Your restaurant’s prep cook is a free-wielding, energetic, exhaust-spewing machine of cooking fortitude. (Yes, you can add that to your dating profile.)
With razor-honed knives, a roll of masking tape, and an “always ready” attitude, the prep cook is the neck that turns the head, a.k.a your kitchen. When humming along as intended, your prep cooks can push and pull meal service to sweet sweet victory, or leave it in deafening silence when conditions aren’t so favorable.
In addition to preparing salad dressings and portioning meat, there are many unspoken prep cook duties this gang of kitchen ruffians shoulders. They range from the obvious — “show up sober,” says Drip Cafe owner Greg Vogeley — to the restaurant specific — “Have the waffle mix ready for me when I come in every day at 4 a.m.,” implores Carlo Giardina, a line cook in Wilmington, Delaware.
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Both implied and explicitly outlined prep cook duties will vary greatly from restaurant to restaurant, which is exactly why we’ve asked industry members to share the expectations and responsibilities prep cooks in their kitchen take on.
Let’s take a look at some of the other duties prep cooks perform behind the scenes at real restaurants across the country.
Anthony Carnevale, Catering Chef at The Meat House in Chaddsford, Pennsylvania, insists that prioritizing a decent prep list is vital. Tackling the day’s prep requires as much mental fortitude as it does physical tenacity.
Some cooks will whittle the easy stuff off the list first, neglecting the longer, more complex pieces until later in the day. This is a mistake.
“Comprehend the list and prioritize it,” says Carnevale. A little dash of time management will help you simultaneously check off multiple list items, making you a multi-tasking rockstar.
Nothing makes a kitchen employee wince quite like seeing the cascade of running water to force-thaw chicken.
This can easily be avoided with a little planning. Cooking veteran turned EMR kitchen technician Clif Kolinger begs, “Pull items from the freezer well before they are needed.”
Remember: A good prep cook not only sees today’s needs, but is looking at the ebb and flow of a busy week.
Master the Basics
Kitchens breathe and thrive on innovation, fresh thinking, and experiments; don’t let your drive to create something lead you away from being able to perform the basics well.
The greatest guitarists in the world would be nothing if they didn’t maintain a keen mastery of their scales. Same goes for kitchens.
Desmond Bostick, a sous chef at Houston's Jesse Jones Rotary House, leans hard on the fundamentals. “Get salad dressings done, cut lettuce, cut other vegetables. Take care of composed salads,” the busy chef insists.
Meal service can be made easier with a reliable foundation in place to hold up the rest of your operations.
Be A Sponge
Learning everything that makes the kitchen run smoothly is part of the prep cook’s mission, but so is moving up the ranks. Often, new hires will perform prep to gain an understanding of the restaurant’s meal service operations, get a feel for the menu, and learn the chef’s particular kitchen customs or quirks.
Chef Victor Orsini, business development manager with Driscoll Foods, gets old-school.
“Dateline 1979: Downingtown Inn; 10,000 to 20,000 meals per weekend. Breakfast Prep: crack eggs, scratch-make pancake batter, pan bacon—no layout back then— tray-up sausage, and tweezer pull bones from smoked salmon. Slice, dice, chop, mince and shred omelet garnishes, not to mention filling and straining [the] 70-gallon steam jacketed kettles for chicken stock and beef stock all day long. Then work banquet station as long as I could stand. That regiment taught me more about myself and life than anything else. And, I bet I can still crack and scramble 15 dozen eggs faster than you!”
By observing and replicating, this Chef, among many others, learned the tricks of the trade:
“All the while I observed the line, watching the sauté station and broiler station; everywhere I observed how, what, and why the guys and gals on the line were doing what they were doing. The saute cook did not teach anyone how to saute anything; we had to watch and learn while busting ass. There was nothing Food Network about it. It was bust ass or be busted,” Orsini attests.
Ethan Quirk, a restaurant equipment consultant with Lancaster-based The Restaurant Store, flawlessly sums it: “Learn how to be—and use—a sponge.”
There is no information worse than misinformation.
Most restaurant staff have their minds in a million places at once during a shift; this is especially true of prep cooks.
Knowing the status of products coming in the door, the prep status of the Osso Buco, and what is needed for tomorrow’s catered event for 65 are just a few of the many considerations floating about in a prep cook’s mind at any given time.
Being able to multitask is vital for an adept operation; equipping your prep crew with an array of communication tools will make production flow.
The Big Ragu - Mezze Rigatoni are tossed with slow braised ground pork with hot Italian sausage, bacon, soffritto, fennel, Calabrian chili pepper, tomato, and herbs cooked for 5-6 hours. Then topped with spinach, ricotta, Parmesan, and herbed bread crumbs, extra virgin olive oil and baked to perfection.
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“Our prep cooks receive orders, clean, organize, label, help with ordering by writing needed items on the dry-erase board, and communicate prep needs, amounts, and new items with the kitchen manager.”
Keeping your eye on the picture is everybody’s responsibility in a restaurant, especially the kitchen; each area of the restaurant has different priorities and different tricks to make things run smoothly. Understanding how your efforts on the line can affect the front of house, for example, is important for keeping your restaurant running like a well-oiled machine.
Brian Dawson sees his share of lean operations and those that, well, need some love. The produce salesman’s mid-Atlantic footprint provides ample fodder into how solid, successful operations approach prep work.
“Rotating, labeling, organizing dry stock, refrigerated and freezer. Complete daily prep sheet. Always have cleaned and trimmed proteins. Always have cleaned and peeled carrots, onions, potatoes, and house vegetables”, he says.
That one garnish? The elusive maple-toasted pepitas? When left off a hastily executed prep list, their exclusion can be the difference in a decent dish or a meal a returning customer will remember forever.
Giardina jokes, “Just make sure the kitchen has everything it needs to make it through the day.”
The Orchestra Pit
In a kitchen, the chef is often seen as the conductor, keeping everybody in and on time, while the line cooks are the musicians, contributing to the meal by playing the right parts at the right time.
It follows that the prep cook is a role even more out of the limelight; let’s go with the stagehand. They’re vital for success, yet lack the widespread accolades other kitchen staff get. Nonetheless, they ensure each pyrotechnic burst leaves guests in awe (when things go right).
Like a stagehand, they take on the "jack of all trades" role, usually shouldering far more responsibilities than are explicitly outlined in their job description. Let's raise a glass to the prep cooks and all they do, both seen and unseen.
What are the prep cook duties in your kitchen? Leave them in the comments below!