Life Lessons from a Professional Kitchen

What you learn as a line cook—beyond the importance of checklists, large amounts of caffeine, and comfortable footwear.  

Things I Learned this Year
Photo: © Tetra Images - Jetta Productions/Dana Neely / Getty Images

For me, 2015 was a challenging year. In addition to some shake-ups in my personal life (changing relationship status, and then moving apartments…twice), I also graduated from culinary school and began a new career in food. I felt incredibly lucky to be following my passion with support from family and friends, but I was constantly anxious about my future. After almost 10 years in web design, I felt like I was starting my professional life over from scratch. And with the new career came a whole new set of colleagues, challenges, and jobs—including a brief stint as a restaurant line cook. Beyond the importance of checklists, large amounts of caffeine, and comfortable footwear, I learned a lot from my experience in the culinary world. Some of the lessons were not exactly new, but they guided me—both in and out of the kitchen—as I set out on my new path. Here are the 6 that have become indispensable to me.

1. Communicate clearly (and don’t take criticism personally).

A professional kitchen is filled with sharp tools, tight workspaces, blind corners and people who are constantly in a hurry. That also means it can be a very dangerous place; a kitchen is only functional when everyone communicates clearly and quickly. You are constantly notifying others of where you are (“Behind you!”), what you are doing (“Reaching!”), and what kind of hazardous item you are wielding (“Sharp!” “Hot!”). And yes, if you are doing something incorrectly, your chef will let you know that clearly as well, not to berate you but so you can fix the problem as quickly as possible. Often this kind of direct communication is taken as offense, but in the kitchen direct communication is not an affront: it is essential and must be accepted and utilized.

2. Teamwork is essential.

In the restaurant, a successful night’s service depended on every part of a meal going out at exactly the right time, from the grilled ribeye to the side salad to the cheese plate. This was made possible by constant verbal communication and by helping each other out; if you got slammed with orders, the person on the station next to you would swoop in to pick up some of the slack. In my previous non-kitchen jobs I had become accustomed to staying by myself to finish something if I still had more work to do, but in the kitchen this did not happen; at the end of the night, everyone cleaned up together. No one left before the last person finished. As long as you were constantly engaged in working toward the common goal, you wouldn't be left behind.

3. There is always something productive to do.

The speed at which restaurants move is like nothing I had seen before. It was amazing, even intimidating, to witness the restaurant staff moving at full speed, and it underscored just how leisurely my life outside the kitchen really was. In the kitchen, there was no time to hesitate or overthink a situation: you work from muscle memory whenever possible and you organize your work station to minimize movements and time spent searching for ingredients. If you finish all your tasks, you clean your station. When you are done cleaning, you help someone else (see above). When there’s no one left to help, you prep for the next shift. You get ahead when you can, because there will be times when you won’t be able to think about anything beyond the next round of appetizers.

4. Clean is calm.

Besides speed, cleanliness is the most important aspect of a working kitchen: every surface is constantly being wiped down, no food is ever left on a cutting board, and knives are always clean. This is in part a safety concern (no one wants his or her food coming from a dirty place) but there is also a psychological benefit. The sheer number of things you have to keep track of can quickly become overwhelming in a kitchen, but with a clean, clutter-free work station, everything seems much more manageable. It’s like having your own little island of calm in a sea of chaos. No matter what happens in your surroundings, you have order and control, which means you will make it through the nightly push. And if your area starts to get messy, you take a minute to tidy up: you wipe down your station, put your tools in their proper places, and get rid of dirty bowls and dishes. Both the act of cleaning and your newly organized space help you to clear your mind and regain control.

5. Don’t (over)apologize.

Over the past year, many people told me that I apologized too much; at one point, a colleague said, “Don’t apologize to me unless you just stabbed me with a knife.” I slowly realized they were probably right: I told people I was sorry not only when I made a mistake, but also when I couldn’t hear someone, when my words were misunderstood, or when I needed something in order to do my job. Often, I was apologizing for unavoidable situations that weren’t my fault. I had a bad habit of assuming blame and over-humbling myself. This type of self-abasement has no place in a busy kitchen; what I needed to do was learn from what happened and make sure it didn’t happen again, not tell my co-workers how badly I felt about it.

6. Challenge brings change.

My nights in the restaurant were challenging, both physically and emotionally; I went in every day knowing I would be asked to do something I had never done before, and that I might fail at it. I often felt anxious and afraid, but I was forced to work through these feelings, to find that doing something new and scary was actually making me a better cook. I realized how little I had pushed myself beyond what I knew and was comfortable with in the past few years, out of both fear of failure and ease of complacency. My life had not been unpleasant, but it had been stagnant; if I wanted to change it (which clearly I did, having just changed careers and graduated from culinary school), I would have to continue to push myself, and, yes, continue to be anxious and afraid. Challenges can be unpleasant to face, but working through them is what brings about real change in our work and our lives, making us better cooks and people.

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