From famous chefs opening new restaurants, to reviewing a restaurant, to talking about restaurant design – restaurants are not something The Kitchn talks about on a regular basis. We're all about the home cook. Restaurants, however, can and do provide the home cook with opportunities to learn something new about food. It's a different side of cooking smarter.
I've worked at a few high-end restaurants in New York, including one three Michelin star restaurant where I was maître d'hotel. Even though I was working front of house – instead of in the kitchen – I learned an awful lot about food from a service perspective. Let me explain how this restaurant taught me a new side of food.
10 Things I Learned About Food from Working Front of House at a 3-Star Michelin Restaurant
1. Food and cooking provide an opportunity to tell a story.
Working front of house at a nice restaurant requires some acting. I wore a suit every day to work, my hair had to be in a tight bun, and I couldn't have colored nail polish. You were discouraged from saying certain phrases like, "No problem!" when you helped a guest, because it implied that there would have been a problem in the first place. My job was to make sure everyone who entered that restaurant felt special. I loved playing this part.
Like service, the food that was served at the restaurant I worked at also told a story. The service was welcoming and polished in order for the food to shine – the ingredients were allowed to be creative and dazzle anyone who sat down at a table on any given day of the year. It was not pretentious.
Food as performance is more apparent in restaurants, but it's also there when you're cooking for yourself, or when you have a potluck with friends, or when you travel. It's why we get excited about working with new ingredients, or eating that pasta our mom made when we were kids. Food, like any art form, is a lens to something bigger. What story do you want to hear?
2. Taste is affected by environment.
Eating at a restaurant in many ways is like going to see a play. The food could be really good, but if the service is awful and food looks really bad, it's not going to get the critics' vote. There's a reason why the restaurant I worked at was spotless and there were flowers on every table. Our taste is affected by our environment.
Now, if you're having people over for dinner and want to do something special, this doesn't have to require getting your linens dry cleaned or buying new dinnerware. In The Kitchn Cookbook we talk a lot about what makes a successful, easy dinner gathering. Things like making sure your place is clean, adding a little mood lighting, and putting fresh flowers on the table go a long way.
3. Making a good martini requires a gym membership.
A certain celebrity who was a good friend of the chef and owner of the restaurant I worked at loved to come in and request a cold martini. It got to the point where the manager on duty would have to shake the martini for a good eight minutes to get it to this personage's liking. Needless to say, this took a lot of upper body strength.
So, if you're really in the market for a cold martini, consider getting a gym membership or investing in some weights. You'll need it.
4. Half the battle of making good food is starting with great ingredients.
The purveyors that the restaurant choose to deal with were not chosen by accident. The chefs sourced the very best meat and vegetables from people they trusted. This is a big part of working at a high end restaurant.
Good ingredients mean different things to different people. They don't have to be expensive. What good ingredients do mean is looking at the produce you are going to buy to see if it's still good, or talking to whomever you're buying food from (farmer, grocer) to see what they recommend.
5. Work in a clean and organized environment.
The restaurant I worked at had an open kitchen where everyone had the opportunity to peer in and see all the crazy things being made. It was an exceptionally clean and organized space. All the ingredients were prepped in advance to make things go smoothly – and they did, most of the time.
Learn from a restaurant kitchen and keep your stuff in check. It will make you a happier cook.
6. It doesn't take much to make a meal special.
It was my job as maître d' to make people feel special at the restaurant, and I quickly realized that it doesn't take much. Asking sincere questions about a patron's day, taking their coat, leading them to the bar if they're early instead of just pointing in the direction of the bar, and giving them something to drink on the house if the table wasn't on time – it all goes a long way.
Outside of the actual food, what are some of the ways that sitting down to eat makes you happy? Is it that you don't eat in front of the TV? Or maybe it's using cloth napkins instead of paper towels? These are good things to think about, especially if you're entertaining.
7. Work on your sauce game.
With a French-Asian menu, you better believe that the restaurant I worked at had a strong sauce game. Making a simple pan sauce after cooking meat might be easy, but when's the last time you busted out one of the French mother sauces? Sauce helps food become its very best self. Don't you want that for your food?
Up your sauce game: Do You Know Your French Mother Sauces?
8. The importance of having menu staples as well as seasonal dishes.
The restaurant I worked at had two tasting menus – the chef's tasting, and the seasonal tasting. The famous, classic dishes – like an egg overflowing with caviar – were how (and why) guests were introduced to the restaurant. Patrons returned, however, because of the innovation behind the seasonal dishes.
In my own kitchen I have staples as well. I will always make stir-fry – but those strawberry-rhubarb bars? You'll probably only see them in the spring. It makes them special.
9. Salt and butter make food taste good.
You can't have a post about restaurants and food without mentioning the importance of butter or salt. I'm sorry, but you just can't. You might think you're adding extra salt or butter to your dish, but you really have no idea exactly how much of the stuff goes into your food until you go to culinary school or watch someone in a restaurant kitchen do their thing.
It's totally fine if you don't want to add more butter and salt to your home cooked meal – but just know that this is a major difference between what you're making and what someone at restaurant would make for you.
10. Please, have more fun with your food.
Whether you're eating at a restaurant that cost you half your paycheck that month, or are going to your favorite, cheap burger joint – food should be enjoyable and make you feel good.
In the end, this was the entire point of the restaurant I worked at, and I loved it.