10 Unwritten Rules of Professional Kitchens
Celebrated chef Gavin Kaysen tells every intern at the world-renowned Café Boulud the same thing: “You can come to this restaurant and you can give us 99% and the cooks will give you nothing in return, or you can give them 100% and they’ll give you 150% in return.”
There’s a sense of camaraderie that develops from being in the trenches of a busy restaurant kitchen. Service is fast-paced and high-pressure, and the reputation of the restaurant and the head chef hangs on every plate. Everyone is expected to give 100% every day, and if you give any less, you risk losing the respect of your fellow chefs.
Because of this intense environment, many unwritten rules have developed over time. Professional kitchen behavior can be a total mystery to the uninitiated. No one really sits you down and explains these to you. You’re expected to come in knowing them or pick them up very quickly. If you want to rise through the ranks as a back-of-house employee, consistently work hard and follow these 10 unwritten rules of professional kitchen etiquette.
1. Don’t touch another chef’s knife.
A chef’s knife is an extension of themselves, and just like you wouldn’t put your hands on someone without their permission, you shouldn’t put your hands on a chef’s knife without permission. Just touching it is rude, and actually using it without permission is unthinkable.
2. “Yes, chef” is the only appropriate response to a chef’s instructions.
Professional kitchen behavior is modeled after a military-style hierarchy. The chef is the general, and their word is law. Enough said.
3. You live and die by your mise en place.
You should always have yours prepped and organized before service starts. Few things can wreck an entire service faster than messed up mise. You don’t want to be scrambling around looking for ingredients as orders are flowing in. Setting up your mise en place properly means you’ll be able to work quickly, calmly, and efficiently.
4. Work clean and always have a towel near your station.
No matter what you’re working on, your station should stay organized and wiped down. A messy station will earn you a lot of side eye from fellow back-of-house workers and potentially a reprimand from the head chef.
Keeping your station spotless shows that you respect your coworkers and it will help you work faster and more efficiently. It’s also an important professional kitchen hygiene rule, as a messy station can cause cross-contamination and other potential health hazards.
5. Loudly announce your presence and anything potentially dangerous.
“Behind,” “corner,” “knife,” and “hot” are all frequently shouted in the kitchen when cooks are bustling past each other. A professional kitchen is a dangerous area, and you want to keep yourself and your coworkers safe. If you’re carrying a sizzling hot pan and need to pass behind someone, yelling “hot behind!” can save them from being badly burned. (We promise no one in the kitchen will think you’re flirting with them if you yell this!)
From blistering hot grills to open oven doors, there are dangers all around for BOH staff. In addition to announcing your presence when coming around a corner or letting people know you’re walking by with a knife, you also need to follow general kitchen equipment safety rules. Unlike the other rules on this list that are an unwritten part of kitchen behavior, your manager should explain how to safely use the kitchen equipment.
6. Always support your kitchen colleagues.
The Three Musketeers’ code is in full effect for professional kitchen etiquette. It’s all for one, and one for all. Never let the person beside you die in the weeds.
There are a ton of moving parts in the kitchen, and if one of them stops working or even slows down, it quickly brings everything else to a halt. It’s easier to jump in and help a struggling coworker catch up than it is to try to recover an entire kitchen from a traffic jam. Helping your team makes you an all-star, and it means you’ll always have coworkers who are willing to catch you if you fall behind.
7. The dishwasher is the unsung hero of the kitchen.
The most often overlooked worker in a restaurant kitchen is the dishwasher, but they’re a vital part of the back-of-house team. Just like you should help your fellow chefs, always help the dishwasher if they are overtaken by a mountain of dishes. You can’t put food out if there are no clean plates
8. Call back orders and answer “heard” for instructions.
Don’t silently listen to instructions. Kitchens are loud, and no one will know if you actually heard the order or chef’s instructions. Loudly repeat any customer orders that are called out to you by the expeditor or chef, and say, “Heard!” for any other instructions.
9. Never give up, no matter how slammed your station gets.
Some days the kitchen will be incredibly busy. Maybe it’s a popular holiday for going out to eat or someone called in sick. Whatever the reason, if you spend more than a week working in a kitchen, you’re sure to face an intimidating mountain of tickets at some point. No matter what, don’t voice your frustrations or complaints during this time. Everyone is in the same position and is trying to stay focused, so complaining about the situation isn’t helping anyone.
Keep your head down and work hard. When you get caught up, immediately look for anyone else who is still in the weeds and jump in to help them. Restaurant kitchens function as a team, and you never let your teammates go down. Staying level-headed and helping others without needing to be asked will earn you the respect of your coworkers and manager.
10. Don’t get offended if someone yells at you.
Most yelling in the kitchen isn’t personal—it’s loud and it’s busy, and no one has time to waste repeating things. If your chef is screaming instructions, don’t take it to heart. Just acknowledge any that are directed toward you or your station with a loud, “heard!” and move on.
There are times when the yelling feels personal and not simply someone trying to make their instructions heard. Professional kitchens are high-pressure environments. It’s a fun atmosphere to work in, but it does mean that sometimes tempers get heated. As long as you are working hard and doing your best, these flare ups should be taken with a grain of salt.
When service calms down, so will everyone’s mood. It’s likely the person who was screaming during the dinner rush will be laughing and cutting up with you shortly after. Kitchen staff tend to be a close knit family, and like with your real family, be quick to forgive any heat-of-the-moment transgressions.