Chefs Reveal The Secrets To Preserving Sanity In The Kitchen While You Cook

Brilliant tips for keeping things organized when you're cooking for a crowd (or frankly, just for yourself).
Good news: You're not going to need most of these.
Shana Novak via Getty Images
Good news: You're not going to need most of these.

Planning a meal for a crowd can be fun, but the joy can quickly turn to chaos and dread when your kitchen counters become covered in vegetable scraps, discarded packaging and sticky bottles as you’re trying to prep the recipes.

To avoid the dreaded post-cooking kitchen clean-up, you don’t need to resort to buying ready-to-eat dishes. Some of the top chefs from around the country shared their best tips and tricks for keeping things tidy in the kitchen, even when preparing for a crowd.

Don’t invite every cooking tool you have to the party.

There’s no need to create a sink full of dishes when you can reuse what you already have out. “Try to reuse the same utensils and bowls as you go. Instead of grabbing a new spoon from the drawer, wash the used one that’s in the sink,” said Ann Ziata, a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education.

She also recommends prioritizing the tools you are using over dirtying more dishes. “Instead of taking out the garlic press, just mince the garlic with the same knife and cutting board that you used for the herbs. The fewer culinary tools invited to the party, the easier the party will be to clean up when it’s over,” she said.

There can even be benefits to reusing some kitchen tools. “Sometimes, not washing dishes between prepping certain foods can actually enhance the flavor,” said chef Tom Aviv, “MasterChef Israel” winner. “For example, if I’m blending up a spicy salsa before working on an aioli, I won’t deep clean the food processor, and it will give the aioli the essence of the salsa.”

Create tabletop “trash cans.”

Cooking creates a lot of waste, and constantly moving back and forth between the counter and the trash can isn’t feasible for most home cooks. A huge mess can accumulate quickly if you don’t stay on top of it.

There’s a simple solution. “When peeling vegetables, place a piece of parchment paper down on your counter or cutting board and peel everything directly onto the paper,” said “Top Chef” alum Janine Booth. This also works well for chopping, mincing and other prep work. When you’re done, fold the scraps in the paper and throw it in the trash. Your counter or cutting board will be clean and ready for the next step.

If you don’t have parchment paper, Booth recommends putting a plastic bag or empty box on the counter to collect scraps. In addition to keeping your counters clean, “you are less likely to end up with scraps on your floor,” Booth said.

Ziata also stresses the importance of keeping countertops clear to avoid making a huge mess. “There should never be any carrot shavings, empty packages, produce bags or trash just hanging out on your workspace,” she said.

Declutter before you cook.

Starting with a clean kitchen is essential, Ziata said. She always wipes down her counter and sanitizes it before cooking at home. This ensures you aren’t starting off the bat with a mess and helps reduce the chance of contaminating food.

Al Goldberg, founder of Mess Hall, a culinary incubator in Washington, D.C., also makes sure his sink and dishwasher are empty before he starts cooking. “This will help keep the kitchen clear” as you accumulate dirty dishes, Goldberg explained.

He also recommends removing unnecessary items from the kitchen before cooking a big meal. Laptops, mail, phone chargers and purses can all get in the way and can get dirty themselves. When making large meals, Goldberg also removes decorative items like plants from the kitchen. This helps “max out work zone” space which will help you avoid making unnecessary messes.

Behold, a mise en place.
Linda Hughes / 500px via Getty Images
Behold, a mise en place.

Create extra counter space.

“When it comes to entertaining, there’s no such thing as enough counter space. This is where things get jammed up and messy,” Goldberg said.

A full kitchen renovation probably isn’t in the cards for most people. However, you can create temporary counter space by using what you have on hand, Goldberg said — use a folding table, chairs or anything with a flat surface. The extra space can be used as “a place to put anything from ingredients to finished items,” Goldberg said. Having enough space to work is crucial to avoiding spills, being able to wipe up easily and preventing anything from winding up on the floor.

Cook in stages.

Cooking in stages is one of the best ways to keep your kitchen clean. “A good prep session before cooking with some light cleaning in between really helps reduce kitchen clutter and makes a home kitchen much more manageable,” said Sean Ferraro, owner and chef at Madison Avenue Pizza.

While you don’t need to do a deep clean in between stages, Ferraro recommends throwing scraps in the trash, putting used dishes in the sink, and wiping down counters before moving on to the next step. If you use this system, “you don’t have a lot of the clutter that usually lingers around a kitchen,” which makes cleaning up easier, he said.

Keep everything in its place.

Jason Fox, a chef from San Francisco’s Proper Hotel, says that “the easiest way to stay clean is abiding by the French principle of ‘mise en place,’ which translates to ‘everything in its place.’” If you’ve ever watched a cooking show, everything looks easy for the host because all the ingredients are already chopped and measured out in little glass bowls. That is mise en place.

Fox suggests only working on a couple of dishes at once, taking out only what you need for those items, and creating an organized workspace where each item has a designated spot. This prevents a big mess from building up over time and makes it less likely that food will get knocked onto the floor.

Caterer Jeffrey Kollinger adds that mise en place is essential to ensure that you have the “necessary utensils and ingredients easily accessible” before you start cooking. “This really cuts down on the mess and spills,” he said.

Clean as you go.

Don’t leave cleaning for the end. Aviv recommends keeping a damp towel nearby to quickly wipe up surfaces as you are cooking, and he keeps a bottle of 5% vinegar solution on hand while cooking.

“As you cook, spray down your work area and cutting boards with vinegar to keep them clean while avoiding contaminating your food with a soapy or chemical flavor,” he said.

If you store anything for later, Ziata says it’s important to wipe down containers going in the refrigerator or being set aside as you cook to reduce messes.

Goldberg says many home cooks overlook the importance of washing dishes as you go, and suggests enlisting a helper with this task so the cook can focus on food prep.

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