and snap! the job’s a game

It has taken us nearly seven years, but Danny and I finally know how to clean our kitchen.

Don’t worry. It isn’t as dire as it sounds. I don’t mean that our kitchen has been lost amidst a stack of dirty dishes and crusty countertops all that time. We know how to clean up for parties and photo shoots. Sometimes, for days, the kitchen would be clean. Much of the time, the dishes have been done before we go to bed. Almost. There always seemed to be the 10 to 12 dishes left after we turned on the dishwasher at 11 pm. We always meant to empty that dishwasher and put in the remaining dishes when we first woke up, while the coffee was brewing. But when we live with a kid who awakes with great joy and energy at 6 am, that never seemed to happen.

It’s not that we’re slobs. It actually has driven us crazy for years. Late nights, cookbook deadlines, sleep deprivation through the day, a houseful of friends and kids running through the kitchen, and our constant decision that sitting down to read with our daughter was more important than doing the dishes in that moment —— they all kept us from having an organized kitchen.

We’ve been running flat footed for years.

Last week, we finally sat down to watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about an 85-year-old sushi master in Tokyo that we have been meaning to watch for a couple of years. Somehow, we never could find the time. But we’ve been looking at our lives lately, thinking of systems and ways to make our work time more effective, and our time off from work more fulfilling. One of those decisions was far more time for movies. So we watched.

It’s an incredible film. If you haven’t seen it, do. I don’t even want to start down the road of telling you about it. Instead, I’ll tell you about the path it took us on.

In one moment, a restaurant reviewer talks about the qualities of a great chef. Danny has all of them. One of them struck me, however. “A great chef works clean.” Wait, if that’s true, why is our kitchen a mess?

Danny and I talked about it throughout the next day, building on realizations we had been having for months. It comes down to this: until this year, we didn’t quite believe this was our career. This site, my first book, the first cookbook, and the cookbook coming out in two months? They had been quirky wonderful luck. Both of us at home, doing this work together? After a lifetime of dreaming of being a writer and working as a professional chef in restaurant kitchens, neither Danny nor I quite believed that we could really do this for a full-time living. What a lovely fluke!

This year has been a slow awakening, the joyful realization that this is what we do. This is what we do. We write cookbooks. (We just got another cookbook deal! I’ll tell you more about it soon.) We write this site. We live a life of food, outside of classrooms or restaurants. This is what we do. And if this is what we do, then we want to start running our kitchen like the professional space it is.

So Danny and I talked and talked about how he has always run a restaurant kitchen and how we could run our space the same way. If you don’t have the gene for a consistently clean kitchen, this might help you too.

 Organizing.

“Label everything. It had to be labeled before I put it in the walk-in. Cooked artichokes? Labeled and dated. Sliced carrots? Labeled and dated. Hard-boiled eggs, sliced? Labeled and dated.”

A restaurant kitchen can only work as efficiently as its walk-in is organized. If the shelves aren’t clearly marked, the food grouped into similar types, and the dates prominently marked? Prep cooks have to fumble every time they go to peel potatoes. If it’s chaos in there, it’s chaos on the line. And yet, our refrigerator has been a bag of chard stuffed on top of bowl of leftover sauerkraut next to a yogurt container with an inch of yogurt leftover. Our pantry has been plastic bags of toasted almonds tucked next to a half-empty bag of garbanzo flour with whole-grain bars about to topple over onto them. Our kitchen has been organized like it’s all a lovely fluke.

A few weeks ago, we used the time on a Saturday morning when my parents come to visit as a chance to pull everything out of the kitchen and start fresh. They watched Lu jump on the trampoline and we got to work. Here’s the deal. This is all a process. Our kitchen is more organized than it was a year ago and certainly better than it was three years ago. we just tipped over into organized land this time.

Here are my three favorite tools for organizing a kitchen:

cloth storage boxes
quart mason jars for storing everything, with lids
green painting tape

We bought dozens of those storage boxes and gave ourselves the luxurious space to make each box one thing: kitchen towels, aprons, cloth napkins, laundry detergent, candles and flashlights. We lined the shelves above the washing machine and dryer that sit in our kitchen behind folding doors. It has taken me years to realize this: when everything has a place, it’s easy to keep things clean.

We poured every grain and nut and bean into its own large jar. We put the lid on each. We put them on a shelf. And we labeled each space with green painting tape and Sharpie.

We don’t have a large kitchen. It’s pretty small, actually, like a New York City apartment kitchen. Giving every cupboard and every shelf space a purpose made our kitchen feel much larger.

And in the refrigerator, which Danny calls the reach-in to remind him of a restaurant, we finally found a system that worked. We put all the contents of the refrigerator on the counter and looked and looked at them, and looked at them again. And then the groupings came to us. Instead of putting all the jarred things together, we made one shelf Proteins. (Eggs, almond butter, leftover fish, etc.) The shelf next to it? Umami. (Miso paste, bacon grease, mushrooms, truffles in salt.) One drawer is fresh herbs, another is meats, and the third is vegetables. (Nothing goes in there until it is prepped and chopped.) And the rest? A shelf for dairy. Another for fruit. Another for pickled and cured things. And the last for stocks and sauces. I wrote everything on strips of green painters tape and stuck them on the front of shelves.

Your refrigerator might have different labels. But man, these help. I took this photograph of our refrigerator on Friday and it still looks very much the same tonight.

“If you don’t clean the walk-in, you have things hanging out on a back shelf and you end up having to throw them out and you’re wasting money.”

We have spent less money at the grocery store this week than ever before. We have used the food in our refrigerator. I cannot tell you how happy this makes me.

Restaurants would never work without the dishwashers. 

Whenever I watch Danny cook, I notice that he wipes down the stove every few moments. So why does he leave three skillets and pots on the stove after he’s done cooking? Why do I?

He sure isn’t lazy. As he says, “At Pierre’s, we did the dishwashing. We didn’t have one, so we all had to chip in. I cooked and cleaned every night.” But at most of the jobs he worked for over 20 years, he didn’t have time to cook dishes for a restaurant full of hungry customers and wipe down the skillets before he cooked again. He left the hot pans to the side and a dishwasher picked them up.

I don’t think we’ll be hiring a dishwasher here any time. We’ve started cleaning out the skillets when they’re still hot.

Clean as you go and enjoy the cleaning at the end of the day. 

That’s the thing. We all know it’s true. If you clean as you cook, your kitchen won’t be a mess at the end of the day. But here’s another thing. Usually in a relationship, someone is the cook and another is the cleaner. One person has the desire to create and the other has the desire to tame. Danny and I both love to cook. Neither of us loves to clean. We realize that now. We’ve had to push through it.

It came time that waking up in the morning with a messy kitchen was far more painful —— and took up more psychological energy —— than spending the time doing it at night.

Not everything in life is fun. We tell that to Lucy as we show her how to make her bed and put away her clothes. Except, as Mary Poppins sings,
“In ev’ry job that must be done
There is an element of fun
You find the fun and snap!
The job’s a game.”

“Cleaning is a great way to end the day, to do some physical labor, to think about the day, and to plan ahead for the next day. At Papillon, I’d tackle the order sheet and prep sheet for the next day. What needs to be used up? How can we rotate product? We need to get fresh ice on the fish. Thinking about all this while I cleaned the kitchen helped put my mind at ease and end the day.”

Our mistake was always waiting until after Lucy was asleep, after I had written the dozen emails I had to answer right now, after we baked yet another version of the bread and sat down to watch the Rachel Maddow show before we tackled the dishes. We were too tired to enjoy it.

These days, after we read her books and tuck her into bed, we head immediately to the kitchen. It’s our only rule now. We put on some music and we start cleaning. We’ve cleaned as we have cooked through the day, so it takes us only 15 or 20 minutes to scrub it all clean, start the dishwasher for the night, and sweep the floors. And all the while, we talk and plan and reflect on the day. To my utter surprise, this has become one of my favorite parts of the day.

People can change.

We changed for ourselves, for our cookbooks, for the sake of our minds. Finally, we have quieted that insistent rhythm that said, “One day, we’ll be organized.” We just are.

But really, we did this for Lucy. Now, we involve Lucy in the clean-up after dinner. (Oh, the joys of 4 instead of 2.) She knows now to take her plate and silverware into the kitchen after she has finished her meal. She helps us put away ingredients. She sweeps the floor as best she can. She loves helping. She feels so proud.

I don’t want her growing up in chaos. It wasn’t until we realized the effect our haphazard kitchen was having on her that we realized we wanted to change our ways. Her little toy kitchen in the dining room was piled high with wooden dishes and plastic strawberries until a couple of weeks ago. The more we keep our kitchen clean, the more her little kitchen is organized too.

It feels good around here right now. And I have a feeling it will feel this way a year from now too.

A clean kitchen sure makes cooking much more joyful.