The Hidden Language of Restaurant Kitchens
Each restaurant develops its own terminology, but there are terms that are used in almost all of them. Nat Towsen sat down with chef Jeff Teller to find out how to speak kitchen.
Photos by the author
In the Hidden Language, Nat Towsen interviews an insider of a particular subculture in order to examine the terms and phrases created by that subculture to serve its own needs. This is language innate to an insider and incomprehensible, if not invisible, to an outsider.
Jeff Teller is a bit hoarse on Monday afternoon, though he speaks fluidly, with a genial familiarity. Tuesday is his one day off from working 13 or more hours a day as the head chef at M. Wells Steakhouse in Queens, New York, where running an open kitchen visible to diners keeps him in the spotlight.
“The major communication in any kitchen comes from the chef,” he explains. “You can be the greatest cook in the world, but you need to be able to communicate what you want and how to do it with the [fewest] words possible. When a kitchen runs really well, you don’t even have to speak.”
Jeff sat down and talked to me about the times when he does have to speak, and the shorthand that helps him achieve that desired economy of language.
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Brackets denote paraphrasing by the author. All other text is directly quoted from Mr. Teller. Verbs have been conjugated to match common usage, rather than the infinitive form.
Covers: n. [The number of people that you’ll serve in a night.]
e.g., “Last night we did 115 covers.”
Four-Top: n. A table [for four].
See also: Two-top, three-top.
Deuce: n. A two-top [two people seated at a table].
The pass: n. The area where the chef stands to check all food that leaves the kitchen before it goes to the dining room.
POS: n. Point of Sales. Where you’ll put all your tickets.
Expediting: v. Running the service. The waiter will tell you when the guest is ready for their next course, and you tell the cooks when and what table you’re going on.
Fired/Ready to be Fired: adj. When I fire a ticket that means that we are plating it or are finishing the item, so each station knows what they need to do at that particular time. When I tell the kitchen what is fired, it is a basic summary of all things we should be working on at any given time.
e.g., “You are fired on three steaks, two fish and five fries.”
Going: Just another word for “fired.”
e.g., “We’re going on table 23.”
Working: [Another synonym for] fired.
86'd: adj. [Out of something, canceled, removed, or terminated from employment.]
e.g., “We’re out of fish for one day, so we're 86'd it.” “86 that.” “Can I 86 this plate?” “Patrick got 86'd.”
Ordered in!: exc. The chef has received an order from the waiter and the cooks should either begin to prepare it or have it ready to cook depending on the station they work.
Two minutes!: exc. You’re plating up, and everybody’s going at the same time. Everybody knows that in two minutes, we’re going up on this full order, and every single person has their role that they’re playing.
On the fly: adj. Right away.
Make it soigné: v. Make it nice. Make sure we’re really taking care of it.
e.g., Presentation. Don’t overcook the meat. Make sure to taste [along the way].
PPX: n. VIP. A person of interest.
e.g., A friend of the house. Another chef. A purveyor. The owner of the restaurant.
In the shit/In the weeds: adj. When you’re really busy.
Behind: syn. Excuse me. You don’t say "excuse me", you say "behind."
The guy: n. Any object, at some point. You call everything "the guy." Comes from Andrew Carmellini. The guy could be this glass of water. When you explain that to a guy that’s worked for you for a while, they understand what guy you’re talking about. That comes from working with somebody for a long time.
e.g., “Let me see the guy. Let me get guy. Let me get a piece of that guy. Cut me a piece of that guy.”
Chocolate teapot: n. A useless person.
e.g., “As useless as a chocolate teapot.”
Having never met Andrew Carmellini or worked in one of his restaurants, I have been using the guy to refer to any inanimate object (or person, or cat) since my childhood action figures. It’s a practice I thoroughly support. In the weeds is a great way to describe being so busy you can’t think about anything other than what is in front of your face. 86 it! is a nice alternative to 30 Rock’s popular no-questions-asked “shut it down!” (or my personal favorite, “nuke it!”). And when you need a way to say “VIP” that’s more VIP than “VIP," PPX will do quite nicely.
As Jeff explained to me, each restaurant develops its own set of terminology, so each could have its own glossary, but there are terms that are used in almost every kitchen. We chose to focus on these broader, pan-restaurant terms, as they reflect function and necessity across the industry.
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- nat towsen
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- how to talk to chefs
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- how to speak kitchen
- a glossary of kitchen terms