Kira German organize kitchen pantry nora gray

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Learn to cook and organize your kitchen like a chef

Lockdown lessons from the chef de cuisine at Nora Gray.

How to plan our meals, grocery shop and organize our kitchen to get the most out of them in lockdown, from Nora Gray chef Kira German.

During this period of isolation, we’re all struggling to find productive ways to fill our time. Cooking can be a beautiful and peaceful moment of your day where your focus is directed and the resulting product is a plate of nourishing food that tastes delicious. I believe that everyone is capable of cooking well, it’s just a matter of planning, focus and learning a few tricks and tips that make cooking easier and more enjoyable. 

I learned to cook in restaurants. From the age of 19 to 27, I worked as a cook in Montreal and during that time I learned a lot of recipes — I hardly remember any of them. What I do remember are the kitchen practices that make for efficient restaurant kitchens. Home cooking and restaurant cooking are different but the more you run and organize your kitchen like a restaurant kitchen, the more equipped you will be to comfortably cook your way through this prolonged quarantine.

I spoke with my friend Kira German, the chef de cuisine at Nora Gray, about how we can all best plan our meals, grocery shop and organize our kitchen to get the most out of them. These are her tips. 

Work smart, not hard

One of the keys to making cooking an enjoyable experience is getting organized. “A big thing is keeping your fridge organized,” says German. This should extend to your pantry and freezer. “You should be able to open your fridge, freezer, pantry and actually see what’s in there and not buy double.”

This practice helps you avoid accidentally buying things you don’t really need and it will also help you identify the things that need to be used or consumed, so you don’t have things rotting in the fridge or collecting dust in the pantry. Restaurants do an inventory of their kitchens every day; you should try and do it once a week. Also, there are few kitchen pleasures greater than having a beautiful, organized fridge and pantry. Trust me. 

Pick a day to be productive

Sometimes getting motivated is the first hurdle, even for German. “For me, what I find helpful for cooking at home is finding a day where I’m feeling very productive and doing most of the hard work that day.”

Divide and conquer. “Let’s say you bought a bunch of meat — meat and fish go bad the fastest — marinate it right away, or maybe cook some off so that you can use it in different ways.”

Restaurant kitchens break their jobs up into different days so that the big jobs that need a lot of attention can get done without sacrificing the important little jobs. Ideally use this day to get as many things accomplished as possible.

“If you find a day where you’re like, ‘I’m really up for this, I can do it!’ Then it’s less likely for things to go bad. 

There are plenty of ideas for creating an outdoor bar. You only need to find the right resources for this.

Waste not, want not

“Get everything out of one ingredient.” Maybe that’s roasting a chicken, but you save the bones and make stock, and you pick off the meat you didn’t eat and save it so you can add it to soup or pasta or make sandwiches with it. The idea is not only to eliminate waste but to also stock your fridge with things that are laborious to make but are useful to have on-hand. By picking the meat and making stock, you’ve turned Sunday’s roast chicken into Monday’s chicken sandwiches, into Wednesday’s risotto. This applies to vegetables, too. Roasting off some veggies ahead of time means you can enjoy them then, but you can also save them to add to a salad or toss them in a soup, stew or curry. 

Get with the plan

“Before grocery shopping, it’s a good idea to make a meal plan for at least four of seven days.” By meal planning really we’re just talking about a bit of premeditation. “It doesn’t have to be like, ‘Monday I’m definitely eating this,’ but if you have [a plan] it can be like, ‘This week I’m going to eat these four things.’” This makes shopping easier and more effective and it means you don’t have to spend any time in the week trying to figure out what you can cook with the things you have. You’re already all set. “If you’re in the grocery store and you buy a bunch of things that don’t make sense together because you don’t have a plan, then you’re more likely to throw things out.” 

With the other three days of the week, get creative. You’ll probably have some leftovers, and if you’ve been getting the most from your ingredients, your fridge should be stocked with little bits of delicious things that have no specific purpose. In the restaurant world, those bits typically become staff meals — it’s what we eat the most of and more often than not the meals are delicious. 

Work clean

The least enjoyable part of cooking, for me, is cleaning up. Most people aren’t cooking in spacious, lavishly appointed kitchens, we’re cooking on tabletops and minuscule countertops. Save yourself stress and time, while also maximizing your workspace by working clean. This comes down to a few simple practices that make your life easier.

“When you’re done with something, put it back in the fridge.” Keep a garbage bag or compost bag handy so your work station isn’t covered in onion peels and vegetable scraps. Keep some small bowls handy for your mise en place.

Working clean also means organizing your jobs so you’re not working on too many things at once. Maybe throw your bird in the oven first before starting on your side dish, remembering to wipe down your station between each new task. Cleaning as you go and organizing your space and time can completely change the experience of cooking. If cooking stresses you out, it’s probably because you’re not organized and working clean. 

Fundamentally, the keys to good cooking are being organized and planning ahead. “Sit down and think about what you’re doing before you start.” German’s advice could be useful for nearly anything, but in a world where leaving your house — even once a week — for groceries puts your health at risk, being focused and organized might mean the difference between getting by and eating well. While having any food on the table is reassuring, eating a delicious meal that you prepared is comforting and restorative.

When done purposefully and thoughtfully, cooking can be meditative, it can be relaxing and it might just be the perfect distraction in these uncertain times. You might not write a novel or renovate your house or learn to speak Italian during this extended quarantine, but you could (and should) learn to cook. ■

Nora Gray website

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