Critic-Turned-Cook: Is Your Kitchen a Mess Too?

"In a professional kitchen, good cleaning practices are just as important as knife skills."


[Photograph: Leslie Kelly]

Last week, I wrote about the awesome things I've learned in the professional kitchen, but there's one skill that has yet to stick. I cannot seem to stay ahead of my messes.

Everyday, I renew my promise to mend my messy ways, but there's just no denying it: I am a P-I-G.

This is especially true in my own kitchen, where my multitasking in the name of getting dinner on the table often leads to scads of ingredients left on counters, cupboard doors flung open, every pot and pan I own piled in the sink. No wonder my wonderful husband nicknamed me Hurricane Leslie.

He's the one who gets stuck cleaning. (Hey, I'm no April Fool; wrote that into our wedding vows. He promised to love, cherish and do KP when I cooked.)

But in a professional kitchen, good cleaning practices are just as important as knife skills or knowing when a steak's medium rare. Keeping it clean isn't just about being up-tidy. It's a safety issue. Again and again, I am in awe of the army of cooks I see gracefully winning the war on mess. My mise en place is a train wreck, dirty bowls stacked high until just before things reach a tipping point. OK, now where's the bleach bucket?

Every kitchen's got buckets full of bleach solution. Dipping your towel in that strong stuff dozens of times a night and wiping down your work surface is a must. By the end of a shift, your mitts might look like the before photo in a hand lotion ad, pink and raw.

It's not that I mind doing dishes. I've taken my turn in the dish pit. And I have mad respect for dishwashers, a restaurant's most valuable player. My sloppy ways start before hitting the pit.

I know it takes practice to stay neat and organized and that the whole process can go ka-blooey if you don't. But I often feel like skier Bode Miller in the kitchen, a little wild and reckless. And if the food is really stunning—like Bode's gold medal race in the Olympics—isn't it OK the kitchen's a bit of disaster?

Besides, I kinda like a bit of chaos. It's a rush to scramble, praying you're going to get 'er done. That messy streak might be my downfall, what ultimately prevents me from earning my spot in any kitchen. But I'm going to keep on trying to clean up my act. Really I will.

What about you? Are you a Neat Nick or a Messy Mavis?

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. She recently started a new project on her personal blog, inspired by Michael Ruhlman, she's exploring "An Egg A Day".