KITCHENS, RESTAURANT. With the debut of executive chef Gray Kunz's $1 million kitchen at the restaurant Lespinasse in New York City's St. Regis Hotel in 1994, the restaurant kitchen became a showplace and status marker for American chefs. Cast-iron ranges from France, cool-to-the-touch induction stoves from Japan, fast-churning ice-cream machines from Italy have become de rigueur for any cook worth his fleur de sel. But despite the push for state-of-the-art technology in kitchen design, the organization of the staff and the layout of the workspace have not changed much since Georges-Auguste Escoffier's day.
In addition to codifying and modernizing the culinary repertoire, Escoffier is credited with streamlining the organization of the kitchen. "I myself have often been forced to make profound changes in my restaurant service to meet the need of the ultra rapid pace of modern life," he wrote in his memoirs at the turn of the twentieth century (p. 119). His solution was a kitchen organization based on principles of efficiency and division of labor that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. The tasks involved in assembling the meal are divided among different "stations" (parties in French), each with its team of cooks. The various elements of any finished dish may come from as many as five or six stations. Together, the team of chefs in the kitchen is known as the brigade. In English, the chefs who prepare the places during service are known collectively as the line. It is interesting to note that in many kitchens, no matter their ethnicity, French kitchen terms are usually mixed up with whatever language is spoken.
At the top of the kitchen hierarchy is the executive chef. In a hotel, the executive chef oversees all food preparation in the property's various food service outlets; the role is largely administrative. In a restaurant, the executive chef's duties are usually more hands-on. Now that so many restaurant chefs have multiple restaurants under their command, however, their role has also become more administrative in scope. Below the executive chef is the chef de cuisine. This is the person directly in charge of managing the kitchen. The cooks all report to the chef de cuisine, who in turn reports to the executive chef. To help oversee the smooth management of the kitchen, the chef de cuisine usually has one or two sous -chefs (literally "under chefs"). The responsibilities of the sous -chefs are often divided by meal period—for instance there will be a lunch sous -chef and a dinner sous -chef. The breakdown of the chefs de partie —"station chefs" or "line cooks" in English—is determined by the breadth and scope of the menu (not to mention the space available in the kitchen) and their tasks at hand. Thus, the saucier is responsible for making the sauces and stocks. Because of the emphasis Escoffier placed on sauces in his culinary repertoire, the saucier traditionally holds an exalted status in the kitchen. The rôtisseur is responsible for meats and roasts, the poissonier, fish. A grillardin does the grilling, a potager makes the soups (potages, in French). Vegetables and other side dishes are the charge of the entremetier. The friturier mans the fryer. The garde-manger is in charge of the cold pantry, from which issues forth hors d'oeuvres, salads, garnishes, and other cold preparations. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when large presentation pieces and ornate garnishes were an important element in traditional French service, the role of the garde-manger was elevated in status. The pâtissier is in charge of the pastries and other baking. A chocolatier would be responsible for chocolate items. Further divisions and subdivisions are also possible.
Depending on the demands placed on the staff, within the different stations there may be multiple cooks and assistants. Young apprentices known as commis or stagiaires are plentiful in large kitchens, for they are generally strong, eager, and willing to work for little pay. A tournant is an experienced chef who can fill in at any station should the cooks become backed-up during service (referred to colloquially in English as "being in the weeds"), or should someone not show up to work.
The expediter (aboyeur, in French, or "barker") is the person to whom the orders from the dining room are given by the waitstaff or, more likely these days, by the computerized ordering system. This is the role the executive chef often takes during service (often to the dismay of the staff; most executive chefs make poor expediters). The expediter is responsible for timing the preparation of a table's order so that all of the various components from the different stations are completed at exactly the same moment. This ensures that the food is served at its prime and contributes to the smooth operation of the restaurant and the maximum satisfaction of each guest is an important task.
Variations among Kitchens
The breakdown of the brigade differs from restaurant to restaurant. In reality, only the largest, most expensive restaurants follow Escoffier's organization to the letter, but a surprising number are based on his model. Most kitchens are organized around a compressed version of the traditional hierarchy. With modern technology and convenience foods (of which, based on his memoirs, Escoffier would likely have been a champion), it is possible for as few as three line cooks to turn out hundreds of meals, albeit of questionable quality.
Perhaps the most important factor in determining the organization of the kitchen is the menu, which itself is an outgrowth of the overall concept of the restaurant. The array of dishes, the variety of cooking techniques, and the intricacy of garnishes all have a direct impact on the way the kitchen functions. In planning the menu it is imperative that the chef consider the impact new items will have on each station of the kitchen. The second most important factor in the design of the kitchen and the division of labor is the physical layout of the space. No matter how heavy the demands placed by the menu on a particular station, if there is not enough space for the cooks to work comfortably, efficiency will suffer. Kitchens also reflect the personality and management style of the chef in charge. Some chefs prefer to divide stations based on the natural divisions of the menu. Thus, you will sometimes hear stations referred to by the terms "hot apps" (hot appetizers) or "salads."
Different styles of cuisine require different divisions of labor. In Italian restaurants, the pasta station becomes supremely important. In seafood restaurants, naturally, multiple fish cooks are required. Some types of cooking require a different organization altogether. Chinese restaurants are able to offer a vast number of dishes because of the way the kitchen is set up. Each chef has a workspace with at least one wok (usually several) and a huge array of ingredients at the ready. One dish at a time is prepared and sent out to the table as it is finished. This accounts for (or results from) a style of eating that is totally different from the Western model. In Japanese restaurants, the cooking is sometimes done right in front of the guests by the principal chef and his assistants. Although in the West we are familiar with this set-up in sushi and teppanyaki restaurants, in Japan other types of restaurants are molded into this configuration. Exemplary Mexican, French, and Italian restaurants in Tokyo are set up according to this sushi-bar model.
Although the "open kitchen" concept became popular in restaurant design in California in the 1980s and has since spread throughout the country, these kitchens, which afford diners a peek into the inner workings of the restaurant, are usually organized according to the traditional French model, not the Japanese. Similarly, the rise in popularity in the 1990s of "chef tables"—dining tables actually located in the thick of the kitchen commotion—offer an up-close view of the fine-dining kitchen.
Some American chefs make a point of shunning the traditional hierarchical organization of the kitchen altogether. The two most renowned are probably Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and Barry Wine at the former Quilted Giraffe in New York City. Both chefs pride themselves on the democratic ideology that governed their kitchens, giving each cook a more or less equal say in the decision-making process. Although the reasons behind the adaptation of this democratic model were very different—Waters came out of the Berkeley hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s; Wine aspired to have the most innovative and creative restaurant in the high-flying 1980s—both succeeded in producing world-class restaurants that attracted international acclaim.
Because of the high-pressure environment of most restaurant kitchens, they act as crucibles of social interaction. Despite formidable attempts to organize the kitchen into a smooth running "assembly line," systems and chains of command often break down. George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) offered a vivid glimpse of life in a large Parisian kitchen at the beginning of the last century. Some seventy-five years later, the grit of kitchen life has again captured the popular imagination, with tell-all books such as Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential (2000) topping bestseller charts. In Kitchens (1996), sociologist Gary Fine offers a more scholarly portrait of kitchen life. Fine produced an ethnographic sociological study of work and human interaction in the restaurant kitchen environment. Fine spent several months in the kitchens of four restaurants that covered the spectrum of dining establishments from chain to fine dining. His study examines kitchen life through the filters of economic, class, and aesthetic considerations. He notes:
[Cooks] face enormous challenges, toiling in an environment less pastoral than infernal. Cooks must ready the kitchen several hours before customers arrive, not knowing precisely how many to expect. Preparation must permit flexibility, depending on the walk-in trade and last-minute reservations. They must then be ready to cook numerous dishes, simultaneously and without warning, with sufficient speed that those with whom they must deal—servers and ultimately diners—do not become frustrated. Cooks have several masters. Restaurants are both service and production units, and, so, cooks work simultaneously for customers and management (p. 19).
Fine's findings emphasize the importance of the organization of the kitchen on the overall success of the restaurant and on the satisfaction derived from those who work in the restaurant kitchen environment.
See also Chef; Escoffier, Georges-Auguste; Kitchen Gadgets; Kitchen Pantry and Larder; Places of Consumption; Preparation of Food; Restaurants; Serving of Food; Workers, Food .
Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. New York: Bloosmbury, 2000.
Escoffier, Auguste. Memories of My Life. Translated by Laurence Escoffier. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1997.
Fine, Gary Alan. Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1996.
Orwell, George. Down and Out in Paris and London. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950. Original edition published in 1933.