Truly Useful Chef Jargon

It’s not about looking cool. Understanding these terms can make you a better cook.

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If you’re a civilian reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s cookbook Prune, certain parts may have you scratching your head, and that’s by design. A facsimile of the grease-spattered recipe binder most every real restaurant has kicking around, it lacks an introduction and is rife with terms unique to professional kitchens. The effect transports the reader into the mind of an eager-to-please line or prep cook, someone who needs to quickly learn the geography and pecking order of a small republic, with all its quirks and taboos. Because that’s what a restaurant kitchen is—its own closed ecosystem, with its own culture and hierarchy.

In that republic, chefs and cooks have their own language. Just like any industry, the jargon of kitchens serves two purposes: it makes communication easier, because it creates a lexicon specific to the setting. It also signifies belonging. For a wet-behind-the-ears cook, fluency in kitchen-speak means having made it through the hazing as a newbie. It means you (kind of ) know your stuff. Those goofy words like “tamis” and “Robot Coupe” that once signified exclusion now indicate inclusion.

Maybe you’ve heard such words spoken with a swagger on cooking shows. Maybe you’ve read them in gnarly kitchen memoirs. I know them from my own days in professional kitchens, and they’re still a meaningful part of my vocabulary, because they represent methods and philosophies that make cooking in any kitchen more pleasurable and successful. (A tamis, by the way, is a big screen in a ring, used for sifting dry ingredients or for separating the stringy bits from a finely-textured forcemeat; a Robot Coup is a heavy-duty food processor that far surprasses the capabilities of even the most stalwart Cuisinart.)

I asked my chef buddies to offer the jargon they use from day to day, and that, combined with my own work experience in kitchens ranging from immaculate and nasty, makes up this list. If you love to cook, it’s not necessary to memorize this, but it is good to know that these terms exist, because some of them can be helpful to your own cooking—or at least, general kitchen organization.

Mise en Place


This is the chef’s mantra. In French, it means “put in place,” and it refers to having ingredients and tools clean and ready to go before you launch into the act of cooking.

The instant a fledgling cook dons a toque, their chef will pound mise en place into their brain cells. Eventually, it will infiltrate their DNA, as it should, because there’s no way to function in the high-pressure environment of a professional kitchen without the bedrock of mise en place.

Having little prep bowls of precisely minced garlic and parsley before you put your sauté pan on the heat is part of mise en place, but it begins way before that. It’s a mental thing. It’s about leaving bad juju at the door when you get to work. It’s about having a clean apron and a sharp knife. It’s about taking small moments to tidy up so you stay ahead of the game.

When I taught a cooking class recently, after reflexively telling the students that the mise en place for every recipe was already set out on sheet pans, I realized people might not know what the hell I was talking about. So I asked if anyone had heard of mise en place before, and when only four or five hands out of twelve went up, I immediately felt like an arrogant jerk. I explained briefly, but mise en place is like Othello: a minute to learn, a lifetime to master. The good thing is that every time you go into the kitchen, you and your mise en place have a fresh, blank slate.

FIFO: First In, First Out.


Anyone who’s worked in a retail situation should be familiar with this acronym, and it’s especially important in foodservice situations. When you receive a new delivery of anything—perishable or not—shelve the newest product behind the oldest one.

In your own home, implementing FIFO cuts down on waste and saves space—say goodbye to multiple open jars of pickles and mustard clogging up the fridge. When you haul a load of groceries in, think FIFO. The new carton of milk goes in the back of the fridge until the old one gets used up. The new mesh bag of onions goes unopened until you finish off the stragglers from the last bag. The challenge with FIFO is getting all of the residents of the household on board; you know, they who open the new jar of mayo before the last few dabs are scraped out of the old jar. And good luck with that.

Product


Ingredients. This impersonal way of talking about luscious cheeses, free-range meats, and locally-grown produce might seems frosty, but it represents a mindset that is constantly aware of food cost. The more wisely a chef utilizes product, the lower the food cost, and the higher their profit. Maximum utilization of product takes staff time, which dips into labor costs, but with a smart, efficient staff, it should all come out in the wash.

Squeezing every possible use from product as deliciously as possible is where the true art of managing staff and menu shine. It sounds prosaic, but it’s where the rubber meets the road. Any chef who respects food and the people who create it will have their staff stockpiling bacon grease and chiffonading lettuce cores. (This is where the Prune cookbook really shines—it offers a glimpse of how mise en place, FIFO, and food cost are inextricably fused. It’s about spinning what lesser cooks thing of garbage into gold—literally. Great chefs don’t thow money away, and that means they throw away the least amount of product.)

Walk-in


True, most residences don’t have a walk-in, which is the refrigerator that’s so big it’s a room you can walk into. Not even all restaurants do. But the fastest way to suss out a foodservice establishment’s level of functionality is to peek into their walk-in. Is the floor clean? Are all of the containers of food clearly marked with a label and date? Are the boxes of produce accessible? Are poultry, fish, and meat stored properly on different shelves, with the poultry on the bottom shelf? (Let’s hope so, because that’s the kind of storage that lessens opportunities for cross-contamination.)

The walk-in is where the best FIFO intentions go to die. When a delivery of food arrives, often it’s the most underling of underlings who gets tasked with stowing it all away; in a sad restaurant with a crappy chef, these people never get proper training, and so they shove giant cartons and cases of product in there willy-nilly. The result? You can never find what you are looking for, and your food rots. I’ve worked in places where it was barely possible to even walk into the walk-in, so nightmarish was its state. Those are the places you don’t want to work at, and those are the places you hope not to eat at.

Reach-in


The refrigerator that’s not a walk-in. Oftentimes, the reach-in refers to a small, dorm-sized refrigerator located on the hot line, close to the stoves and ovens, where line cooks store prepped meat, dairy, and veggies that they’ll need for service. Unlike a walk-in, which the entire staff of an establishment uses, it’s typical for only a small handful of staff to use any one reach-in.

Flattop


A griddle built into a range. And a griddle is a big, flat, continuous surface (unlike a grill, which has grates and flames which lick through those grates to produce visible char.) A flattop is very handy for making dozens of pancakes or griddling multiple grilled cheese sandwiches at once.

Remouillage


A stock made with the bones strained out of a prior batch of stock; remouillage means “rewetting” in French. A remouillage isn’t as rich and flavorful as a stock made with fresh bones and aromatics, but it’s a good way to maximize ingredients to get a stock that’s well-suited as a background player.

At the restaurant where my friend worked, they always had a primary stock going, as well as a remouillage, which they called the “remi.” When my crazy roommate at the time began brewing new coffee with used grounds, I started calling that the remi. That was gross. As for a legit remi, the kind made not with spent coffee grounds but with pre-simmered bones, it’s unlikely any home cooks will run into a situation where making one makes sense, but the mindset of thrift that it represents is valuable.

Hustle


A sense of urgency; the ability to prioritize tasks and respond quickly to what’s most important at any given moment. Having hustle does not mean a person is loud, or rushes through things, or is Type A asshole. My old co-worker Molly moved with slow, laconic grace of a stoner. Somehow, she was always done with her work first, despite never having appeared to have lifted a finger. “Hey, Sara, can I help you prep those two dozen cases of leeks?” she’d say after she’d mysteriously blazed through her tasks, her chef’s whites immaculate and her knife work bar-none. That’s hustle.

A cook can have the most incredible palate on earth, but if they do not have hustle, they are not very useful in a kitchen.

In the Weeds


Very far behind; order tickets pile up, and there you are, gasping for air, perhaps literally putting out fires. Good mise en place and hustle will help prevent getting in the weeds, but sometimes it’s beyond anyone’s control—there can be an unanticipated rush in the dining room, or a late delivery, or maybe a co-worker got burned or cut. Whatever the case, the weeds is a very bad place to be.

Montée au beurre


“To mount butter.” This is not kitchen-speak for a sexy move, unless you find adding butter to a sauce a little bit at a time arousing. I don’t, but I do think it’s sensual—the act and the results.

By mounting a few tablespoons of cold butter into a simple reduction of simmering pan juices right before serving, you lend them body and richness. When done right, the butter and the reduction emulsify, creating a luxurious sauce right on the spot.

Fond


Those brown crusties clinging to the bottom of your pan after you saute onions or brown meat or mushrooms? That’s where the flavor is. In French it’s called the fond, or base. Don’t throw away that flavor. It’s the foundation of your sauce or soup. The husband of a friend of mine calls these “the burny bits,” or “the flavor crystals.”

To unlock the fond, deglaze the pan with a flavorful liquid, usually wine or stock. When the pan’s still hot, add the liquid and scape the fond with a wooden spoon. Crank up the heat to reduce the volume of the liquid, and presto! There’s the flavorful foundation of your soup, stew, or sauce. (For extra credit, you may montée au beurre.)

Chunks of black crud, the kind left in a pan after you sear something over very high heat, are not fond; they are carbon. Let that pan soak in the sink; don’t put the crud into your sauce.

Griswold


A giant cast-iron skillet, like 20-some inches across. This term is a confusing bastardization, because Griswold was actually a Michigan-based manufacturer of cast iron. The company is defunct now, but their cookware is valued both in kitchens and among collectors. (Also, it has nothing to do with Chevy Chase and his filmic family’s misadventures.)

How “griswold” became a generic term for a skillet large enough to brown an entire goose in beats me, but I’ll never forget seeing a chef shout at a new cook, “Get me the griswold!” The poor kid, already terrified with new-guy jitters, disappeared for a moment before returning with something ridiculous, like a cooling rack. He was too scared to ask the chef what a griswold was. The chef then shouted at the kid even more. I was a new cook, too, and now griswold is seared on my memory.

I remember this story to remind myself that, while jargon is fun to say, it can also make you look like a huge dick.

Chinoise


In non-PC kitchens (and that is many), this tool is often called a China cap. It’s a metal conical sieve, usually with fine mesh instead of coarse holes, and it’s extremely helpful for straining stocks and sauces. Few home cooks have a chinoise because few home cooks cook up gallons of brown veal stock and reduce it to a quart of glace de veau.

Calling this thing a chinoise in an English-speaking kitchen is a workaround, perhaps to avoid Orientalist offensiveness, but the French term’s English translation is…China cap. It looks more like a clown hat to me.

Purveyor


Any person or company that sells products to a foodservice establishment. SYSCO is one; U.S. Foods is another.

“Behind you”


Kitchens can be hectic, crowded places. Imagine riding the subway at rush hour. Now imagine riding the subway at rush hour, only half of the people on the subway are holding ten-inch knives or red-hot skillets.

To avoid collisions and injuries, a kitchen’s staff needs an awareness of space and movement. When they’re on the ball, it’s a bit like a ballet; every second counts, every motion counts. But however keen your awareness of others may be, sometimes you need to give people a heads-up.

Speak-shouting “behind you” might seem curt, but it’s a codified kitchen way of saying “pardon me,” one with an implicit urgency in its phrasing. “Behind you with hot” or “coming through with a hot pan” means “I don’t want any of us to get burned, so watch it.”

Depending on the particular layout of a kitchen, these terms can vary (like “corner” if you’re coming around a corner). I used to work in a place so compact, the prep cooks had to step to the side when the line cooks opened the oven. Thus the necessity of announcing, hundreds of times a night, “oven door down.”

At home, I still say these things, though calling “hot pan headed to the sink” at the dog when I’m about to drain a pot of pasta has not been very effective, so I try to catch myself and stick to a vague “look out!” At moments like that, I miss working in professional kitchens, but then I find myself able to go pee whenever I feel like it instead of having to wait until the end of service, and I don’t miss professional kitchens.

Salamander


An awesome broiler on steroids. Unlike a home ranges, whose ovens have a broiler setting, a salamander is a separate piece of equipment for broiling only. Usually, a salamander is installed up above the stove.

You know how, at restaurants, your fancy macaroni and cheese arrives at the table actively bubbling and perfectly golden-brown on top? And know how it’s nearly impossible to duplicate that exactly with a crummy oven broiler at home? A salamander is why.

The name salamander is curious, because a narrow unit of licking gas flames that reach up to 1,500 degrees F has little in common with a tiny, creek-dwelling amphibian. Before broiler-style salamanders, the go-to equipment for caramelizing and searing was an iron on a long handle—the original salamander. The iron went into the fire, like a brand for cattle, and then the chef pressed it into surface of the food. The story goes that salamanders (the amphibians) were long ago thought to be impervious to fire because they lived in dampness, so perhaps the name originated that way.

Expediter


The person in a kitchen who calls out to the line cooks when to start making certain dishes. Not all kitchens have an expediter, but it’s a very important position in a restaurant that has an intricate, multi-course menu. The expediter makes sure a table’s entrées are all ready at once, no matter how long or short it takes to cook and plate them. They’re a bit like a conductor or an air traffic controller. It’s not an easy job.

Executive Chef, Sous Chef and Chef de Cuisine


These positions vary, depending on the establishment and its size. In general, an executive chef is the boss of the place, the top of the kitchen totem pole. They create the menu, or oversee its creation.

The sous chef is in charge of the boots on the ground. They are the second in command, and they may or may not create some of the dishes on the menu.

There’s some crossover between sous chef and chef de cuisine. Usually a chef de cuisine will expedite during service, and they manage the nitty-gritty ins and outs of the kitchen operations.

Family Meal


Not all restaurants serve a family meal, but it’s a sign that they value their staff. Family meal is usually before or after service—like 4:30 in the afternoon, or after 10 at night. It’s the meal that the staff cooks for itself; usually a prep or line cook gets tasked with this as a way to keep bellies full, morale high, food waste low, and team spirit robust. This time is for everyone on staff (or, at very least, the kitchen staff) to sit down together and eat—a rare opportunity to relax a bit and prepare mentally and physically for the next chapter of the evening. Serving a family meal is not cheap, but it goes a long way in building loyalty. That means fewer instances of internal theft (meat and liquor are two popular targets) and an increased feeling that hey, maybe the place really does care about me.

When you spend 12 to 14 hours a day in a hot, enclosed space with the same people for weeks on end, you develop a shorthand that’s not just about economy of words. It’s a speech of inside jokes and bizarre portmanteau, a land where you can say “remi” and it makes total sense. In kitchens on cruise ships and the narrow bellies below New York City sidewalks and the sprawling commissaries of desert casino resorts, a whole army of people are at this moment uttering dialects of the same mother tongue, all so you can have your seafood cassoulet or foie gras terrine arrive at your table with speed, grace, and a poetry that you will taste, but never truly hear unless you’ve lived it with them.

Sara Bir is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has appeared in Saveur, Best Food Writing 2014, and Modern Farmer. She is Paste’s food editor.

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