5 Tips For Teaching Kitchen Skills

We’ve been hiring lately in the bakery, and getting skilled workers is surprisingly difficult- but that’s not exactly what we’re looking for. There is a not-so-surprising need for unskilled workers in search of trainingbut the ability to train is rare.

We just hired a brand new “baking assistant” the other day- she has worked front of house for years, but had zero experience professionally cooking. That was fine though- we weren’t looking for another baker per se. We were looking for someone who could handle small tasks competently and was eager enough to learn that we could rely on them being done right.

Yesterday, our morning baker was teaching her to pipe choquettes with pate au choux. Piping itself is a skill set that takes training, and pate au choux can be a frustrating substance to work with- it crusts up quickly, is gloppy when warm, and needs to be piped neatly to make things like eclair or paris brest shells. The morning baker was trying to explain her method of piping, but the assistant’s hands kept shaking- making what should have been smooth little mounds of paste come out like yellow poop emojis. The owner of the bakery stepped in and tried to advise her, gently taking the bag from her hands and demonstrating a row. The assistant managed for a minute, but then got frustrated again. That’s when I stepped in:

“Ok, are you right or left handed? Good, so am I. It looks like you’re gripping the bag too high- don’t fill it so much and put your right hand lower. That’ll make you steadier. Don’t be afraid to mess up- give the bag a firm squeeze each time, stop, and flick your wrist to cut off the flow.”

Two rows later, she looked at me and said “Ok, who are you, and how did you teach me this?!”

An AZ Quote from Jacques Pepin saying "You have no choice as a professional chef: you have to repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat until it becomes part of yourself. I certainly don't cook the same way I did 40 years ago, but the technique remains. And that's what the student needs to learn: technique."

It’s the classic legend of the kitchen- everyone starts at the bottom, you rise to your level of competency, and the kid who starts as a dishwasher picks up the skills to be a prep cook, then a line cook, then a sous chef, and after years they become a chef on their own.

The unspoken side of that story, however, is not just that hungry young apprentices desire and ability to learn, but someone else’s ability to teach. Understand that in the culinary world, on-the-job training is necessarily fast-paced. There are no tests to study for and (not much) time to take notes. To quote Jacques Pepin again:

‘If you are a jeweler, or a surgeon or a cook, you have to know the trade in your hand. You have to learn the process. You learn it through endless repetition until it belongs to you.

This is the “paying your dues” part of the industry that everyone argues about- but it’s not just peeling potatoes. To train someone in skills, you need your OWN training skills in top form, and be teachable enough to pay your own dues on the way.

A close up of letter blocks on a desk with books reading "Teach"
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The EDGE Method in Action

Back when I was in the Scouts, I took part in the Wood Badge leadership course. It was essentially a Boy Scouts-focused two-week long training course in project and team management. Part of that was learning the “EDGE” method of teaching:

  • EXPLAIN
  • DEMONSTRATE
  • GUIDE
  • ENABLE

The concept is rooted in how we learn, and the blending of the theoretical with the practical. You can explain the concept of mincing an onion to a young cook over and over again, but participation is necessary, or the cook won’t be able to translate concept to physical action. So:

  1. EXPLAIN- “You’re gonna be mincing onions. We need them for this stirfry on the menu. It changes how fast they cook, so you need to be consistent and quick.”
  2. DEMONSTRATE- “Ok, so check this out- halve the onion, slice in rays from the nub on the bottom, but don’t cut all the way. Then crossways, then down. Done- next onion.
  3. GUIDE- “Not bad, but keep your fingers back. Guide with your knuckles, and try to make the cuts even.”
  4. ENABLE- “There ya go. Nice work kid- gonna have to get faster, but you’re not bleeding all over the cutting board, so that’s a win. Keep practicing!”
An overheard picture of a box full of garlic and onions on white marble table.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Knowing TEACHING In Your Hands

That all sounded academic, and there’s gonna be some old hands that call it “coddling” or say that “kids these days need to build a skin and figure their own crap out.” Maybe the “School of Hard Knocks” worked for them, but I stand by my feeling that if you force someone to peel potatoes for hours and days on end, they’ll learn nothing about cooking and EVERYTHING about the fastest way to peel a potato. Keep the EDGE method in mind, and maybe you won’t have to worry so much about “dumbass students” anymore.

Here are some other tips I’ve discovered for successful kitchen training:

1. Observation BEFORE Advice

Before you jump in with advice and ideas for a struggling student, stop and see what needs fixing. It sounds like common sense, but however much experience you have personally, you don’t always know what someone is struggling with. Focus on the problem, not what you think the problem is.

2. Context Is EVERYTHING

One thing I learned about MYSELF in training was that, if I didn’t see the reason for a certain step or the rationale behind it, I figured it was a waste of time and skipped it. Give your trainees context and the reason for doing things a certain way. Get them to understand the impact their work has, and why certain details are important. Unless you’re in the practice of hiring ten-year-olds, “Because I said so” doesn’t cut it anymore.

3. Don’t Be Grabby

Don’t step in physically unless they ask you to. There are few things as frustrating and infantilizing as having tools grabbed out of your hands with a “You’re doing it wrong. See, like this.” If you’re impatient, so are they. Watch them for a moment, and then try saying “That doesn’t look quite right- do you want me to show you again?” or “You’re almost there. Do you mind if I show you something?” You’re trying to get them to do tasks on their own- NOT expect to be swooped down on like a child playing in traffic.

4. Screw the Sandwich- Identify Flaws, Encourage Strengths

The “Compliment Sandwich” is dead. It’s cliche, and the fast-paced nature of the kitchen means you don’t have time to formulate one anyway. Be honest and constructive in your criticism- identify flaws, encourage strengths.Ok, the onions look good, but that took a bit long. I noticed you spacing out a bit. Try to keep focused on the work, and we’ll work on getting that done a bit quicker.”

5. Give Them Time To Suck

You weren’t born with the golden touch. You sucked at things that you do perfectly now too- be patient, extend them the same courtesy and encouragement. If they’re as eager to improve and learn as you hope they are, they’re probably frustrated that a task isn’t as easy for them yet as they hope. Give them time to suck– that’s the only way they’ll eventually get good.

Summing up…

Teaching is a skill just like any other, and it needs to be developed. Good training needs a good teacher as much as a good student. Use the “EDGE” method based on how someone learns to get them to pick up on skills more quickly and effectively. Remember to observe before you advise, give them context for the work, and don’t infantilize them. Patience is going to be needed- if you’re frustrated with their performance, they probably are too. You’re the teacher though- so take a deep breath and give them time to learn. If all goes well, you’ll have a student that isn’t just developing their skills, but is excited to and hungry for more.

Stay Classy,

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