When I was a pastry chef’s apprentice, I got yelled at a lot. The thing I got yelled at for more than anything else was for being messy and dirty. I was nicknamed ‘Emma Catastrophe’. Not a particularly catchy nickname, but you have to imagine it said in a heavy French accent, as with my very French boss.
In a pastry kitchen you don’t even get the benefit of a dark coloured apron to hide stains; everything, including the stupid little hat and the apron, is white.
You could tell when I worked with chocolate as I had hand shaped brown smears all over. My boss was always annoyed with the mess of my workspace.
Sometimes I was trying so hard to keep up the pace and make everything I was required to that I failed to clean my bench after completing a dish before getting the ingredients for the next one out and starting on it. That resulted in some fairly serious cooking disasters, including a massive bowl full of finely sliced onion that ended up full of glass and fruit for a tart that ended up tainted with the scent of garlic.
There is a lot of rationale for the clean as you go method, which slowly but surely I learnt to adhere to. If you watch Masterchef, you hear the hosts bang on about it all the time or make snide remarks about those contestants who can’t keep their bench tidy. Unsurprisingly these are the guys that often mess up the dish that they are under pressure to prepare.
Here are some tips so you can clean as you go:
Start Clean – before you even begin cooking, wipe down surfaces, put things away and basically de-clutter. The cleaner you start, the cleaner you can be through the whole cooking process.
Put things in their place – make sure all your kitchen tools, pots, pans, ingredients etc. have a place it belongs so you always know where to find it and where to put it
Mis en place – further to putting things in their place, measure and pre-prep all your ingredients and have them ready to go before you begin cooking. It means much of the mess made and cleaned up before you add any heat to the mix
Discard the rubbish – don’t let plastic packaging, vegetable peels and skins build up in your workspace. As soon as you’re done with it, toss it in the bin, compost or containers for later use. Built up mess creates stress in your mind.
Clean it, dry it, re-use it – to prevent a build-up of pots, colanders, knives, mixing bowls etc. start getting into the process of cleaning it as soon as you’re done with it. A quick scrub with soap and hot water, a hot rinse and a dry with a tea towel and it is ready to use again. Definitely do this with anything that has touched onion, garlic or raw meat to prevent bad smell and bacteria build up.
Refresh your preparation surface – Wipe down your bench after every task. The cleaner and drier the surface, the safer and cleaner you’re going to be in the next step. Chefs clean their chopping boards, refresh the tea towel under their chopping board and scrub clean their bench before attempting another task.
Carry a tea towel with you everywhere – you see chefs with a tea towel or several hanging from their apron strings because you need one all the time. For drying your hands, drying tools, a quick wipe down or for using in lieu of a oven mitt (which you’ll hardly see in a commercial kitchen)
One hand for messy things – use your non-knife hand for handling smelly ingredients or meat or fish. It means you’ll always have one hand that can touch other ingredients without tainting them and without having to wash your hands all the time. Although you should wash your hands after touching meat or fish or prevent cross-contamination between ingredients
Work from left to right (or right to left if you’re left handed) – have a direction for working. Hand things to be prepped on one side, your chopping board in the middle and the results on the other side. Make sure you follow the same direction for every process to prevent confusion and to develop a work flow.
Always think ahead– one of the overarching thought processes that help a chef manage to do these tasks is that a chef is always thinking ahead. As they prepare one dish, they are running through their head the tasks that must be completed next.
For example, as you prepare a chicken for roasting, think about the side dishes that need to be prepped, how much cooking time they need, how this fits in with the timing of cooking the chicken, what ingredients need to be retrieved from the fridge and pantry, what utensils and pots and pans will be needed etc.
Fewer trips to the fridge are made as all the necessary ingredients are retrieved, for fewer trips back and forth which means less time wasted a more conscious approach to the task at end and less energy expended unnecessarily. When you’re doing a lot of cooking, this sort of thing makes a huge difference.
One of the best things about working clean is that when you’ve finished cooking, the rest of the dishes and any jobs you have to do are fairly minimal. Your mind won’t linger over the mess in the kitchen as you share your hard-work with your family.