As cooks, we never stop learning. So, where does one begin — what foundational skills do chefs expect of every cook? Is it possible to narrow down the vast array of kitchen skills into a few essential, universal ones?
We should begin by saying that a restaurant chef will always mentor a cook in an effort to ensure that menu items are consistent and presented with the flavor profile and visual appeal that defines the operation. But to be able to accomplish that, there must be a solid, dependable skill set that serves as a blueprint. From my experience, the following skills and aptitudes are critical. These are the skills that solidify a chef’s confidence that a cook has what it takes:
- A COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE
Every task, no matter how small, should be done with passion and an eye on perfection. Whether it be dicing onions, caramelizing a mirepoix, slicing or snipping herbs, shucking clams or blanching pommes frites, everything is done with a commitment to excellence.
- A DESIRE TO LEARN AND IMPROVE
Professional cooks are hungry to build their portfolio of skills and strive constantly to improve the quality of their work.
- SOLID KNIFE SKILLS
Almost above all else, the best cooks are perfectionists when it comes to using their knives. They are precise, efficient, and fast.
- A COMMITMENT TO SANITATION AND SAFETY
Chefs expect that every cook hired works clean. They understand the importance of sanitation and practice proper procedures to keep their work area tight. Cooks need to work to eliminate cross contamination, function within the parameters of time and temperature, effectively wash and sanitize work surfaces, and always prepare foods with food safety in mind.
- ORGANIZATIONAL SKILLS
Mise en place is second nature to professional cooks. Everything has a place and everything is in its place. Sufficient prep work is completed to ensure that his or her station does not run out of product mid-service — this is an expectation that leads to trust and confidence.
Good cooks are where they need to be when they need to be there. They are always ready and able, as a result, to problem-solve if need be.
- A TRACK RECORD OF PLAYING WELL IN THE SANDBOX
Chefs expect that teamwork is a given — that every cook is focused on complementing other members of the team. He or she will rise to the occasion when necessary, is supportive of others and is able and willing to ask for help when the time arises.
- SPEED AND ACCURACY
Speed without accuracy is wasted effort and accuracy without the ability to meet the demands of time will always fall short.
- PRODUCT KNOWLEDGE
Knowledge of ingredients, how those ingredients interact, how to properly store and work with those ingredients, and which items can serve as a substitute for others is essential in the kitchen.
- COMFORT WITH THE FOUNDATIONAL COOKING METHODS
Kitchen communication depends on a cook’s ability to understand and practice the steps involved in all of the primary cooking methods: sauté, grill, broil, poach, roast, braise, fry, and poêle.
- KNOWLEDGE OF THE LANGUAGE OF COOKING
We speak our own language in the kitchen, filled with French, Italian and Spanish terms along with a significant dose of slang and acronyms. Any cook who is able to integrate into a kitchen must be adept at understanding and using this mixed dialect if he or she is to survive.
- THE ABILITY TO ACCEPT CRITIQUE
Chefs are beginning to learn that harsh criticism is not the best form of positive communication in the kitchen. Yet critique which points to areas that need improvement with the addition of mentoring and training is essential if the operation is to function, provide consistency, and strive to improve. Successful cooks must be able to delineate between criticism and critique and accept those opportunities to learn from their mistakes.
- YES, CHEF
As has been pointed to numerous times before, a successful cook understands the importance of the chain of command in the kitchen, respects the need to accept direction — especially in the heat of service — and works to maintain the semblance of order and efficiency that comes from the response of “Yes, chef.”
Skills will grow, abilities will improve and confidence will increase exponentially over time, but any new cook must begin with a focus on those critical foundations that are the expectation of every chef in any type of food operation.