Chef Meets Truck - all lined up and ready for the onslaught of famished customers -

Working in Small Kitchens – Tips from Chefs

In Education by Sean17 Comments

Small Kitchen Tips

From Professional Chefs

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Full disclosure: I was provided with a media pass to Chef Meet's Truck courtesy of the love people at 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: You can find out about future Chef Meets Truck events and tickets by checking out the Chef's Table Society site)

Chefs getting ready for the opening of the Chef Meets Truck food festival in Vancouver, BC

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.

The Reef Runner food truck at Chef Meet's Truck, showing us how to make excellent use out of a small space

The Questions

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.

Question 1

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.

Question 2

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.

Inside the Reef Runner food truck at Chef Meet's Truck

Question 3

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.

Question 4

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.

The side of the Kafka's Coffee food truck

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.

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  1. What a fun experience! I love eating from food trucks. I think with such a limited menu they are able to serve just a few items that are PERFECT!! I had one of the best hamburgers I have ever had from a food truck here in KC.
    Such great tips for working in a small space. i also love to make family style one-pot meals. It is a great way to keep prep and meal planning easy!

  2. I loved this post. Last year I did an article on a local “Food Truck Frenzy” festival. It really is amazing how much food these trucks can produce, day in and day out. I know when I complain my kitchen is not big enough…the first thing I do is kick my husband out of the way LOL!! Growing up my mom had a small kitchen….yet on Ukrainian Christmas Eve….25-30 over for dinner was NEVER an issue. Funny….I was just visiting my birth house the other day…and I said to my husband….”This kitchen is SO small….how did she do it”? I WISH I had a HUGE kitchen….but it seems like ALL the holidays and special occasions are here….somehow we make it work.

  3. Good to know chefs love their Instant Pot as much as I love mine haha. I have a small kitchen and it can be such a drag when you have limited counter space to use. While I wish I had a bigger kitchen, compared to these guys, I shouldn’t be complaining!

  4. My tiny apartment also has an incredibly tiny kitchen. I totally agree with these chefs, and I’ll also say that too many appliances and gadgets does not make for a better cook! I try to narrow down to my well used ones, and scrap the rest. Tiny kitchens for the win!

  5. Great tips! I am with Cindy about the wine in the kitchen, thats my favorite way to cook. I definitely need to invest in a better knife sharpener. Sounds like a fun event, I need to make my way north for it one of these days.

  6. What a great opportunity to get a peek behind the scenes! I’ve been to Oregon’s food truck area and was amazed by the variety of foods you could get. I never thought about the challenges one might have in a small kitchen, but agree to make sure your knifes are sharp!

  7. I love all the tips! Sometimes I look at the huge kitchens they show in magazines and Pinterest and think — If they cook they must be worn out because of all the energy of walking just to get from the sink, stove, fridge, and work area. And Chef Bell had such a great quote about the simplicity of ingredients. My mamma didn’t have all the fancy spices and herbs but her food was outstanding! This is a post well worth rereading.

  8. Loved this post, Sean. SO MANY THINGS.
    First of all, “But even if you’ve got all the counter space you could ever need (you lucky dog)” <– That made me chuckle because truthfully, I have a very big and open kitchen, and I still find I'm short on space and often mumbling swear words as I try to find a place on the counter for a second cutting board. It's a lot like replacing a small purse with a larger one because your small one can't fit all of your stuff—you just end up filling the bigger purse with more junk 😉

    I'm really glad you got this opportunity. It reminds me of a few years back when I got to spend the day on a food truck working prep for Adam Hynam-Smith. (Yes, the Food Network's Restaurant Takeover Adam Hynam-Smith!) I offered myself up for the day for free just to immerse myself in the food truck experience and it was eye-opening. He ran *such* a tight ship, but he was so chill and he's a damn respectable guy. Though there were five of us in the teeny space on the truck, it was so organized and everyone knew their job and place, and it was such a well-oiled machine. Organization is something I try to bring to my kitchen, but I do much better when I'm in it alone. Kudos to those who can keep things organized as a group!

    I sure do need to work on my knife game, though. I know I need new knives, but I have no idea where to start. I don't want to blow a ton of money, but gah. Not squishing tomatoes would be nice. Lol.

  9. Wesley (The Loon, and my husband) absolutely LOVE this post. Fun, informative, and fascinating. Living and working in NYC for many, many years, we relied on food trucks for nearly every lunch we at during the week. It was so cool to see the trend of top-notch cooks and chefs taking to the food truck concept. And it always amazed me how the good ones could produce such incredible dishes, so fast, for so many. You’re right, great food can absolutely come from small kitchens. This article was really interesting to read and inspiring. Great job!!

  10. I love this!! What a fun experience for you. I have a pretty big kitchen at home and on vacation recently had to use a teeny tiny kitchen – it was quite the transition and I have to agree on keeping a clean workspace as being so important!!

  11. I love how you approached this… so many fun tips….. we’re moving to a new house and will soon be able to put a few of these to use in the small kitchen we’ll be using until the remodel is done! I love that being organized is on so many of their lists. Thats the tip I need to really work on!

  12. Fun post! I wholeheartedly agree, a bench scraper/knife is such an awesome tool for keeping your board clean. I used to work in professional kitchens and I also think it’s handy for a homecook to have a bar towel or two at the ready – they are so versatile for grabbing pans, trays (with dry ones only!) and cleaning up messes/boards/knives.

  13. This is such an interesting read! I am always amazed to see people whip up incredible meals in small spaces. I think it forces you to have it organized and efficient as much as possible and I love that!

  14. So much great advice! My kitchen isn’t small, but I sure could use more organization! And good tools are essential!

  15. What a fun experience! When I moved into my new house, I got to completely redo the kitchen and ended it making it much larger. It’s funny how a small kitchen is actually easier to work in because it forces you to be super organized.

  16. This really was so interesting to read!!! And I am a little jealous of the experience!
    I just love all the tips you give….I am sure I can put some to use in my own kitchen 😀

  17. Such a fun read, and so many great tips! I totally agree about organization and the importance of a clean workspace where you can find everything at a moment’s notice – saves so much headache!!

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