A linchpin to effective organization in any space is to keep what you use most close at hand and everything else in a space that makes sense. This holds true in a master closet, basement, garage and bathroom. But in no home space is this more important than in a kitchen. We talked to a couple of professional chefs about the setup in their personal kitchens and what tips they swear by when it comes to keeping that space functional.
Meet the Expert
- Stephen McDowell is executive chef at the Stephen F. Austin Royal Sonesta Hotel in Austin, TX.
- Maribel Rivero is a chef at Austin's Cocina Maribel. She was a 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist.
Look At the Space
Stephen McDowell, executive chef at the Stephen F. Austin Royal Sonesta Hotel in Austin, TX, says a top tip is to take a look around the entire kitchen before you start putting things away. “You need to think about the space as a whole and whether you will be entertaining, cooking for your family or cooking just for yourself,” McDowell says.
Make a "Mise En Place"
No matter what kind of space or layout you have in your kitchen, having what you need nearby and at the ready makes all the difference in a successful meal, whether you are a professional or a novice. “The last thing you want to be doing while you’re cooking is fumbling around looking for the spatula, tongs or spice that you need right away,” McDowell says. ”We have a saying in the kitchen — 'mise en place' — which essentially means 'put in place.' You really want to know where everything is before you start cooking.”
Keep Things Close
Having your equipment and recipe ingredients close at hand before you start cooking is definitely important, but setting up your kitchen to always have certain things nearby saves a lot of time and frustration. James Beard nominee Chef Maribel Rivero of Austin’s Cocina Maribel says even if you have space for often-used items in a pantry, if it’s close to the action, it isn’t in the right spot. Once, when visiting someone else’s kitchen she noticed the spices were conspicuously missing. “I didn't understand how the stove did not have spices and condiments in proximity to cooking. The spices were in the dry pantry almost a room away.”
Always losing track of what you do or don’t have when you are ready to get cooking? McDowell touts the benefits of having the right kind of containers for your pantry. He suggests finding stackable, clear canisters and labeling them clearing so you can easily see what you have on hand and what you need to replenish. “ In our kitchens, we use plastic 'deli' containers in pint and quart sizes that are reusable and easily stored when not in use.”
Don’t Go Overboard
The enemy of organization in any room is clutter, and the kitchen is no exception. Rivero says, “Some people have too many gadgets that are supposed to make their lives easier in the kitchen.” Turns out, they don’t. Both chefs agree more isn’t always better when trying to keep a kitchen organized and streamlined. McDowell says getting rid of useless or unnecessary equipment is a must. “No one needs an electric can opener, omelet maker, egg cooker, etc.,” he says. “Save the space these appliances would take up for free counter space to actually use while you’re cooking.”
Just the Essentials
So what do you really need? Turns out, not much. The fewer things you have to store in your kitchen, the easier it is to keep organized and clean. Rivero and McDowell each have their own lists of must-haves, with some crossover. Both put a premium on good knives that you keep sharp. “Keeping sharp knives will make your life so much easier,” says McDowell. “I always get comments when friends and family come to my house and use my knives about how much easier it is to cut things!” His other essentials include a properly calibrated thermometer, which ensures that your food is cooked to a safe temperature, and aprons. “It might sound silly to some to wear an apron at home but, as a professional chef, I wear an apron every single day in the kitchen. It will protect your clothes and skin from grease splatters and spills.”
Instead of having several items that do the same thing, invest in certain pots and pans to reduce the excess that leads to disorganization. Rivero’s list is: a stockpot; one or two saucepan; a brazier or dutch oven; one nonstick egg pan; one large nonstick pan; mixing bowls; chef’s knife; serrated knife; polyurethane cutting board for meats and fish, wood board for veggies; and a separate one for onion and garlic.
Keeping your kitchen organized means using your countertops as prep space instead of display spots. “Always keep the counters clutter-free of decorative items that are not utilitarian,” Rivero advises. “This saves time from cleaning items left on the counter that may collect dust. A clean area makes for an organized mind and makes it easier to cook.”