Chef-driven labor-saving tips for Labor Day and beyond
Cooking may be a labor of love, but it doesn’t always have to be so laborious. Chefs who are masters of making processes more efficient while maintaining consistency and quality share how home cooks can do the same.
Strategize. “Decide how many meals you want to make in a week and what you want to make,” says Allie Lyttle, chef at the Standard Bistro & Larder in Ann Arbor, “then buy what you need."
Make a task list. “It organizes your mind and space,” Lyttle notes. “Every chef has a prep list every day.”
Make a schedule. Know what you have to do and when. “I look at everything I have to do three days before a gathering and then I know how many hours I can dedicate each day,” Lyttle says.
Work ahead. “Home cooks often try to do everything in one shot,” observes Certified Master Chef Shawn Loving, department chair/full-time faculty member of the Culinary Arts program at Schoolcraft College in Livonia. “Make rubs and marinades ahead of time and jar or bag them so they’re ready to go. That’s where time-saving comes into play.”
Work systematically. “Have one day where you do all the chopping and measuring,” Lyttle advises, noting that cooked meats and sturdy vegetables can be can be prepped and refrigerated ahead of time. “Doing like things such as all chopping or all mixing is more productive than shifting gears.”
Skip some prep. Selectively use pre-cut produce and partially- or fully cooked proteins to reduce waste and save time.
“There’s no shame in it,” Lyttle says. “If you’re cooking down onions, no one knows they’re pre-cut onions.”
Put everything in place (mise en place). Assemble everything you need before you begin cooking. It speeds the process, saves steps and ensures you’re not out of something.
Use counter intelligence. Arrange equipment and tools according to workflow. Set up “stations” for specific tasks — e.g., salad-making — to keep helpers from getting in each other’s way.
Bag it. “One of the tricks of the trade,” says Kiki Louya, chef/owner of Folk Detroit, “is using sous vide.”
For sous vide cooking, meat or seafood is sealed in a plastic bag and cooked in a simmering water bath. Use a sous-vide machine, or ordinary household cooking gear. There’s little or no tending and no slaving over a hot grill or stove.
“Sous vide cooks meat evenly and perfectly,” Louya enthuses. “If a person isn’t a great cook or isn’t confident, it’s a very easy and straightforward way of cooking — and you can use it to impress people. It’s a way to take the stress out of the centerpiece of the meal.”
Stick (mostly) to the tried and true. Restaurants typically don’t debut new dishes at peak times or big occasions. Neither should home cooks.
“Never do more than one new recipe or thing,” Lyttle advises. “Stick to things you’ve done lots of times and for which you have muscle memory.”
Stage your dinner party – serving pieces as well as place settings — ahead of time.
“The night before a party, I figure out which dishes I want to put things in,” Lyttle says. “Write on a Post-it Note what goes into each bowl, then set out the bowls so that, when someone wants to help, they know what to put in which bowl. Making these choices ahead of time means there’s no wasted energy when I have other things to do.”
The bottom line? Losing some of the labor leaves more time for what you love.
“People have asked me how I pulled everything together all at the same time,” Loving says. “The reality is, I started working on it when no one was thinking about it. So that makes the actual cooking fun — and, at the end of the day, you’ll enjoy what you’re going to eat.”
Pulled-Chicken Lettuce Wraps
From chef Allie Lyttle, the Standard Bistro & Larder
Consider this concept to be a jumping-off point. Swap out flavors and veggies. Use leftover pulled chicken for new meals. Reserve the bones for stock.
1 rotisserie chicken, meat pulled off of bone
1 head bibb or romaine Lettuce
1 bag coleslaw Mix
Hot sauce, to taste
Bleu cheese, to taste
Ranch cressing, to taste
Green onion, to taste
For the chicken filling: Toss the pulled chicken meat with the hot sauce and bleu cheese.
For the topping: Toss the coleslaw with the ranch dressing and green onions.
Peel back the lettuce leaves to make cups, then fill with the chicken and topping mixtures.