Design Fundamentals: How to Organize Your Restaurant Kitchen

Cooking can be an inspiring, romantic process. Creating food for yourself or friends at home is a wonderful experience, often without timelines or pressure. Most of the time, cooking in a professional kitchen is the opposite.

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Richard-KeysRichard KeysPreparing food in a commercial kitchen can be stressful and chaotic. Paying guests are waiting, and they want to be wowed. Whether the front dining room is a chill den of Zen or a classic burger joint, every professional kitchen should be about producing great food quickly in a clean environment, streamlining the processes from prep to plating, and minimizing waste.

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No matter how talented a chef is, true professionals separate themselves by the way they manage their kitchens. Poorly organized kitchens are chaotic, but a properly laid out space will run like a well-oiled machine. Everyone should know their place, and there should be a place for everything. Kitchens are often tight and cramped, but leveraging some mighty multitaskers and laying out a space logically will help any chef put more joy in their cooking.

Pare down.

Culinary gurus love gadgets, but a great chef can make a meal work with the available tools. Remember when superstar chef Hubert Keller shocked pasta with a cold dorm room shower to clinch the win on Top Chef Masters? You shouldn't feel limited by your supplies, but relish in new ways to make every single object in your kitchen earn its keep. Use an open mind to ask yourself how each tool in the kitchen can work double time.

Immersion blenders can be a smaller alternative to food processers. These handheld miracle machines tackle soups, purees, salsas, whipped cream, dips, smoothies, milkshakes, and even chopped ingredients such as nuts. Knives are necessary, but at a minimum, chefs only need four: serrated, slicing, chef's, and paring. Forget a garlic press or tedious chopping — use a zester to prep garlic, ginger, or salad carrots. Box graters aren't just for cheese: Use them to shred vegetables for soup and salads.

Tight on space? Heads up.

If storage space is extra tight, and it always is in kitchens, go vertical. You can often find a lot of unutilized storage space if you repurpose empty walls and cabinet doors for smaller items like ladles, pots, sauté pans, and magnetic knife strips, which can also hold spices in magnetic containers.

There are lots of creative shelving options available inexpensively from stores such as IKEA that open up huge possibilities. Extended bar racks can be great for storing pots, sieves, or anything that can dangle from a hook. Basic peg boards are another great way to create more storage along walls because whatever pans or other items you want to hang can be traced onto the boards to make putting things back a snap.

Choose the right workspace materials.

Prep areas should have a sturdy work table with shelves underneath. A special equipment stand should ideally hold heavy tools like mixers and slicers. If your kitchen has an awkward space that seems unusable, find a smaller filler table that will fit in the area to maximize work space. If you want to boost efficiency, use a refrigerated prep table or under-counter refrigeration that doubles as cold ingredient storage.

Upright cutting board racks maximize storage space by propping boards vertically. Instead of rifling through a pile for the right board, staff can immediately see and grab what they want. Cutting board racks, also used to store baking sheets, are easy to find and inexpensive. You can also mount thin curtain tension rods vertically underneath cabinets to serve the same purpose.

Tools that play together should stay together.

Store tools with similar functions together. Group and always return to the same place such items as baking pans, small electric appliances, plastic containers with lids, pots and pans, and large platters and bowls. Utensils and other equipment should have defined homes, too. To make replacement even faster and easier and eliminate all possibility for confusion, draw or tape shadowbox shapes with labels where each item goes. Having defined homes for every object in the kitchen will make prep, cooking, and cleanup far easier.

Zone out.

Divide kitchens into different work zones or stations. For example, there is often a station for slicing and prepping, salads, grilling, frying, sautéing, desserts, and plating — the kitchen line. Every person in the kitchen serves like a soldier or chess piece with a defined task; keeping people in charge of their zone for specific jobs will not only make the kitchen more streamlined, it will keep people from running back and forth in chaos. Zones should have the necessary implements for the work they require nearby. The baking zone should have a standing mixer, rolling pin, flour, etc. The prep area should have knives, cutting boards, and any other prep tools within arm's reach. The cooking zone should have pots and pans, and the kitchen line should have garnishes, plates, and heating lamps.

The zone concept applies to organizing ingredients as well. Group food groups together making everything logical and easy to find. Fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and oils are examples of good groupings. In the refrigerator, dairy and produce should be their own groups. If you can add clear bins with labels for what's inside, the prep process will be that much easier. Maintaining food groupings will also make it simple to see when food is about to expire or spoil. Make sure staff always follow the "first in, first out" ingredient rule to reduce waste.

Evaluate energy efficiency for both equipment and staff.

Energy efficiency should always be considered when planning a kitchen. Commercial kitchens require a lot of power, and energy efficiency saves money. Strategically placing cooking equipment so that the exhaust hood can whisk away hot air keeps the kitchen cooler, and putting cold storage as far as possible from heat sources keeps
appliances from working overtime.

Efficiency also applies to staff. The fewer steps cooks need to complete a task, the better and faster the cooking process will go. No matter what type of restaurant you have, employees should ideally be able to complete their work with the least possible amount of bending, reaching, walking, or turning. Engineering your space to work this way not only lessens the risk of injury and fatigue, it makes the kitchen run more smoothly.

While important to consider, the idea of energy efficiency occasionally creates a conflict. For example, it might be most efficient for staff to have a fryer adjacent to a freezer so frozen items like French fries can go straight into the fryer without taking a step. But this same configuration is less efficient for the appliances. You sometimes have to choose whether staff or appliance efficiency is a priority for the individual kitchen.

Pick your kitchen configuration.

Outside of ergonomic and energy-efficient designs, operators can choose from several kitchen configurations. If a restaurant produces a lot of the same foods, like burgers or pizza, the assembly line format might be a good option because it lays out the kitchen in order of use. A pizza restaurant might begin with a refrigerator, progress to a dough shaping zone, move on to a pizza prep table for sauce and toppings, and finish with the oven and warming station.

Another common choice, the island configuration, features one main block in the middle that holds either the cooking equipment or prep equipment, with the reverse bordering the walls adjacent to the island. Commercial kitchens may also put cooking equipment in the middle alongside food prep, then add storage and server pickup areas on the outer walls.

Crafting food is a process that requires lots of layers and components. It's easy for the mise en place to slip into madness, but when a kitchen is carefully crafted to function smoothly, the food created in it will be that much more wonderful.

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