Kitchens today vary as widely as the food they serve, and so does their respective etiquette. The back of the house (BOH) is traditionally the cook's domain, and while the classic French hierarchy often applies to a chef de cuisine, sous chef and chef de partie, among others, many restaurant kitchens are tweaking this system today. A few golden rules, however, always stand the test of time to ensure a kitchen is a cohesive yet compatible part of the restaurant. Here's a look at top kitchen etiquette tips employed in successful restaurants today, and why they still matter.
Sharply Dressed Chef
Workplaces can be strict about what you wear and how you present yourself, even in a kitchen. Some restaurants, like Chicago's Graham Elliot Bistro, insist that servers and cooks dress exactly alike: Chuck Taylor running shoes, Levis jeans and brown T-shirts with a bib apron. Chef/owner Graham Bowles likes turning the dichotomy of BOH versus front of house (FOH) on its head so that there's an even flow and exchange of ideas. Although his operation is more of an exception, the fact still remains: He wants all of his staff to come dressed for the part and be proud doing it. Fine-dining restaurants will likely see chefs dressed in crisp whites because attire and appearance in such settings count for a lot — even to customers. Some chefs simply believe it's hard to produce impeccable food in a clean atmosphere if your uniform or attire doesn't match.
Avoid the Negative
In any work environment, you learn what your boss doesn't tolerate — and if you're wise, you'll avoid it. For some head chefs, that means a good attitude at all times. Most people in the industry agree that a bad attitude is contagious; a mood is like a virus that quickly spreads through the ranks. So stay positive, keep learning and avoid slipping into this negativity. If you know your boss loathes tardiness and lying about why you might be late, make timeliness your highest priority. If kitchen etiquette where you work dictates that there's no loud or aggressive music, avoid it. The restaurant may even scrutinize chewing gum or leaning against every available surface. You'll have fewer confrontations if you take into account what you should or shouldn't be doing, and you'll likely see more opportunities for being a team player as they arise.
Like most of chef Thomas Keller's kitchens today, you'll still find the BOH teams follow a kitchen etiquette code he laid down years ago: Before and after a shift, everyone shakes hands and greets their colleagues. Keller thought this was a good way to help build community and encourage collaboration, and chefs that were brought up through this system tend to agree. Another point to consider is to always leave your station cleaner than when you started, indicating that you take pride in what you do — plus, it's a basic professional courtesy. Other common gestures include asking to borrow someone else's equipment, removing knives from under soapy water (someone can get hurt!) and always calling out "hot behind" if you're navigating a crowded floor with a hot pan. As a basic rule, treat others the way you want to be treated.
Emulate the Pros
Not sure what to call your kitchen colleagues or how to interact with them? Take a look at your sous chef, who's in that position by having proven to be a capable team leader. Follow his or her lead. If you're in a fine-dining establishment that follows formal kitchen etiquette, and you want to learn as much as you can while you're there, adopt their language and work style. If you're at a gastropub, where things are more relaxed and more raucous, follow suit.
There's always a tone to be gleaned from successful chefs in any kitchen you'd consider working in; and chances are, they can do more than just cook. They've got people and communication skills you surely need to emulate, and that's as invaluable as the culinary arts techniques you'll pick up along the way.
Photo credit: Mary Luz Mejia