30 Cleaning and Organizing Tips We Learned from Pro Chefs and Restaurant Staffers
If you think it’s tough to keep your kitchen clean and organized for a family of five, imagine what it takes to run a fully functioning restaurant kitchen? Pro chefs and front-of-house staffers must have a lot of tricks up their sleeves. In fact, we know they do — because we’ve spent loads time of talking to the people who make them tick. (And most Kitchn staffers have worked in restaurants at some point, too.) Their best tips? We’ve rounded them up below.
1. Embrace deli containers.
Pro chefs use deli containers for a bunch of things. They store mise en place (prepared ingredients) in them, and use them for leftovers and for storing ingredients, stock, dressings, etc. These containers come in standard sizes — one quart, one pint, or one cup — and that makes it easy to store specific amounts or to use as a measuring cup in a pinch. Plus, the lids are interchangeable, so whatever you grab will be sure to work.
Buy: Deli Containers, $24.54 for set of 44
2. And OXO Pop containers.
Our editors have been invited back into the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in the country (cool brag, huh?) and we’ve spotted OXO Pop containers on the shelves at least nine out of 10 times. They’re airtight, clear, and really great for storing dry ingredients. Consider them for your pantry.
Buy: OXO Good Grips 5-Piece POP Container Set, $49.95
3. Stock up on bigger plastic containers, too.
Amelia Rampe, our studio food editor, bought these for her home kitchen after using something similar in restaurants for years. “I keep them organized by department,” she says. “One box holds beans, grains, and legumes; another has various international ingredients; another keeps excess baking ingredients; another has extra spices, nuts, and seeds. I am able to easily locate ingredients when I need them. And because everything goes back into its designated box, I am able to easily take inventory and I hardly ever over-order ingredients anymore.”
Buy: Sterilite 15-Quart Clear Plastic Stackable Storage Container, $198.99 for 24
4. Use an industrial wire rack.
Amelia bought a wire rack to hold those plastic bins and they can handle so much more. Chef and Food Network judge Jet Tila says he uses wire racks in his restaurant to hold pantry items that they buy in bulk. And other kitchen staffers like them for small appliances. The best part: They’re relatively inexpensive and have a cool, industrial look.
Buy: AmazonBasics 4-Shelf Shelving Unit, $59.99
5. Get yourself a bus bin or three.
You might not be bussing tables (at least not quite to the degree of a busy restaurant), but you can still benefit from having a bus bin or three on hand. Meghan Splawn, one of our food writers, has no fewer than six of these things and she uses them to minimize dishes on the counter, hold pantry overflow, and more.
Buy: NUCU Artisan Utility Bus Bin, $23.95 for two
6. Tuck a sheet pan rack into a closet or pantry.
These rolling racks are incredibly industrial, but don’t be so quick to write them off for your own space. You can easily stash a short one in a closet or a pantry and just roll it out when you need it. One of Kitchn’s contributors has one in her kitchen and she uses each shelf as a different zone.
Read more: The Brilliant Storage Solution You Haven’t Thought of, but Chefs Love
7. Add easy-to-clean work surfaces that also have storage.
Another industrial find that can still look super sleek in your home kitchen, these stainless steel tables are all over restaurant kitchens because they’re super easy to clean and provide ample storage space underneath.
Buy: Seville Classics Stainless Commercial-Grade Work Table, $189.99
8. Use baking sheets as organizers.
Use baking sheets or stainless steel bins to corral random ingredients and supplies. This will do two things: help contain any messes, should there be a leak, and make it easy for you to grab like things when you need them. For example, if all your taco spices are on a tray, you can just grab the whole thing and bring it from your pantry to your work space.
9. Keep a towel tucked into your apron or back pocket when you cook.
Get a glimpse of any pro chef and they’re likely to have a towel tucked into their apron strings and their back pocket. Because towels are always needed — for grabbing hot pans, wiping up spills, cleaning dirty hands, and more — you should have a few ready whenever you’re cooking anything.
Read more: The Classic Restaurant Towel That Every Home Cook Should Know
10. This towel, more specifically.
11. Keep go-to tools out in the open, within reach.
Chefs don’t have time to go hunting in a drawer for a whisk while they have sauces coming to a boil. And neither do you! Keep your most-used tools and cookware out in the open, so that you can grab it at a moment’s notice. That means whisks, spatulas, and spoons in a crock by the stove. And maybe even some cookware on an open shelf or a pegboard.
12. Label and date everything.
Label every single storage container you fill up, so you know what is inside and when you put it there. Bonus tip: Keep masking tape and a Sharpie marker on hand for this very purpose. The ones linked above have been designed to last in cold temps, so you can even use them with containers headed for the freezer. We think that both of these tools are so important, they made our list of Kitchn Essentials consecutively.
13. Alphabetize your spices.
This one is simple: Know your alphabet and you’ll always know where your smoked paprika is in your pantry!
Read more: The Brilliant (but Easy!) Spice Organizing Tip I Got from a Pro Chef
14. Live by this cleaning mantra.
“If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” Front-of-house managers love to say this to anyone who might look like they’re slacking off on the job. It’s a tad bit snarky, but it’s true. If you have time to scroll on your phone while you wait for the pasta water to boil, consider using that time to wash up some dishes, put ingredients away, or even clean out the fridge.
Related: 5 Things You Should Clean While You Wait for Pasta Water to Boil
15. Set up zones.
Professional kitchens are divided up into zones: There may be a salad station, a meat station, an apps station, a dessert station, etc. While you don’t need all of those, you need the general idea. For example, if you have one area that you always use for baking, you can store baking supplies and ingredients nearby, making your life a little bit easier. Keep meat prep to one area, too, and that’s less to sanitize later.
16. Create an “end-of-shift” routine.
Every restaurant shift ends with some sort of chore list. Chefs clean their areas, mop the floors, and prep some ingredients things for the morning shift. The front-of-house staff has a list of chores too. The goal is to essentially shut down the space for the night so that it’s crisp and ready to go the next morning. The same idea can be done at home: Wipe down counters, sweep the floors, run the dishwasher, and put errant items away. Morning You will appreciate your efforts.
17. Never leave a room empty-handed.
This is a big one for waitstaff. The idea in restaurants is that a server should never leave a dining room without bringing in empty plates and never leave the kitchen without bringing food out. At home, this means you should always be relocating the things that don’t belong. Meaning, don’t leave the kitchen without grabbing your keys that need to back on the hall table.
Read more: The Easy-to-Follow Restaurant Rule That Keeps My Entire House in Order
18. Clean as you go.
A pro chef would never wait until the end of dinner service to clean up their area. And neither should you. Wipe up spills as they happen, put things away as you use them, load dishes into the dishwasher as you’re done with them, etc.
19. And use a garbage bowl.
Rachael Ray made this popular, but lots of chefs us a garbage bowl to collect food scraps as they work. At the very least, make sure your trash can is easily accessible.
20. Follow the “FIFO” rule.
Short for first in/first out, FIFO ensures that you’re using up the stuff that’s closer to going back before you start with the new stuff. If you line up that new six-pack of Greek yogurt behind the ones you already have in the fridge, you’ll never be surprised by an expiration date.
21. Mise en place your cleaning supplies
The French term mise en place translates to “putting in place.” It usually refers to prepping ingredients and having everything ready to go before you start cooking, but you can mise en place when it comes to cleaning, too. It just requires gathering all of your materials ahead of time (think: sprays, dusters, rags, sponges, etc.) and knocking out all of your pre-cleaning prep in one fell swoop. This makes for a more efficient cleaning session and can even make tasks feel less overwhelming.
22. Make sure people know your systems.
As great as any organizing system may be, it only takes one person in your household to ruin it. Give everyone a tour of your system — how the dishwasher should be loaded, where things go in the pantry, how your pot organizer works, etc. And don’t be afraid to label shelves if you think your family could use a gentle reminder of where things go.
23. Assume things are dirtier than they are.
That fork you didn’t use the last time you went out to eat? It was still washed after you left. While that may be an extreme example for your family, it’s definitely a good one if you’re having people over this summer — especially these days. Wash everything and don’t touch where people’s mouths have been (cups, flatware heads, etc.).
24. Use rice to clean narrow-necked bottles.
Of course bartenders figured out a trick to cleaning narrow-necked bottles that don’t really work with bottle brushes! Use some rice!
Read more: You Need to Know This Brilliant Bartender Trick to Cleaning Out Glass Bottles
25. Use white vinegar as a cleaning supply.
Donald Counts, national executive chef of City Winery, swears by simple white vinegar for taking care of faucets with hard-water buildup. “Put some vinegar in a sandwich bag and use a rubber band to attach it to the faucet, then let it sit overnight and rinse in the morning,” he suggests.
Read more: The Very First Thing You Should Do With a New Bottle of Vinegar
26. Throw down a cushy kitchen mat.
This isn’t exactly a cleaning or organizing tip, but it sure is important. Pro kitchens have special grippy, cushy mats throughout to increase traction and comfort. Put a cute one in front of your sink, oven, or wherever you tend to stand at the counter.
Buy: Kitchen Mats, from $79 at House of Noa
27. Marry ingredients when possible.
It happens to the best of us: We’re so careful with our FIFO rule but then someone comes along and opens something without checking to see if there was already an open version. (Looking at you, ketchup-lovers!) Many restaurants marry their ketchups together and it’s a great way to save space in the fridge.
28. Keep salt cellars and pepper grinders full at all times.
You don’t want to reach for salt or pepper only to find out that you’ve run out. While you probably don’t need to refill these things nightly (if you do, we need to talk), make sure you pay attention and check levels every now and then.
29. Store scoops and utensils with or near your containers.
When chefs store sauces in those deli containers (remember from way back at the top of this post?), they’ll use a spoon to dole some out and then leave the spoon in the container or nearby for the rest of the service. You can steal the idea and keep scoops in (or ON!) your canisters.
Read more: This Simple Hack Will Make Your Baking Canisters a Million Times More Useful
30. Don’t settle for clean enough.
You know that stainless steel skillet or baking sheet that always has brown, splotchy spots? Most pro chefs would not settle for that level of “eh, it’s clean enough.” (The Health Inspector probably wouldn’t either.) Take the time to clean your stuff the right way. It will result in better-tasting food and longer-lasting gear.
Related: How To Clean Stainless Steel Pots and Pans
Got anything else to add to this list? Leave your tips in the comments below!