Small Kitchen Tips
From Professional Chefs
Full disclosure: I was provided with a media pass to Chef Meet’s Truck courtesy of the love people at Town Hall Brands and the Chef’s Table Society of BC. I was neither paid, nor asked to produce this post – I just wanted to share some awesome tips from some awesome people with y’all. All opinions are my own.
We’re doing something new here on Diversivore today. No recipe, no new ingredients – just me sharing a whole lot of ridiculously useful tips for working in small spaces and kitchens, courtesy of some of the most talented chefs Vancouver has to offer.
Last year I was invited to the annual Chef Meets Truck event in Vancouver’s gorgeous Yaletown. The event features a whole slate of food trucks staffed by some of their regular crew along with guest chefs hailing from some of Vancouver’s finer brick-and-mortar restaurant establishments. Hence: chef meets truck. It’s great fun, and GREAT food, and as I wandered the event and enjoyed the eats from some truly talented culinary pros, I began to wonder – what advice would these chefs have for those of us dealing with space- and time-crunches in our daily lives? After all, food trucks aren’t exactly the most spacious places on the planet, and there’s not a lot of room for error when it comes to working on one. The food truck chefs were already used to this of course, but many of the restaurant chefs were probably noticing and dealing with the limitations of space for the first time in a while. So after the chaos had died down a little bit, I went out and asked the pros about their best tips and tricks for creating amazing food in a small kitchen space. Since many of us work in relatively small kitchens, I’m sure that these tips will strike a chord. But even if you’ve got all the counter space you could ever need (you lucky dog), you’ll still benefit from the focus on organization and efficiency that was championed pretty much universally.
(Quick side note: tickets are available for this year’s event now – check it out!)
Meet The Chefs
I’d like to take a moment to introduce the fantastic chefs who were at 2017’s Chef Meets Truck.
From the Reef Runner and Au Comptoir, we had Simon Cotton and Daniel McGee.
From Kafka Coffee Truck and Savio Volpe, we had Aaron Kafka and Derek Gray.
From Roaming Dragon and Market Restaurant and the Shangri-La, we had Ajit “AJ” Thomas and Ken Nakano.
From the WhiteSpot/TripleO’s On the Go Food Truck and Ocean Wise, we had Breanna M. and Ned Bell.
From Mom’s Grilled Cheese and Joseph Richard Group, we had Cindy Hamilton and Matthew Stowe (though I missed getting to chat with Matthew).
Lastly, I wanted to mention a couple of wonderful attendees that I didn’t get to chat with (the evening wound down before I could hit everyone up, amateur journalist that I am).
Chickpea food truck featuring Chef Kris Barnholden from Bows X Arrows served up a vegan flat bread with cashew cheese, smoked mushroom, and eggplant that was so good it was mind-boggling. Almost a year later and I can still remember how good that bad boy was. Further demonstrating the magic of eggplant was the Via Tevere Neapolitan Express truck and chef Makoto Ono from Mak N Ming. They served up a lamb flatbread with eggplant pickle and eggplant & goat cheese puree. Something about eggplant that night just left me too stuffed and satisfied to keep asking questions apparently.
So go hit some of these folks up on their social media (or better yet, in person where you can grab a bite) and ask your own small kitchen questions – that is, if the chefs aren’t too busy.
In the Vancouver area? Grab a ticket to Chef Meets Truck for 2018. It’s an amazing event with tons of incredible food and drink, and you’ll have a great time there.
There are obviously some big differences between food truck and home kitchens, but the two are united by the importance of efficiency and economy of space. With that in mind, I approached my literal captive audience (small trucks, limited exits) with a set of questions designed to help home cooks succeed in their own kitchens.
What’s something every home chef should know or do to help them succeed when working in a home kitchen?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, everyone had thoughts on this question and many of them had the same thoughts. The biggest recurring theme was organization. Make sure you have a good sense of the time you need, with all of the steps laid out in your mind (or on paper) beforehand. Chef McGee put it clearly with an example: if you’re cooking spaghetti, you can’t start your pasta right when your sauce is ready to go.
Keeping everything in the right place was another big theme. A disorderly kitchen is absolutely no fun to cook in, and it’s more than likely to leave you scrambling to find what you need when you really don’t have the time to spare. Several chefs extended this further and emphasized the value of mise en place. We don’t always account for the time we need to do little things like pouring sauces, measuring, or chopping. Taking care of these steps and putting everything where you can reach it before you’re ready to cook can completely change the way you cook for the better.
Order and cleanliness didn’t just apply to the pre-cooking stages either; keeping a clean kitchen and work-space was emphasized to me over and over again. It’s important to incorporate all of this into your habits, as it’s easy to fall off the cleaning wagon during or after a complicated meal-prep (I’m guilty of that one far too often). Chef Bell told me that his first kitchen job was washing dishes at Vancouver’s Avenue Grill. The restaurant sported a tiny kitchen, and he learned right away the importance of working clean, and working consistently. Cindy Hamilton from Mom’s Grilled Cheese also mentioned one of my favourite little kitchen tricks – keep a bowl handy for all of your compostable kitchen scraps. Prep goes much more smoothly when the garbage is quickly moved out of the way, and it’s a pain to go back and forth from a large bin over and over again.
A few of my favourite quotes on this subject from the chefs:
Think about your real estate, not your gadgets. A few great items (pans, knives, etc) will do so much, and gadget can eat up all your space while doing very little.
– Simon Cotton, Reef Runner
Clean work-space, clean mind.
– AJ, Roaming Dragon
Plan it out. Don’t jump in. Know where you’ll be and when.
– Breanna M., WhiteSpot/Triple O’s.
What’s the biggest mistake you can make when trying to work in a small space?
There was an overwhelming consensus on this question: don’t try to do too much. You’re only one person. There’s a reason that professional kitchens have a whole team of people in them. Even food trucks take care of a ton of prep before heading out on the road. Honestly this tips applies to pretty much any kitchen situation, but it’s especially poignant in a small space. Take on too much and you’ll be nervously watching to see what you run out of first: time, or counter space.
So what about those days where you have to make a big meal? What about when you’re cooking Christmas dinner for 12 people in your tiny apartment kitchen? One of the biggest keys is taking on only what you can (it’s ok to outsource a bit of the work to friends and family if possible), and then to break the work up into doable mini-projects. This ties into the first question in a pretty big way too. After all, if you’ve got an organized kitchen and a lot of prep/mise en place done, the actual cooking part becomes all you have to worry about.
I’ll close with a quote from Chef Bell that I thought was quite insightful:
What makes food great is its simplicity. Quality ingredients with good techniques. Too many ingredients and add-ons end up complicating the meal and masking the flavors. Embrace the ingredients and the techniques and keep it simple.
What’s your favourite small kitchen tool?
Two things were mentioned by pretty much every chef: good knives, and good quality pots and pans. These are the fundamental tools to use in the kitchen, and they can make your break you. While we might fantasize about our airy and spacious dream kitchens, the truth is that you’re best off spending your money on the basic tools that come in direct contact with your food and that you’ll use over and over again. And if I can add my two cents here, make sure you have a good way to sharpen your knives at home. The $200 I spent on a high-end knife sharpener pays for itself every time I fillet a fish or cut a tomato without crushing. A razor-sharp $50 knife is going to beat out a dull $500 one every time.
Efficient and functional meal-prep appliances were also big hits. Yes folks, that’s right – when it comes to working smart and working small, the big-time chefs love their crockpots, rice cookers, Thermomixes, and Instant Pots. Just make sure that whatever you get earns its keep in your kitchen; if something is going to take up valuable kitchen real estate, it had better make your cooking that much more effective and/or enjoyable.
Two other specific items stood out from the group, so I think I’ll let the chefs speak for themselves on these ones:
Pastry-cutter/bench knife for picking things up off of cutting boards. – Derek Gray
Wine. Not the cooking variety. Enjoy yourself in the kitchen. – Cindy Hamilton.
What’s your favourite thing to cook in a small space or with limited kitchen gear?
I had a lot of fun asking the chefs about this one. If you want to get to know a chef’s style, ask them what they like to make at home or in a borrowed kitchen.
Family-style, all-in one meals were a big hit with the chefs. Paella, stew, jambalaya – basically anything that you might consider a one-pot-wonder. This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but the reasoning behind this was interesting. Obviously these are the kinds of dishes that cut down the time and space needed to make a meal, but many of the chefs championed them because of their ability to build and compliment flavours. They demand the best of your ingredients, and careful attention to detail as there’s not much room to cover things up when all is said and done.
In addition to the ever-popular one pot meal, there were a few other interesting answers given. Aaron Kafka mentioned pizza, which I thought was a delightful (and unexpected) idea. AJ Thomas went in a different direction from the one-pot wonder and professed his fondness for small plates and meals made up of little parts combined together. Having been working on numerous Mexican recipes in the same vein, I’m inclined to agree. Ned Bell went back to his roots and suggested baking, which I think strikes a chord with a lot of us. I’ve spoken to many people over the years who are constantly feeling that itch to get into the kitchen to bake something. After all, while baking may be sometimes complex, it doesn’t necessitate a whole lot of gear.
But in the end, the basic consensus was to go with your gut (I suppose quite literally in this case). If there’s something that makes you happy every time you cook it, it never hurts to start there.
So there you have it folks. Small space? No worries. Whether it’s a tiny bistro, a food truck, or an apartment micro-kitchen, with the right approach and a bit of confidence you can cook up amazing food. And as for that confidence – well, trust me, you can rock it. Not only do I believe in you, but so do a whole bunch of wildly talented pros.
What are your favourite tools, tips, tricks, etc. for working in a small kitchen? Want to answer one of the questions yourself? Chime in below! I’d love to hear from you. And if you’re in Vancouver, hit up some of these amazing restaurants and food trucks. If you’re lucky enough to be here for the annual Chef Meet’s Truck event, I hope you’ll check it out. You’ll never miss out when great people are making you great food.