This is a written adaptation of my Culinary Services class.
A lot of the service that comes from the kitchen really happens in the planning. Things to consider:
- Meal plans and types. Consider different types of meal plans. You can have it recur by week, two week cycle, or even by month, and have it repeat categories (chicken, pasta, beef, breakfast for dinner) or specific meals. Or, you can set a plan each week or so.
- Menus and balance. Consider each menu (per meal) and be sure to consider the balance and compatibility of sides, drinks, and desserts. This can include flavor profiles, nutrition, and how filling the combination is.
- Inventory. A spreadsheet of what’s in stock in the kitchen (and information such as at what supply level to buy more, how much to buy maximum, etc.) can be a very valuable tool. It does, however, need to be maintained. A simple version some people use is a list posted on the fridge of what’s inside, to avoid looking with the door open (wasting cold air) and to remind you to use perishable items.
- Shopping and master lists. The master shopping list is a list of basically everything you buy on any kind of recurring basis. Add items from your shopping lists and examine what you keep in the house to form the master list. Divide it by category and arrange it in the physical department order of the store you shop at (or, make multiple copies for different stores). When making your list for that shopping trip, just run down the master list (and meal plan if needed) in comparison to what you have in stock. This is a good alternative to a traditional inventory. And generally make sure you plan and shop efficiently.
- Coupons and sales. Check the mail or the Internet for coupons and sales at applicable stores. There are extensions that will add coupons automatically online and stores that let you load digital coupons onto your membership card (or by phone number). Sort physical coupons and don’t forget them when it’s time to shop. Keep an eye open for sales and promotions in store.
- Keep a price book to compare the average price for the same item at different stores. This is best for items you buy a lot of. What does a gallon of milk cost at each of your top grocery stores? And be sure to consider price per unit (price per ounce, not box, say). Buy items where they’re cheapest unless some other factor takes priority. Buying in bulk if you’ll really use it can save a lot of money.
- Pick good items. Know how to spot a good piece of produce, cut of meat, etc. Know what the best versions of the items you buy really look like. Also, prioritizing quality over price for kitchen items in the short term can save you money later when you don’t have to replace it as quickly.
- Clear old foods. Make it part of your routine to clear expired food from the kitchen. If there are items that are perfectly good but you’re not going to use, especially non perishables, consider donating them.
- Use leftovers carefully. Plan to cook dishes that are made in larger quantities when you have more guests. If there are going to be leftovers, they might make a good lunch as is, or perhaps you can use pieces of them in a new way (shredding leftover chicken to add to chicken soup couldn’t be easier).
- Use few ingredients. Try to use the same few ingredients in a variety of ways, instead of buying a bunch of specialty items (especially perishables) that can only be used for one meal. Salt and pepper, some flour, vegetable and olive oil will get you pretty far by themselves. It saves money, simplifies shopping, and makes you have less last minute inventory mishaps.
- Make meals ahead of time. Meal prep can save a lot of time in the long run, and is great for the sort of thing you can prep one day, and eat easily all week. Crock pot recipes are good for this, and meal prep is popular for lunches especially.
- Consider the timing and resources you need for each meal. Being able to get all the components of the meal on the table on time is a hugely overlooked cooking skill, but it’s extremely important. Whether it’s multiple courses, an entree and a side dish, or even just the concept of “dinner”, make sure to set your timers, not get too distracted, and keep each dish on track. When planning, consider your resources. You probably have a finite amount of oven space (and one temperature you can set it to), and a finite number of burners on the stove, at the least. Make sure you’re not planning two side dishes that both need radically different oven temps at the same time.
- Backup plans. Have one. Have three. There are plenty of nights I get dinner on the table on time and say, “This was dinner plan number four.” Whether something went bad earlier than expected, someone else used a needed ingredient first, a guest with a dietary restriction RSVPs last minute—have a backup plan. Or four.
- Organize favorite recipes. Sort them by diet, meal, or main ingredient. Consider adding any useful information like how many it serves.
- Organize the kitchen itself. Keep the kitchen clean and in order, with everything having a proper place that makes sense and is convenient to use.
- Replicate favorite recipes. If the person you’re serving has a favorite order from a restaurant, a beloved grocery store premade item, a long time family recipe, a preferred way of making something—learn how to make that item that way. There are great knockoff recipes for most restaurant chain menu items and grocery store brands online.
Methods of preserving food to look into if you want to store things longer.
- Canning. This is good for sauces, jams and jellies, broths and stocks, things along the liquid lines (and a few others). It’s relatively simple, and a great way to preserve things you made yourself (and making some of those items is a great way of using up extras and making it to your preferences).
- Drying. This can be used for items like fruit chips, meat jerkies, so on. You can use a dehydrator or the oven if you do it right.
- Sealing. Proper vacuum sealing is relatively simple and a good first step in preserving many items, especially meats. This goes well with:
- Freezing. Many things keep longer simply by sticking it in the freezer, especially if it’s airtight. Meats, yes, but also made ahead doughs and even already baked goods, and other items.
Top allergens to be aware of in the needs of the person you’re serving and their guests. There are many other dietary restrictions to be aware of (whether they be moral preference, religious, sensitivity, weight loss, medical need, etc.) but these tend to be the most common, and sometimes dangerous.
- Milk. Note that most of the adult population is lactose intolerant to some extent, though this is different than an actual milk allergy. A cow milk allergy is, however, one of the most common childhood allergies, though most cases outgrow it. Many products contain dairy that are not labeled with “milk” as an ingredient, but contain dairy additives, so know what to look for on a label with this allergy and all others.
- Eggs. This one is again common in children, though it’s frequently outgrown. Also, some are allergic to only egg whites or egg yolks, or are okay with cooked eggs in another product (eggs in baked goods, for instance). Be aware of the distinctions.
- Fish. Fish is a common and serious allergy, and it also sometimes surfaces later in life, with adult onset.
- Crustacean shellfish. This tends to be a lifelong allergy, and it’s recommended that people with this allergy are also not around the product while it’s cooked. (This is true with some others, too. Bear in mind.)
- Tree nuts. This is a particularly deadly allergy and a particularly common one, and definitely something to be very aware of.
- Peanuts. Peanut allergies are also particularly dangerous and particularly common. It is also more common in children.
- Wheat. Wheat and gluten are not exactly the same, though the words gluten free and Celiac’s have become more and more common. Wheat allergies are also more common in children. Note that those with wheat allergies (and others) can have a reaction from cross contamination, not just eating the item directly. If you cook a regular pancake, and then cook a wheat free pancake in the same pan, the person eating the wheat free pancake can still have an allergic reaction.
- Soybeans. Another common childhood allergy, soy is a common ingredient even where you might not expect it, so read labels carefully.
Always talk to the person in question about what is okay for them.
Some basic recommendations as you get going in culinary service.
- Own and maintain proper supplies. Trying to cook in an understocked kitchen is annoying and can even be dangerous. Many kitchen items can be found cheap and lightly used. And once you own items, make sure they’re properly cleaned and maintained.
- Use proper safety precautions. Wear disposable gloves when handling raw meats (and don’t cross contaminate). (With gloves, mind any latex allergies.) Aprons and oven mitts will help protect you from burns and splashes. Keeping your hair up if needed keeps hair out of food.
- Know how to use a knife and cutting board safely. Also, keep your knives sharpened, and your wood cutting boards oiled. Dull knives are actually much more dangerous than sharp knives! Remember to keep raw meat cutting boards separate, and ideally plastic ones.
- Trust recipes if you’re new. There are very few Fake Recipes out there. There are not many Alternative Ingredient Lists. Recipes are not usually there to deceive you. When you’re just starting out, trust recipes. Follow them carefully, and things much more rarely go wrong. As you learn more cooking principles, you can start to add more of your own style.
- On that note, substitute carefully if you do. Know that some ingredients are not swapped for equal measurements (a cup of regular flour might be substituted with a cup and a quarter of a gluten free flour, etc.) Know that baking powder and baking soda are not the same thing. Oils and butters are vastly different. Know what that substitution does, if you do have to make it.
- Learn basic meals first. Knowing how to make a wide, common breakfast menu of even toast, bagels, pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, so on, is going to be much more useful and versatile than perfecting one or a few recipes that most people can’t pronounce or comprehend. There’s plenty of time for those more impressive dishes later. Start with basics and favorites.
The easiest way to lose a second chance at culinary service: food poisoning. The best way to avoid it: cook everything to proper temperatures. Check everything properly with a thermometer. The USDA recommends minimal internal temperatures of:
- Ham/Beef/Veal/Pork/Seafood/Lamb: 145*F/~63*C. Now, there’s definitely a range here on some things, especially for items like medium rare or rare steaks. But this is the official recommendation.
- All Poultry: 165*F/~74*C. There isn’t really wiggle room here. Don’t get salmonella. You can still cook juicy chicken with an internal temp of way over 165*F.
- Ground Meat (Non Poultry): 160*F/~71*C. Grinding up meat redistributes bacteria that is usually surface level, and means it must be cooked to a higher temperature.
Presentation and Service
Largely aesthetic pieces to consider as you get to meal time.
- When plating, consider your use of any sauces, as they can add a lot aesthetically and there are a lot of plating methods to choose from. Keep in mind visual texture (though you’ll want to keep your most moist components at the bottom of the plate, so it doesn’t leak through) as well as color.
- Consider adding height to the plate by stacking elements. Odd numbers of items (three, five, seven, so on) tends to grab visual interest better than even numbers (two, four, six). If you’re not going for adding height, “fanning” slices of meat is an appealing option.
- Keep any garnishes edible to avoid confusion.
- Bear in mind the “clock plate”. This is a common idea that says you should look at your plate like a clock, and place veggies from 12-3, proteins from 3-9, and carbs from 9-12. At the very least, main dish closest to the diner is practical.
- Remember to set out drinks and any desired condiments in an attractive manner.
- On that note, there’s a lot you can do aesthetically with butter, a common table need. Consider balls (using a melon baller or dasher to create balls of whipped butter), curls (using a butter knife scraped along the top of a stick of butter), or piped shapes (using softened butter and a frosting piping kit).
- Use real, clean, matching dishes and table linens where you can. Consult a table chart and set the table properly. You can find my chart here.
- Consider warming or cooling the plates, cups, and bowls you’ll be using. A chilled glass (just stick it in the freezer a few hours in advance, or always keep a stock ready) looks great and keeps drinks cooler longer. (You can also dip the rims in melted chocolate, then sprinkles, then freeze, for dessert drinks! There are other dipping ideas for different drinks, especially alcoholic, too.) A warm plate keeps food hot longer. A cold bowl is much better to serve ice cream in. Keep it in mind.
- Consider the whole dining atmosphere, and consider the lighting (functional but cozy is good), and low instrumental music or background noise (one of those crackling fireplace videos is usually popular).
- Utilize place cards (hand lettered/personalized is a nice touch) and centerpieces (but make sure people can see across the table). Flowers (real and fake) and candles (real and electric) are common, but there are all kinds of options. Think ornaments, string lights, and more.
- “Hug the guest”. When serving, there’s the serve from the left (with your left hand) and clear from the right (with your right hand) principle, but depending on the table layout, this may or may not always be practical. The most important part is to “hug the guest”, that part about serving with the same hand as the side you’re standing on, to kind of wrap around them and not hit them with your elbow.
Napkin Folding Guide
1. Lay napkin face down in front of you.
2. Fold the napkin up in half diagonally.
3. Point open end away from you.
4. Fold the right corner up diagonally to meet the top corner.
5. Repeat on the left.
6. Flip the napkin over, left to right.
7. Fold the lower corner up most of the way.
8. Flip the napkin over, left to right.
9. Curl both sides in, tucking one into the other.
10. Stand up.
1. Lay napkin face down in front of you.
2. Fold napkin in half downwards.
3. Fold top left corner to center of base.
4. Repeat on the right.
5. Flip left to right.
6. Fold in corners evenly. Tuck in menu, card, favor, or whatever is desired. (Bottom will be open.)
The Cutlery Holder (For Smaller Table Settings)
1. Lay napkin face up in front of you.
2. Fold in half upwards.
3. Fold in half to the left.
4. Peel one layer of upper right corner back to lower left corner.
5. Flip over vertically, downward.
6. Fold lower third in.
7. Fold top third in.
8. Orient vertically and insert cutlery/whatever is desired.
This has been my overview of culinary service basics and starting points. It’s a practical and popular service category that has a lot of potential for customization. I hope this inspires!
Also, find my top recipes here.