“startAs any good chef will tell you, there is nothing more important than the part of each day dedicated to prep work. Without well-planned and executed prep, labor and food costs, as well as quality, are impossible to control. And although service time is where the rubber meets the road, prep time is where we install the tires. When our restaurant’s doors open, we all want our kitchens to perform like a perfectly designed, well-oiled machine from the very first order through to the very last dessert. One of the necessary components that will insure that this is the scenario that actually plays out on any given night is for everyone in our kitchen to have every item they need to produce their orders, properly prepared and in sufficient quantities. It also helps if our cooks and chefs start service feeling comfortable, confident and relaxed as opposed to freaking out because they have just spent the last three hours running around like their hair was on fire trying in vain to set up their stations. Let’s look at ways to make sure that our prep time is as efficient and productive as it can be, so that our kitchens run as smoothly and economically as we need them to.

Start with the Menu

The first thing to always remember is that prep is a totally menu-driven entity. It is one of your main jobs as chef or kitchen manager to be thoroughly familiar with the menu, and to know exactly what needs to be produced to serve it. If you are new to a job, waste no time. As soon as possible, learn everything that the kitchen produces, just how it is done, and for what application. With this knowledge, you will be well equipped to accomplish your basic tasks in regards to prep work: having the correct ingredients in the kitchen at the right time and in sufficient quantities, having the correct complement of staff scheduled, having the necessary equipment on hand and being able to direct the actual production.

Product Purchasing, Receiving, Storage and Inventory

Having the right food in the right quantities in the kitchen when you and your staff need it is crucial. Even the most talented, well-trained and enthusiastic crew won’t be able to produce the prep you need out of thin air. If deliveries are late or product specs are wrong, then quality, consistency, cost-control, timeliness and attitude will suffer. An occasional glitch is to be expected and can usually be dealt with without much fanfare. However, if you experience regular problems in this arena, something needs to change. It could be your vendors or your in-house systems. Another possibility is that your systems and vendors are fine, but either your systems aren’t being followed as well as they should be or the vendors aren’t being paid as well as they need to be.

Having the right food in the right quantities at the right time is the end result of good inventory, ordering, receiving and storage practices. Besides the regular major inventories that are done for the purpose of figuring out food costs (COGS-Food), mini inventories should be done before every order is placed. If you know you need a particular item to prep a certain dish but aren’t sure of just how much you already have in stock, go look. This is especially important for expensive or perishable items, two categories with a lot of overlap, as it turns out. Even if you are sure that you have plenty of sea scallops to get through the next night, what if they have gone bad? Or what if the last shift used them? Or what if the can in the back that you assumed was full only has six scallops in it? How about if you order more than you need, and they end up spoiling before you can use them? Maybe you just have too much on your mind to accurately remember every little thing. Regardless, no harm will come from checking, compared to what might go wrong if you don’t.

When putting together your orders do whatever you have to do to stack the deck in your favor. If you are familiar enough with the menu to mentally go down the list and not miss one item while being sure of just how much of it you need, good for you. (If you are sure that this describes you and it really doesn’t, too bad for everyone.) If you need a hard copy of the menu in front of you, along with a calculator and a legal pad to take notes on, there’s no shame in that if the result is accurate orders. If it’s more your style to have every ingredient from every dish on a spreadsheet with all the pertinent information attached, that’s fine too. Do whatever you need to so that you order just what you need, every time. Be especially aware of items needed for specials, both in terms of forgetting them and seeing them as an opportunity to use their byproducts elsewhere on the menu. Of course, the most meticulously written order won’t do anyone any good if you don’t place it by a vendor’s deadline. Be sure to give yourself enough time to figure out your orders so that you can get them in on time. I know some days that’s easier said than done but, hey, that’s why you get the big bucks.

Doing a good job of receiving orders is frequently an activity that gets shortchanged. But what’s the purpose of going through all the trouble of placing good orders if there is no system in place to make sure that what you ordered is actually delivered? In time, almost anyone can be trained to do a good job checking in orders. But don’t take for granted that anyone will, without instruction and reinforcement, be able to tell if seafood, meat and produce is fresh, or distinguish spinach from arugula, or use a scale accurately and consistently, or make it through an entire invoice without loosing interest. Honest mistakes from your vendors are inevitable, but they will be a lot easier to correct during the receiving process than later, when your cooks need an item to prep and, at best, it will be an hour or two away.

The last link in this chain is proper storage. Once you have placed the orders for exactly what you need, and have ascertained that they are, indeed, in house, the next step is to store the products in a way that is easily accessible and appropriate in terms of their shelf life. Procedures should be put in place to ice fresh seafood, get frozen items into the freezers immediately, put raw meats on the bottom shelves, rotate stock, etc. All storage areas should be clean, uncluttered, well lit and kept at the proper temperature. This will make it easy to place orders, find products to prep and prevent loss from spoilage.

Accurate Prep Lists

Once you have gone through all the necessary steps to get the correct product in house, the next thing to do is make sure that everything that needs to be done to those products gets done. The best way to get anywhere is with a good roadmap (or a suitable app), and the best roadmap for prep work is a good prep list. Like the process of placing orders, a prep list is totally menu driven. Just like when you are writing your orders, do whatever you have to do to not forget anything. Prep lists should be easy to read and contain everything your cooks will need to know to do the right thing. Spreadsheets are perfect for this, as well as being a great tool for the person writing them. If applicable for your operation, a master prep list that contains all the normal items can be written on a spreadsheet. You can then filter the list so that only the items needed that day will be displayed on the hard copy hanging in the kitchen. This will help insure that no items are accidently omitted, and that no pertinent information is left off. A special section can be included for specials or unusual dishes.

Since, hopefully, the same staff will be doing very similar prep day after day, a prep list doesn’t need to have a lot of detail. However, don’t leave out the basics. Important specs should not be omitted. If there is any chance of confusion, be specific. For example, specify Choice vs. Prime, 16-20 shrimp vs. U-10s, etc. The amount that you want should always be indicated. If one gallon of a particular sauce is the norm, your cook might have no idea that, because of a banquet, you’ll need one and a half gallons that night. If you want 30 portions of tenderloin steaks, indicate it on the prep list. The cook might get up to 50 portions before you notice and stop him; and maybe you’ll need those three extra PSMOs left whole to roast for something else. Be specific with portions. If you want this evening’s steaks to be 8-ounces each, put it on the list. Perhaps the cook doing the butchering for you is used to prepping 6-ounce steaks for lunch. Think through the practical aspects of your particular situation and include pertinent information: possibly who you want to prep certain items, which station a particular item needs to end up at, if the cook should ask you about a certain item before they start to work on it, and so on.

Timing is Key

Think through your menu and figure out the best way to organize the prep. While some delicate items, like pico de gallo, will need to be prepped every day, others, like coq au vin, will actually improve with age and so can be prepped in large batches once a week. If you have both of these items on your menu, one should probably go.

Once you’ve written your prep list, you’ll be able to see exactly what needs to get done. Use this information to help schedule just the right amount of staff to get the prep finished without either wasting money or burning your crew out before the first guest walks through the door. You wouldn’t want to order too much or too little snapper compared to what you need, so don’t schedule the wrong amount of prep staff either. A wasted dollar is a wasted dollar, whether it’s in labor costs or food costs; and with labor, the mistakes add up even more quickly than they do with food. Do make sure that you have the right individuals on hand to accomplish the specific tasks on the list. If fish needs to be butchered, or a Hollandaise must be made, know that someone will be available who knows how. At the same time, it’s a great idea to pair these more experienced people with someone who can assist them, and eventually learn what they know. The more things everyone in your kitchen is capable of doing, the better you’ll sleep – and the easier it will become to staff each shift.

The Right Person for the Right Job

Be conscious of using the best person for each job as much as possible. In the same way that you wouldn’t use sea bass in a dish that cod would work just as well in, try not to use your sous chef to peel a case of potatoes. A steward could do it just as well, for less money, and use it as a first step out of the ware washing station and towards the hot line. You should be able to find a task better suited for your sous chef’s skill level, too. With this system, everyone wins.

The Proper Tools kept in Good Working Order

Considering the (very worthwhile and necessary) trouble and expense of handling all the activities outlined above, it really makes no sense to ask your staff to do a great job prepping your menu with one hand tied behind their backs. I’m referring to not providing them with the requisite tools to get the job done efficiently and without needless frustration. You should understand exactly what equipment it takes to produce the prep you need. Various containers, ladles, bains, side towels, functioning ovens and other “small” things will make all the difference between great prep and a happy crew and the opposite. Don’t scrimp on necessary equipment.

So now you have every ingredient you’ll need on hand, the right number of the right workers scheduled early enough to get everything done in time, a clear, complete prep list and all the equipment it takes to get the job done. Last but certainly not least, your crew needs – and wants – clear direction from managers, along with sufficient follow-up. Show them just what you want them to do, how you want it done, and what an acceptable pace is. Don’t expect them to get it right the first time, and don’t take for granted that if they did it perfectly yesterday, they will again today.

Keep an Eye on the Process

The two things your managers must be primarily concerned with are quality and quantity. Exactly what do you want your cooks to prepare, and how much? If a cook is supposed to be portioning 30 8-ounce rib eye steaks, don’t assume that each steak will be 8 ounces or that there will be 30 of them when he or she is finished. Make sure that they are using an ounce scale (not a pound scale). Mention the number 30 more than once. Check in with them regularly enough so that you’ll catch the third 5-ounce steak and not the 20th. Sometimes it seems the worse work a prep cook is doing, the faster they move. The same clear direction and follow-up applies to every task being done. Take frequent laps around the kitchen, seeing what everyone is doing. As a manager, you can’t pay too much attention. Cajole, politely correct and praise as is appropriate. Sauces should taste good, pre-seared items shouldn’t look poached, if something is supposed to have grill marks on it they should be visible from 20 feet, etc. Don’t take anything for granted, don’t let things slip, but never miss an opportunity to let someone know that you love their work, either.

Joe Abuso is the chef/owner of Recipes & Rotations – Real Food for Mom and Dad, menus, recipes and associated tools to senior-living communities. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has cooked at some of the country’s best restaurants.