5 Smart Organizing Ideas to Steal from This Diner Chef

updated Jul 22, 2020
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Cooks In A Restaurant's Kitchen
Credit: Sergio Marcos/Stocksy

We are endlessly fascinated with diners. Somehow, these restaurant kitchens seem to have a grocery store’s worth of food stocked and ready to be cooked at a moment’s notice — only these spaces are usually teeny-tiny! How do the talented cooks make it all work? To get a little peek, we spoke to professional chef Trinidad Ocotl, who currently works as the manager of Monty’s Blue Plate Diner in Madison, Wisconsin. Ocotl has been in the restaurant industry for nearly 20 years and has logged more hours in the kitchen than most of us ever will. 

Ocotl and his crew serve up everything from challah French toast to falafel wraps. Here are his top tricks for keeping everything in order — they’re all worth stealing for your own kitchen.

Credit: Devon Jarvis

1. Install a pegboard.

Ocotl tells us the first thing he does every time he’s in charge of a new kitchen: “Whenever I start at a new place, I go and buy a pegboard and use hooks to hang all the tools on the wall, so I don’t lose things in the drawers.” He does the same thing at home. Being able to see exactly what he has and, more importantly, exactly where everything is, enables him to focus his energy on cooking rather than shuffling through drawers. 

Our pick: Azar Pegboard, $37 for two

Credit: Diana Liang

2. Shop your pantry and fridge first.

Ocotl always checks what he has before he orders more. He does this both at the restaurant and at home. And he uses what he has on hand when he plans what he’ll make to ensure that nothing goes to waste. While this may seem more like a money tip (and it certainly is), it’s also a savvy way to make sure you aren’t saddled with having to organize more than you need if you accidentally buy multiples or have an overflowing produce bin and no idea what to make with it. 

Credit: Rachel Jacks

3. Stock up on a few (high-quality) tools. 

In keeping with his use-everything approach, Ocotl is a gadget minimalist. He prefers to have one thing that works really well than multiples that only work satisfactorily. Put succinctly, he advises, “Have one good thing that works well and that will last.” This principle applies to cutting boards, containers, knives, and more. Ocotl says he used to have way too many knives at home, but has whittled down his collection to one that he enjoys reaching for, for whatever the cutting task: “But it’s a really good knife.” 

Again, the organizing component of this tip might seem buried, but it’s no less effective. Having fewer items means more space, which is a core component of any successful organizing solution, and ultimately translates to far less time organizing, looking for, and putting away various items. Gather up anything you don’t use or don’t love to use and donate it, give it to friends, or toss it.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. Stick to just one kind of container.

Simplifying your food storage goes a long way in keeping it organized. Ocotl has gone to what some of us would consider an extreme by using only one type of container. “I put everything in one [kind of container] and that way I don’t have random lids and bottoms that don’t work together floating around.” Sound familiar? Cutting down your collection of food storage containers can go a long way in creating order. 

Related: I’ve Tested Nearly Every Food Storage Container on the Market. This Is a List of the Best of the Best.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

5. Make sure people know your systems.

As great as any organizing system may be, Ocotl says it only takes one person to ruin it. (Whether that’s other cooks at the diner or your roommates who have no regard for your clear-but-easy-to-ignore labels.) 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. “This way everyone knows where everything is and can jump in at any point,” Ocotl says. As the “head of the kitchen” in my own home, I loved these final words: “Have everybody do it the same way so it’s efficient. Lots of heads but one brain.”