookies, I made both kinds, the Ghirardelli, and Nestle's, same recipe, and to my surprise, found that the Nestle's chips stayed intact better, than the Ghirardelli which melted more in the cookies. Same temperature for both, and flavorwise, could not tell the difference. This is just one example of some of the local verses the imported ingredients that costs, about double!
    Stop by my blog...I have a $50 gift certificate giveaway, from CSN stores, which will end Sunday night!