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Hands-off experiences

Question:

As a culinary student, we are encouraged to visit professional kitchens to observe and learn. What should we be looking for in these hands-off experiences?

– Diane Kolack, Culinary Student, Queens, NY

Answer:

As an educator, I’m delighted to hear from student readers of this column. I’ve previously given advice for restaurateurs to deal with students so here is the reverse. First, I think it’s a great assignment, provided that the restaurant and the local health code permit you observing. For example, in your city, “Persons who are not essential to the food establishment operations shall not be allowed in the food preparation, food storage or ware washing areas, except that brief visits and tours may be authorized by the operator if steps are taken to ensure that exposed food, clean equipment, utensils, linens, tableware, and unwrapped single-service and single-use articles are protected against contamination.”

So, unfortunately, a restaurant there would be correct and smart not to participate in this assignment, however good it would be for developing the future leaders of our industry. Nick Dodson, operating partner of The Dublin Pub in Springfield, Il, welcomes hospitality students and says, “There is not only one way to prepare food, organize and run a kitchen and in my opinion, ‘We are greater than I’ is a great quote to live by. Observing other operations ideas and letting that truly sink in can help to take [students] to the next level. ”

If you are allowed to observe, first, build rapport by meeting everyone, explaining your role and not taking notes at first or acting like an inspector. Stay out of the way. If you are asked to help with something, and you’re allowed, do it! Chefs and managers should be comfortable defining your role and what you’re allowed to do upon the initial agreement.

Adrienne Hall, a Chef-Instructor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, uses a similar assignment and gives the following guidelines:

“On a very limited basis, there are several things one could observe and figure out. First is it clean? Is that something everybody works together at, or is it pawned on others? This is not just looking at the cleanliness of the kitchen, but the general appearance and the cleanliness of the staff as well.

What does the food look like? Do the individuals take ownership and pride of their food? Is the quality of food and the passion for the kitchen alive? Look at the culture of the kitchen. Are they friendly? Is it a culture of intimidation, or teamwork?

Is the kitchen well managed? How do they treat the employees?

If on a more professional level, they would want to look for best practices in the kitchen, things you may not get on a one-day stage. Are they using FIFO, are they checking in food quickly? Are there various stages of accountability among the ranks? How does the kitchen work in relation with other departments, front of the house or room service?”

In my opinion, however, the best way to learn how a restaurant works is through a hands-on experience.

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