Kitchen Lingo 101

Every industry has its own lingo, a special vocabulary understandable to those who work in the specific field, but confusing to an outsider. As a TV news producer my sentences were peppered with words like MOS, sound bites, time code, b-roll. Now, in the kitchen, nine pan, brunios, confit, and soigné have become commonplace.

Here are a few other words and terms. Some may be familiar; others are a little more deceptive…

In the weeds/ “In the shit” terms which mean that a cook is behind, drowning in the work. Quite literally lost. These cooks are easy to spot because they’re doing a million things at once but with a look of panic across their face that says how am I ever going to get out of this?

I’ve spent many an afternoon in this state. Standing at my cutting board, frantically prepping.  My mind racing through the list of things I hadn’t done yet and calculating how much time each task would take and if I could complete them before service began.

I learned quickly that time management and organization are key to getting through that mise en place list on time. But time management is never enough… in addition to that one must “push.”

“Push” is perhaps my least favorite kitchen term. It’s also the one that I heard over and over when I first started my stage. To me, telling someone to “push” conjures up images of birthing. Prior to coming to the professional kitchen I had never heard this term used in any other setting. I worked in a fast paced newsroom and we certainly didn’t run around tell each other to “push”.

Perhaps most frustrating about the usage of this word is the timing of the delivery. Imagine that you’ve been on your feet for 10 hours. You’ve maybe had a couple sips of water but you haven’t had anything to eat or gone to the bathroom once… because you simply couldn’t find any time for such luxuries. Service begins in one hour and you still have a million things to do. The sous chef (or maybe just a wise ass looking to get under your skin) comes over and says, “you know sometimes you just gotta push.” Oh jeez, thank you for that, because I’ve just been standing here twiddling my thumbs all day. I swear, you will always be told to push right when you feel like you are about to pass out.

“What” and “why”… in regular conversation these are words that signal the inquisitor would like to hear some sort of reasoning process—a description of the events that led up to the action, or a logical explanation of how something came to be. Not always the case in the kitchen. It’s more frequently used as a flag indicating that you fucked up somewhere. If you’re asked “why did you concassé the tomatoes this way?” The correct answer is not “oh because so-and-so told me to do it like that”. Instead say, “I’m sorry, is there another way I should be doing it?” Likewise when the chef or sous chef asks, “What’s taking you so long?” this is not an invitation to rattle off your prep list, as impressive as it may be. Your answer should be more along the lines of “sorry, I guess I just need to push”.

However, your answer to a sentence beginning with “when” should be precise and literal. “When will you be done shelling those favas?” Reply – “in 20 minutes.”

And when those 20 minutes have expired, there better be the correct amount of shelled fava beans ready to go. The reason for this is because those line cooks that you’re prepping for have mapped out their mise en place and know what time they need those beans, diced vegetables, sliced potatoes etc. in order to put them through the next step of the process. If your timing is off, it can screw up theirs. If you become known as unreliable, the cooks are going to find someone else to do the prep. If you find yourself idle in a busy kitchen put yourself on notice.

But one of the most commonly uttered phrases in the kitchen is a well-timed “that’s what she said.” And when you’re working with food it’s not hard to slip that one in. “Pop that in the freezer because it’s easier to work with if it’s hard”. – That’s what she said. “So how do you want me to do this?” – That’s that she said. When you work with a group of guys, no matter how professional, this is naturally going to be slipped into the conversation. Now throw in a 19, 20 and 22 year old and you’re asking to release the floodgates of male humor.

So, the next time you’re in the weeds thinking that you might not make it through the day, and that sassy little guy comes over and mockingly says “you know, sometimes you just gotta push” shoot him a dirty look and reply “that’s what she said”.

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