Kitchen Hierarchy Terminology Explained
Carol Godsmark is a restaurant journalist, critic and chef as well as being a restaurant consultant, Good Food Guide inspector and past restaurateur. So she writes from a broad range of personal experience and most importantly helps you to put yourself in your customers' shoes.
KITCHEN HIERARCHY TERMINOLOGY EXPLAINED
The professional kitchen’s cooking staff are known as the brigade. Like many kitchen words, it comes from the French and, further back, brigata, from the Italian, a company or crew, so its origins are military.
Look up the word in an Italian dictionary and ironically you’ll find it from the verb brigare, ‘to brawl, wrangle or fight’.
The ideal restaurant staff
The size of the brigade is dependent on the establishment. Many small restaurants are based on a head chef, a sous chef and/or a commis chef plus, hopefully, a kitchen porter whose job is mainly to wash up.
Or staff may be simply the chef, relying on perhaps waiting staff to help out with washing up and lesser preparations like plating desserts, prepping breads, butter and ancilliaries.
Large restaurants will have an executive chef, head chef, senior and junior sous (under, literally: French), chefs, chefs de partie (those responsible for a section of the kitchen, (eg sauces, larder, starters, mains, vegetables and desserts), demi-chefs de partie (literally half), commis (first and second) chef. A commis, a deputy or clerk, learns his or her trade from the bottom of the hierarchy. They are there to help, learn and watch.
There may also be a (rare) chef tournant, an all-purpose chef who is capable of all sections and who may be filling in for absent/holidaying chefs.
Definitions from the lowest rank to the highest rank:
Have respect for the KP, as they are affectionately known. Their job is an unenviable one of washing pots, utensils, glasses, plates – the lot – and they may also be offered the joys of prepping vegetables and washing salads. Be kind to the kitchen porter as he or she must endure repetitive tasks, which are the underpinning of the system.
The commis chef
OK, not the dream job envisaged by some but this is the job to learn by. Duties may include plating up garnishes for all courses, with some cooking involved including stocks. Depending on the size of the restaurant they may deal with stock-taking and deliveries.
Demi chef de partie
This is the next step up: running a station with more responsibilities. It is the time for the chef to prove him or herself and show a willingness to learn and work.
Chef de partie
Literally ‘head of a team’, the next quasi-military full rank up with the ability to organise other chefs. This is a managerial step up. In a small restaurant a chef de partie may be in charge of just one chef or several in a large one. Duties could include staff meals, sauces, meat and fish prep, hot starters.
This is the head chef’s immediate number two and capable of doing the head chef’s job in his or her absence. In a larger kitchen there may be a junior or senior sous chef, in a smaller one just the sous (under or sub) chef.
In a big kitchen, the sous chef virtually manages and does little cooking due to managing the kitchen, people, office work, rotas, food ordering, training: it is a position of authority. A junior sous chef is part chef, part manager.
The head chef in any sized kitchen is in charge. His or her only superior is the executive head chef who may be in charge of several restaurants, either independent ones or within a large company or establishment such as a hotel.
In a small restaurant, the chef is responsible for all cooking, ordering, management and training.
The head chef’s jobs are to create menus, write the recipes or guidelines to go with the recipes, find the best suppliers, recruit, discipline and promote staff. In the absence of a sous chef, he or she is also responsible for rotas, giving out specific jobs such as larder work, cleaning, cooking, management, and making sure the kitchen is up to scratch re hygiene and health inspections.
He or she is also responsible for reporting to overall management, discussing future strategies, any special holiday catering such as Christmas or weddings, banqueting, dealing with customer and staff issues and stocktaking checks. Liaison with front of house staff may be delegated to the sous chef.
THE KITCHEN CAREER
Depending on the type of job offered and sought after, working in a restaurant kitchen can take many directions. For a commis chef who latches onto a goal and works through a tough time, it can seem insuperable but worth it under a good head chef for this period of learning.
A commis working outside a large conurbation is part of a small brigade and works in all stations. He or she may learn more quickly – and well – if the head chef is good and eager to pass on knowledge and expertise.
In large cities and in a large restaurant/hotel a commis chef might find the whole process more daunting due to the sheer numbers in the kitchen, and will stay only if given the right treatment in the establishment. But they can move on to other restaurants crying out for staff at this level – and will if the money and treatment are better.
The fast track to learning in the business is to be a commis in a good, small restaurant with maybe four or five chefs and being introduced to all stages of cooking. Finding commis chefs who are willing to learn and committed to the job is of paramount importance, in particular to the small or medium-sized restaurant.
Financially, it is not viable to have several chefs of the same ranking unless business is booming, hence the importance of a keen (and less well paid) commis chef. But do see beyond the cooking skills when interviewing for this position as described in Interviewing Staff. The right attitude is of equal importance.
Who says they can’t take the pace? There is this myth around – circulated by misogynists – that women aren’t strong enough, can’t stand the bad language and have an unfortunate attitude to getting on in the kitchen. They cry a lot, they can’t lift heavy stock pots, they are moody because of their periods. They can’t stand the pace and get flustered easily. Poppycock!
Women have a lot to prove – still – in this male-dominated trade. Many are perceived as being only good as pastry chefs. The discrimination is still quite breath-taking. This is perhaps why I opened and ran a restaurant for eight years in Sussex as chef/owner rather than work for unsympathetic, bullying characters. Of course it is a demanding job but we women can hack it, and offer many good traits to men, attention to detail being just one.
Witness head chefs Sally Clarke (Clarke’s), Angela Hartnett (The Connaught), Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray (River Café), Samantha Clark, (Moro), Helena Poulakka (Sonny’s), all in London, Sonia Brooke-Little, Churchill Arms, Paxford, Gloucestershire, and Shirley Spear and Isobel Tomlin at the Three Chimneys, Isle of Skye. They represent some of the many excellent women head chefs in Britain.
KITCHEN AND FRONT OF HOUSE STAFF WORKING TOGETHER
Management is responsible for getting the relationship balance right or, at least, recognising the differing tensions within these two groups and settling any disputes and grievances that can build up.
The old adage that the customer is always right can be challenged here when it comes to food. When it is ready, it is at its peak condition and should be served immediately, not when the customer wishes to vacate the bar at his or her own time. This is where skilled waiting comes in. The waiter is the one who seats the customer and is aware of the order of priority the kitchen is working in.
- The waiter judges the timing of each table and reports back to the kitchen if diners are taking an inordinate amount of time over the first course, for example. Or, conversely, if faster service is required and is possible to achieve.
- A mutual respect must be built up between kitchen and front of house staff. If the latter doesn’t understand the former’s work pattern and degree of skill in putting each dish together then trust, confidence and ability to communicate effectively break down.
- This is where management comes in and, indeed, where it should have come in beforehand if sensitive to the atmosphere developing between kitchen and restaurant. Turn the tables and get them to perform each other’s work, or at least shadow different sections to understand their challenges and difficulties.