By Kevin Gibbons
Many years ago, when I started going to restaurants a few notches above the local chain diners, I noticed something about the menus. There would be some number of entrees, maybe six or seven, usually a couple beef and fish, one or two chicken, and the obligatory vegetarian option (which was typically some sort of pasta dish – fortunately, many of today’s restaurants are branching out on that front). What I found interesting was that while the main items differed, the side dishes were all very similar. Every meal came with roasted potatoes and mixed grilled vegetables, or rice and leafy greens. I thought about that and realized that it was not a coincidence. These restaurants were intentionally planning their meals that way.
When I say “run your kitchen like a restaurant,” I’m not talking about installing a $10,000 gas range, or yelling at your family like some crazed celebrity chef. There are two things most restaurant kitchens do, that if we follow in our own kitchens, will make our lives much easier and save us some money and time to boot.
Vary the main dish and standardize the side dishes
As I mentioned above, many restaurants serve the same side dishes with most of their entrees. This helps them two ways. First, it simplifies meal preparation, allowing the staff to focus on what the customer is most interested in, the steak, or fish or stuffed chicken. Second, it allows the restaurant to operate more cost effectively by preparing and using those ingredients in bulk, cutting down on waste. They can prepare a big pan of mashed potatoes, knowing they will use it with many dishes over the course of the night. They can julienne cut ten pounds of vegetables for quick sautéing and if they have any left over, they will keep for the next day.
How can you make use of this idea in your own home? I’m not suggesting you force your family to eat zucchini five nights in a row (although I do happen to have a bunch of different recipes for preparing zucchini…). But you can identify a small number of “go-to” side dishes that you can prepare out of your pantry and mix and match with your main courses. This just means you don’t have to develop entire meal menus for each day. If you have a stock of staples like rice, pasta, polenta, lentils, you can mix them throughout the week and put the bulk of your energy (and grocery spending) into the main entrée. Conversely, when I find a good deal on a particular main item, like pork chops, we may have those pork chops two or three times in a week, but with different side dishes to keep the meals from getting boring. The key is that the “different side dishes” are part of my standard repertoire, so they don’t take extra planning, shopping trips or effort to prepare.
In our book Living the Savvy Life and in the classes we teach, one of the pointers we give is to have several “go-to” recipes, meals you can make when you are tired or short on time. This is just a follow-on to that idea. By having several go-to side dishes in your back pocket, you can create interesting meals with less effort and money spent.
Mise en Place
Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, presentation kitchens were all the rage in California. These were restaurants set up so the customers could see into the kitchen while their food was being prepared.
It’s fallen somewhat out of fashion, as restaurants realized that the imported Italian tile they put all over the wall to make it look neat was hard to clean, expensive and didn’t really add to the value of the meals they were producing. But it provided a fascinating window in to how professional kitchens are run, and how good and bad practices affect the operation of a kitchen. One thing I noticed about well-run professional kitchens is that they do tend to be crowded. Whether it is a solo operation or a big production with a staff of twenty, every space is crammed with ingredients and equipment. This makes sense. Any space that is not used for customers to dine in is not making money. People, equipment and ingredients have to be well-organized and efficient or the quality and throughput suffers.
A well-run, organized kitchen will have everything the line cook needs within hand’s reach. All the pans, ladles, ingredients and cooking surfaces are set up so the cook does not have to waste time and energy moving to get things. The basic concept for this comes from French cooking institutions. “Mise en place” can be translated as “everything in its place.” Following this one ideal can be earth-shattering for someone who may be a little less organized. From an ease of cooking standpoint, knowing where your pots and pans are, where to get your measuring cups, wooden spoons and knives when you need them, can be transformative. Following these organization practices allows you to remain focused on the actual cooking, rather than having to constantly shift between cooking and “search and rescue” missions as you dig through cupboards looking for the flour as your “melted” butter is browning, bubbling and foaming.
But this idea is more than just organizing your cupboard and pantry. It also includes pulling out the recipe ahead of time, assembling, preparing and measuring the ingredients and staging them, so when you need them, they are right there ready to use. It’s the difference between pulling a garlic bulb out of the pantry, calculating how many cloves you need because the recipe is for 6, but you’re serving 10, peeling and mincing the garlic while the chopped onions are burning in the pan and tossing your pre-measured, pre-minced garlic in with the onions at the precise moment they turn clear, like it says in the recipe.
Organizing your kitchen and ingredients certainly makes meal preparation easier, and more enjoyable. But it can also save you time and money. If your pantry is crowded and disorganized, you may not know you have three opened, partially used packages of corn starch. So what do you do? Just to be safe, you buy a new package for the gravy you’re going to make with the lamb roast next Sunday. Or, you are sure you have corn starch, but when it comes time to make that gravy, you can’t find it, so you send someone on an emergency run to the nearest (more expensive) grocery store to get a pack before the gravy is ruined. (In all honesty, I have done both of these things!) Having your cupboards organized, and organizing all your ingredients before you start cooking will save you time, money and blood pressure points.
Running your kitchen like a restaurant, or more precisely, taking certain aspects of running a restaurant kitchen and incorporating them into your own home kitchen, is not hard. Developing a small number of standard side dishes and practicing good kitchen organization will make your life easier, saving both time and money.
Kevin Gibbons is a Cash Flow Planning Expert, the Vice President of The Savvy Life and co-author of the international bestseller Living The Savvy Life. For the past eight years, Kevin and Savvy Life Founder Melissa Tosetti have worked with over 545 individuals and families to create Spending Plans.
They also work with financial advisors and their clients doing cash flow planning as well as giving Savvy Living presentations via webinar and in-person to audiences across the U.S.
To learn more about how Kevin and Melissa work with clients, visit The Savvy Life’s Programs Page.
If you’d like to learn more about how they work with financial advisors and their clients visit: The Savvy Life Advisor’s Page