Successful restaurant chefs produce delicious, visually appealing food quickly, often at high volume, sometimes in limited space and always with a tight rein on cost. Many of their tried-and-true methods adapt surprisingly well to home kitchens. You can put their tricks to use to pull off multicourse meals, have everything ready simultaneously, wow your dinner companions with artful presentation and serve a crowd with ease.
“How many parties have you done when you’re in a total flurry at the end? The meal may come out on time, but the kitchen ends up absolutely upside down."
Jeff Larson, private chef
Planning & preparation
The French term "mise en place" refers to the philosophy of “everything put in place” used in well-run commercial kitchens. In his book "The Elements of Cooking," award-winning food writer Michael Ruhlman recommends using this mark of a professional in your home kitchen to conquer complicated recipes and multicourse meals with ease.
In its strictest sense, mise en place streamlines the actual cooking process by putting everything you need for a recipe at your fingertips—chopped, measured and ready to go. But mise en place applies equally well to all stages of a meal, including planning.
“How many parties have you done when you’re in a total flurry at the end? The meal may come out on time, but the kitchen ends up absolutely upside down,” says Jeff Larson, a private chef.
You can avoid this all too common scenario by taking a few minutes beforehand to jot down a menu plan with estimated time requirements and ordered steps for each dish.
“Plan a menu you can be successful with, leaving no more than three things to do at the last minute,” Larson recommends. This is particularly vital when you cook for a large gathering or are the host of a dinner party for friends.
Cooking in stages
Parcooking food allows restaurant chefs to plate seemingly complicated meals within minutes of receiving a guest’s order. You can use this technique at home to bring multiple dishes to the table simultaneously — still hot, with nothing overcooked — by preparing proteins and vegetables ahead of time.
Jordan Holcomb, sous chef at the Headwaters Grille in Victor, Idaho, recommends blanching and shocking vegetables up to a few hours ahead of dinnertime. Cook the vegetables to the point of crisp-tender, and lock them in with a quick plunge into an ice bath. When it’s time to serve, you simply heat the vegetables in the microwave or a saute pan for two or three minutes, tops.
He also precooks mashed potatoes, holding them at serving temperature in a tight “pillow-pack” of plastic wrap. He recommends using commercial-quality plastic wrap because it holds up to the heat. Mound the hot mashed potatoes in the center of a length of plastic wrap. Fold the plastic around the potatoes tightly. Wrap the package, seam side down, in another piece of plastic wrap. Do this a third time, then store the potatoes in a warm oven or under a foil tent until you’re ready to plate the meal. “Now you basically have your own piping bag,” Holcomb says, explaining that if you snip off one corner, you can squeeze the potatoes onto the plate with an attractive swirl rather than plopping them in a blob off a spoon.
You can handle the protein portion of the meal in advance too, making it possible to cook steaks, for example, without a crowd of hungry guests staring anxiously at you across the grill. About half an hour before your friends arrive, grill the steaks to rare or medium rare, turning them by 45 degrees on each side to achieve the attractive crosshatch pattern. Let the steaks cool to room temperature on a baking tray while the oven preheats to 200 degrees Celsius.
“Once the meat rests and cools, you have about six minutes (in the oven) before it starts to cook again,” Holcomb explains. So if you want the medium rare steaks you pulled off the grill to stay medium rare, reheat them in the oven for five or six minutes; if you want to carry them on to medium or more, leave them for an additional five to 10 minutes.
Professional chefs abide by the adage “we eat with our eyes first,” and artful plate presentation can elevate a ho-hum dish into an elegant meal. You don’t need a culinary degree, or even an especially artistic eye, to turn your ordinary Wednesday night dinner into a visual feast.
If you’re like most home cooks, you serve the standard meat-starch-vegetable meal in a three-point landing on the plate — a hunk of meat, a pile of vegetables and a mound of starch relegated to their own quadrants. But unless you’re feeding a toddler who refuses to eat when the food touches, you can do much better.
Simply integrating the elements of a meal into a composed stack makes for a much more interesting aesthetic, Holcomb explains. Start with a base of starch, be it rice or potatoes or something more complex, then balance the meat on an angle against it. Add the vegetables in a circle around the outer rim of the plate, or stand them up next to the meat to add height. Finish the plate with a drizzle of sauce down the sides and around the edges of the stack.
Holcomb offers another easy tip to up the visual appeal of your meal: Slice your meats before plating them. If you're serving a chicken breast or pork tenderloin, for example, cut it on the bias into three or four pieces that you can fan out on the plate.
Whenever appropriate, cook cuts still on the bone and use them as a focal point on the plate, he adds. Build a teepee out of chicken drumsticks; cut the meat away from the end on a bone-in pork chop for a "lollipop" presentation; or separate a rack of lamb or pork ribs into several hunks, then use the bones to support standing sections.
Finally, follow the lead of top restaurants and serve hot food on warmed plates and cold food on chilled plates to keep the food at the correct temperature longer. To do this at home, put a stack of plates in the oven and heat it to 80 to 120 degrees Celsius, then turn off the oven. Or chill plates in the freezer for 10 minutes before serving salads or cold dessert.
In his book "The Elements of Cooking," Michael Ruhlman suggests that all chefs would compose a similar list of the five kitchen basics they couldn't cook without. A quality chef's knife tops Ruhlman's list, a sentiment with which Jordan Holcomb, sous chef fully agrees.
Beyond that, however, working chefs actually seem to vary widely in their opinion on essential utensils for the home kitchen.
Chef and caterer Dave Kratky, uses tongs for everything and lists a microplane zester among his workhorse tools.
Jeff Larson, a private chef, says he thinks home cooks could make good use of a handheld slicer.
These chefs all agree, however, that some tools merely take up space in the home kitchen.
Holcomb said he thinks bread machines should be put out with the trash, and Kratky considers electric knives, can openers and deep fryers basically worthless.
In Larson's opinion, too many stand mixers stand unused in the pantry or storage closet. He thinks a good quality hand mixer gets more mileage in a home kitchen without the hassle of hauling out the big guy.