10 Things To Know Before Working In a Kitchen | The Spice Girl Blog

Eyes of merengue with a licorice root pupil for the zombie dessert at A Fuego Negro

Eyes of merengue with a licorice root pupil for the zombie dessert at A Fuego Negro

"Beth, vete a coger una lengua!" The head chef yelled in the middle of the busy dinner shift. 

Una lengua?... doesn't "lengua" mean tongue? Where would I find a tongue? I responded in my broken Spanish, "¿Dónde puedo encontrar una lengua?

"Está en el cajón," the chef replied as my spirits lowered a little more. Great, so now I'm looking for a mystery item in some mystery place.

Realizing my state of absolute confusion, the most-patient-chef-ever smiled, walked me to a drawer, and showed me where they kept their spatulas. This is 1 instance of 1000 that the kitchen staff at A Fuego Negro -- a badass pinxto bar in San Sebastian, Spain -- patiently showed me the ropes and taught me many lessons. 

After 6 weeks in the kitchen, doing everything from cleaning seemingly bottomless buckets of chickens (unlike the ones at KFC, these came complete with heads and guts intact), to de-inking large squids, to making eyes out of merengue for a zombie dessert, here are 10 things that I think anyone should know to do before stepping foot in an industrial kitchen.

1. Do your research
Know what you can about the menu, the restaurant's flow of production and service, and the names and backgrounds of chefs. This will help you feel more comfortable and will allow you to ask better questions whose answers cannot be found on Google. 

2. Get there on time and ready to work
If you are not properly dressed in kitchen attire, arriving 15 minutes before-hand is a safe bet. If you are properly dressed and ready to go, I like to show up just 5 minutes before go-time. Show up too early and you are sneak attacking. Show up too late and there is no time for unpacking knives, or there is the risk of showing up late altogether and looking unprofessional and rude.

3. Come prepared
Arriving prepared involves:
   a. A clean uniform covering a clean person: No one will take you seriously (or let you touch food) if you have poor hygiene. Cut your nails, shower, and show up with a spotless chef coat, chef pants, non-slip shoes, and something to cover your hair if necessary.
    b. Knives: Bring your sharpened knives. From my experience, you will be cutting large piles of vegetables or animals with bones. Regardless, sharp knives are necessary for these tasks. If you don't already have knives, an 8'' chef knife and paring knife will take you far in the kitchen. A vegetable peeler wouldn't hurt either. People are more willing to share that with you though.
    c. Writing utensils: You will want a normal black sharpie and a skinny black sharpie for dates and labels. In addition, a notebook to fit in your chef jacket along with a pen is necessary. If someone tells you measurements for a recipe, write it down so it never has to be told to you ever again. This notebook was my lifeline in my stint at A Fuego Negro (mostly for vocabulary words to look up, but regardless, do it).

4. Have a "sense of urgency"
No matter what you do, do it like it is the most important thing done in that restaurant. When peeling and slicing those potatoes, do it with urgency and in a timely manner.

5. Don't mess things up
Although everything is to be done with urgency, don't mess things up. Do things at the fastest pace that you can while still maintaining precision, accuracy, and quality in your product. If you can combine steps 4 and 5 well, you will be trusted with more important and fun tasks.

6. Ask questions
If there is ever a doubt, do not be scared to ask questions. However, make sure the answer is not right in front of you. And learn to ask the right people the right questions.

7. Speak up and stay out of the way
Don't sneak around the kitchen. "Behind", "corner", or "sharp" are all lovely things to tell the people around you. Also understand that you are not as important as the head chef, sous chef, etc, so stay out of their way by telling them where you are to avoid collisions.

7. Clean as you go
This is another part of staying out of the way. Stay organized and clean your area as you go. I like to have my cutting board, a bucket for waste, a bucket for storage, and any other necessary tools before embarking on a project. This ensures you are taking up the least amount of space possible, and will keep you more sane as you dice that pile of onions. 

9. Last to leave
The easiest way to make friends is to be helpful doing things that no one else likes to do. So be that eager-beaver and don't you dare try to leave while everyone else is cleaning their stations (unless they insist and send you home -- of course listen to them). However, if you want friends for life, learn how to clean a grill well and efficiently, and do that without hesitation each night.

10. Reflect
I started doing this late into my staging experience and this is one of my biggest regrets--I wish I had done it sooner. No matter how tired you are at the end the day, write ANYTHING at the end of your shift about what you learned, accomplished, or liked. This only has to be comprehensible to you. Before arriving for your next shift, read over these notes twice. At the end of the week, summarize these notes and keep them. This ensures you are learning and growing, and chances are, no one will ever have to tell you anything twice.

To those of you out there who have worked in a foreign kitchen, you know how difficult and frustrating it can be. I cannot say thank you enough to the kindest kitchen staff at A Fuego Negro for showing me the ropes of the kitchen, of the Spanish language, and of the joys of working hard to produce a great product.