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Cooking doesn't have to be hard and it’s really just made up of a bunch of tiny little things that combine to form something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Having and maintaining a properly set up kitchen is one of those parts that never gets much (or any) glory, but it really should! One of the main reasons that chefs are so crazy about organization and cleanliness is because when you don’t have to spend extra time or mental effort on finding where things are or working to get at/to them, you have more available mental energy to spend on the technical act of cooking.

By default, this extra level of attention to the technical aspect of cooking (the searing, seasoning, pan order, sauce consistency, etc.) produces better results and thus better food. This is why we are so crazy about setting things up properly before actually cooking! This level of preparation makes you more excited about your own food and cooking because you are calmer when cooking and produce better results. Which, in turn, makes your food tastier, which makes you want to cook more often, which makes you a better cook, which makes you want to cook more, and on, and on. I call this the Virtuous Cycle that propels anyone to becoming a better cook with each meal you make. Today, I wanted to just focus on the Kitchen Set Up piece to really delve deep into that idea to help you get set up in your physical space so as you learn more (perhaps in my classes) and practice more, you are in a space that is more conducive to you cooking delicious food!

The Basics Large Cutting Board and Chef Knife, out, clean, and ready!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ok, so I definitely went a little big on this one because if there is really one thing that you can do to help out all your cooking, it is to keep a large cutting board out and your chef knife on it, sharp, and ready to use. Almost all food that you intend to cook will need to be cut in some fashion and if you always have your cutting board and knife out and ready to go, your first 2 steps in the cooking process are already done. And a large cutting board allows you to simply lay out each ingredient in piles across the extra space on your board so you don’t need to spend time transferring each item to another plate/bowl/etc. as you work through your knife work for whatever you are cooking. Keeping a bottle of bleach based sanitizer spray (1 tsp bleach to 1 Quart of water!) on your counter allows you to simply sanitize after each use and not need to wash your big board every time you use it. Simply use smaller, dishwasher safe boards for cutting proteins (raw or cooked) and you are all set to keep your main cutting board out continuously.

The next most important idea in setting your kitchen up to cook efficiently is to think about where your Main Cooking Area is and then center all your equipment around that area with the most used items the closest to you and everything radiating out based on how often you use each item. Usually this is near the stove (where most of the actual cooking happens) with your main cutting board very close by. Also leaving some extra counter space for a working area that isn’t on your cutting board is a great idea so you don’t crowd your board with things that aren’t sanitary (containers, bottoms of bowls, etc.).

Next is your counter where frequently used equipment that will “live” day in and day out. If you often use a toaster/toaster oven, air fryer, blender, etc., you can have these machines near your main cooking area, but remember to keep enough space to work when you aren’t using them too. If you only use your coffee area once a day, it might be moved to a side counter to give you more space around/near the stove? Digging out a Mixer from a cabinet each day makes cooking a pain (similar to a cutting board and knife), but if you only use that mixer once a month (or less), that prime location might make more sense for utensil, coffee, or sugar containers. Or for a fruit/vegetable bowl or even simply kept open to put your veggies/prepared items before they are going to be cut up or utilized. Your style and habits of cooking will dictate this and you will end up revising your system as you go through different phases of things you like to cook or eat! Maybe you’ll even switch things up seasonally!

“Shaving all these seconds and little steps really add up to making cooking feel easier and less stressful when everything you use all the time is right at hand!

Pots, Pans, and Utensils come next. Organize your Utensils by the ones you use on a daily/weekly basis and keep them out in a utensil holder on the counter so you don’t even have to open a drawer to get the ones you use daily. Shaving all these seconds and little steps really add up to making cooking feel easier and less stressful when everything you use all the time is right at hand! Post and Pans should be in cabinets or on racks/shelves that are able to be reached within 1 step from the stove since that’s where they will be used. You should be able to grab your most utilized pots and pans in under 15 seconds. Again, these little things really do add up to make cooking smoother, faster, and easier. More specialty pots, pans, and dishes can be farther away (possibly in another room if a smaller kitchen) to keep from slowing things down when grabbing your most common items.

Mixing Bowls are very close behind pots and pans because if you are going to need anything beyond what I have already listed above, it’ll most likely be a bowl. And sorry to all the TV chefs out there who love everything to look pretty while they cook, but get rid of heavy, glass/ceramic bowls and opt for light Stainless Steel bowls. These are easy to get at, non reactive, easy to clean, and easy to stack and move about quickly without ever needing to worry about breaking. I also love things to be pretty, but if those pretty bowls hinder your cooking to the point that you do it less often or rarely, are they even worth it? Utility first and then you can put things in pretty bowls later if you want! Hey, the time you saved by using quick stainless steel bowls can be used to make things pretty at the end of cooking if you really want! Especially now that you are so much of a better cook because you cook so much more often in your efficiently set up kitchen…;)

Plates/cups are next down the list of things to keep around since this is where all your food will end up after you make it! Keep these close at hand, but if you have to take 2 steps to get them, no worries as you’ll need them only once per meal. Possibly placing them next to the dishwasher/sink/drying rack is a great place to put them so they are easy to put away after they are clean.

Food! The whole reason you are here! This should also be organized by type of food so you can think in terms of category, not by specific foods. Keeping the ingredients that you use every day close to you saves you tons of time! Oil bottles, salt cellars, pepper grinders, honey, crushed red pepper, fruit are all things that I keep close at hand and everything else is sorted by category (grains, vinegars, baking ingredients, condiments (sorted by culture), pastas, etc.) so when I am going for any item, they are where all the other items that are in that same category. Again, this goes back to the “easing the mental load” that I talked about in the beginning; if you only have to think about a “pasta area” it makes it easier than thinking about “where is the penne pasta” when going into the pantry. This extends to the freezer and fridge as well. I keep all my stocks organized, as well as all my prepared items separated from my raw ingredients just to keep the fridge organized by type of food as best as I can (all kitchens flex as food comes and goes). This keeps my flow in the kitchen smooth so I don’t have to spend any extra time or thought looking for things in random areas or all mixed together.

Kitchen Clutter is one of my favorite things to preach about. Scrap books were invented for a reason and also never show up in any professional kitchen for a reason. I am one of the more sentimental people you’ll meet. That being said, the kitchen is a workspace first, aesthetically pleasing second. Period. If your kid’s art is hindering your cooking, find a better place for it and as someone once told me, “if you value it that much, treat it as such.” Frame it and hang it out of splatter areas or harm’s way. One of the reasons that I focus so much on knife skills and basic techniques in class is because when you get good at them, you really only need a few basic tools to cook the greater majority of foods out there. Because most people don’t know the basics about food and cooking, they get sold all the “mango cutters,” “apple cutters,” “avocado slicers” etc. that are “guaranteed to make cooking easier” when in reality they just take up kitchen space that makes it hard to sort through your utensils when cooking and feeling lost when you don’t have “your special little thing” to do that one task. Learn to use a knife with confidence and you can toss just about all of those things. Seriously. Kitchen clutter is a major hindrance to so many people’s cooking, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

“There’s no place like home!” As you start to develop and refine your kitchen systems and locations for things, start to think about each item, beit foods or tools, as having “homes” for where they live on a permanent basis. This might be splitting hairs a little rather than just having “places” for things, but I feel like there is a difference. The difference in my mind is that a “home” for something denotes that you have thought about why it “lives” there and have made a conscious decision as to why it makes sense in that place. Thus, you can stop spending any mental energy on everything that has a “home” because you have already thought through that part of your kitchen. Now things will eventually change their level of importance in your kitchen based on how your cooking evolves over time and that’s ok! But for me, when things have “homes”, I can basically know that I don't have to worry about that for a while, or possibly forever and know it is in the best place for my cooking.

In a professional kitchen, this idea of setting up your kitchen is simply called “Setting Up Your Station” (because there are multiple cooks working in the same kitchen, each with their own station) and each person’s station will vary depending on the type of food, ingredients, menu, and even each individual’s cooking style (some people like their salt in front of their oil and vice versa. Whatever works for you!!). I once worked for a chef who had to make hollandaise to order for each plate that was sold with hollandaise. So his station included separated egg yolks, reduction, lemon, and warm clarified butter. If you want to be that ready to go all the time, by all means, go for it!! After all, it’s your kitchen and should be set up for YOUR style of cooking!

Set Up for Your Cooking!

Each individual will set their own kitchen up according to what works for them! This is why I teach ideologies, general food and cooking knowledge, and the “why’s” of cooking; so each of you will be empowered to set things up according to what works for you, in your kitchen, cooking your food, not what works for me, in my kitchen, cooking my food. I am here to teach you how to Become Your Own Chef, empowered by my experience and knowledge, combined with your experiences and preferences utilized to cook the food you want to. This is why I teach the way that I do. At the end of the day, your food and your kitchen will be a reflection of your own knowledge and experience. I’m just here to help give you a big jump in the right direction, whatever that may be for you! And setting your kitchen up for your style of food will be a great help along the way! :D

Happy Cooking, Y’all!!

PS- This is tangentially related, so I thought I’d share this at the end of this one. My wife and I are redoing our kitchen and as you might expect after reading this post, I really went a little far on thinking through many aspects of the design. This is the first time that I have been able to design my own home kitchen and I really went for it cause I am so excited and passionate about Kitchen Set Up. I was measuring stacks of saute pans, bowls, plastic wrap, mixers, blenders, and sheet pans to put in specialty shelves to accommodate as many things into the design as I could that would make cooking (and my classes) as easy, efficient, and smooth as possible. I have to give a serious shout out to our kitchen designer, Bruce, for being patient with me as I went a little “Type A” during the design process. He took it all in stride and had a great quote that I think makes sense to share here. He summed it up perfectly with “Well, some kitchens are just more thought out than others.” And I certainly appreciated his patience when I had to “fix” the “plastic wrap problem” and others to my satisfaction. Thanks for taking it all in stride, Bruce! I hope you all get the chance to build your own kitchen one day exactly how you’d like it! Cheers! :D

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