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Staffing Your Restaurant's Kitchen

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You've heard this idea related to business a million times. Like all those other endeavors and enterprises, a restaurant can't run well or long without the right mix of experienced and reliable staff. A good kitchen team can make your break your business, as they say, in short order.

Here are the positions — from most essential (dishwashers) to less essential (the sous chef or KM) — that share responsibilities within the kitchen area.

Someone must be in charge of the kitchen, but it may be a single manager in charge of every restaurant employee, not a kitchen-specific manager. No restaurant can keep its doors open without the services and devotion of the first role in the list: the dishwasher.

Dishwasher

The dishwashing job is physical labor. Boots and an apron, preferably waterproof, are the standard uniform. Dishwashers are the serfs of the restaurant world. But most experienced chefs and managers agree that they're among the most important people in the building. The most amazing food in the world will do you no good if you don't have a clean plate to put it on or a clean fork to eat it with.

Many cooks and chefs start out in the dish area. If they have the desire, dishwashers can move from dish to prep to line to sous chef. Promotion from within your organization is an ideal way to sell an employee on working in the dish area. Motivating someone to "bust suds" and dig his elbows deep in discarded food is tough. Promotion can be the carrot dangling out in front of the employee. If you're able to hang on to your dish guy and move him up the ranks, you and he will both have a great story to tell.

Prep cook

Prep is short for preparing, or making preparation. It's the root system of the kitchen. Your prep cooks are the unsung heroes of the kitchen, the ones who do the daily grunt work. Prep cooks touch every part of your menu and kitchen, whether they're cutting steaks off the side of beef; chopping lettuce; making soups, bulk sauces, frosting, or pizza dough; or wrapping and freezing compound butters. Prep cooks prepare your kitchen for the shift to come.

Many people believe that prep is the most important part of the cooking. If it's not done right, nothing can fix it. Take soups, for example. Soups aren't cooked to order. They're prepared early in the morning so flavors are melded by lunch or dinner. When a diner orders a piping hot bowl, the waiter serves up a ladleful and goes on her way. If the soup isn't prepared right in the prep stage, you can't do much to fix it after it's ordered.

In other cases, your prep cooks start the process, and your line cooks finish it. For example, your prep guys peel and devein shrimp for salad but don't assemble the final product.

Prep cooks should have a working knowledge of the storerooms and coolers so they know where to find product. They know where to find all the ingredients they need for whatever they're making. They also need to know how to operate many kinds of equipment — a buffalo chopper, food processor, tilt skillet, fryer, or even the grill. They could be roasting corn for a salsa and then frying noodles for a garnish — all within the same shift.

Experience in other restaurants is always a plus. If applicants don't have experience but seem like they could be good employees, consider them as candidates for the dishwasher position.

Line cook

A line cook is assigned to a station on your line (the section of the kitchen where food is finished, or cooked when ordered). The line is made up of kitchen stations dedicated to different preparation techniques, like the grill, sauté, fryer, and so on.

Most line cooks should have some kitchen experience before working on the line. Many people start in prep and work up to the line. Depending on your concept, you can start inexperienced line cooks on a cold station, like the pantry or pastry, and then cross-train them on other stations as their abilities and interests develop. Usually, these cold stations have a more limited menu than the hot stations and require fewer skills to run. Typically, the sauté cook needs the greatest amount of kitchen experience because this station has the most volume and requires the most expertise.

Cross-training is ideal on the line. During slow business levels, it's good to have cross-trained employees. If one guy can work one end of the line that consists of the oven and the fryer, plus he knows his way around the pantry, you have the flexibility to cut (send home early) some of your other staff. You save labor dollars but maintain your full menu and service levels.

If you have one, your expo is the end of the line. Basically, he gets all the line cooks working together on an order at the right time.

Sous chef

The sous chef (pronounced sue, French for under) is the kitchen's second in command. He's usually in charge when the chef isn't around. The sous chef is sort of the executive chef in training, but he may still train the underlings. A sous chef is in the process of learning ordering, inventory management, and food costing. Also, the sous chef is likely trying to pick up on the creativity of the chef, understanding his style of cooking and food philosophy. Some chefs use them as assistants. But other sous chefs are actually running the kitchen, and sometimes several sous chefs work in a single kitchen.

Kitchen manager

A kitchen manager, or KM, knows the nuts and bolts of running the kitchen. He may do the ordering and manage the staff, but he may not have advanced culinary training. KMs are great at maintaining consistency. A good KM knows the standards and can follow production manuals, but he doesn't have to be creative or focused on technique. He can teach the staff the basics. He should be very production-focused and efficient.

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