Fifty Minute Classroom

Jan 20, 2022, 22:00
Teaching Oral Kitchen Communication
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Teaching Oral Kitchen Communication

30 December 2021

Excellent communication skills include skillfully addressing various audiences with different tactics ensuring the message is both heard and understood.

By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE
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I received the 2018 Idaho Potato Commission Award for Classroom Innovation during the CAFÉ Leadership Conference in Milwaukee. My award application was based on employing new and old ideas to make a culinary classroom more realistic based on the conditions, activities and personalities of a commercial kitchen. One of the skills my application focused on was oral kitchen communication. This article describes various types of realistic oral communication used in commercial kitchens. I hope to present you with clear examples and the best oral communication strategies for those examples.

You may recall, last March I published a two-part article on Teaching OSHA Safety for the Gold Medal Classroom that referenced kitchen call outs. This article discusses oral kitchen communication more broadly.

To get your students’ attention you might want to ask this question: “C is for _________?”

When students call back “cookie” or even “Cookie Monster” for the purpose of this class you respond C is for communication. (If you really what to get your class participating, ask them, “What is Cookie Monster’s first name?” No, it isn’t Cookie and the answer is at the end of this article.) Now, let’s begin.

In today’s world, there are many forms of written communication inside a commercial kitchen. Point of sale machines print out tickets or display orders. Recipes might be called upon a computer monitor. Food delivery services may have separate input devices in kitchens. Clocking in and out likely will be done by machine. Although these and other forms of electronic and written communication exist, the most common form of communication—particularly for entry-level employees such as your students—will be oral.

There are different types of ORAL communication in a kitchen.

  • Manager, chef or lead to employee: This is the primary communication type your students need to learn. A few examples: “Parker, fire the entrees for table four.” “Iz, peel and medium dice one bag of carrots.” “Gino, take your break now.” “Susan, pick up the speed. I need the vegetarian entrees now.” As they begin their careers, students are expected to be in tune with what is being told to them by multiple people simultaneously. Additionally, they must learn how to tune into oral communication during the middle of service where kitchens are noisy, hectic and full of distractions.

  • Everyone to everyone: Safety call outs such as ‘behind you,’ ‘hot,’ ‘heavy,’ and ‘corner’ are the best examples of these. (See Teaching OSHA Safety. ) In everyone to everyone communication, it doesn’t matter if the person speaking is an employee or manager. Likewise, the people listening, hearing, and understanding are not specific. They are everyone in the kitchen.

  • Employee to employee conversations: This is more common than you might think. It could range from “Hello,” to “When will the chicken be ready?” to “I need more onions,” to dishwashers talking to each other about being slammed. Before your students start working on a kitchen floor, they need to find out by specifically asking what the policy is on social conversation. This varies greatly from kitchen to kitchen. For example, in my kitchens the only social conversation allowed was “Hello” and “Goodbye.” I had friends in similar kitchens where it sounded like a party. Again, your students need to check before starting. When in doubt, keep social conversation to a bare minimum.

Talking and communicating are NOT the same thing. Students must understand there is no such thing as ONE WAY communication in a commercial kitchen. Communication is more than just talking. In its most simplistic form, someone says something and the other person/people must hear, listen, and understand the communication. If the message is not heard, listened to, and understood, there was NO COMMUNICATION. For example, if I am walking across a kitchen and calling out that I am carrying a hot heavy pot, I am not communicating my warning if I am speaking so softly that I can’t be heard over exhaust fans, or the employees are listening to music on earbuds, or that I am speaking in French and they don’t speak French.

Here are more examples of how to effectively orally communicate.

  • Listening: The person might be listening in body, but their mind is focused on something or somewhere else. This could range from thinking about how much mirepoix needs to be produced to dreaming about their day off. If you don’t think the person you are trying to communicate with is listening, try interjecting their name into the discussion. “Sammie, tell me when you are done peeling the carrots. Because, Sammie, I have another task for you I think you are going to really like.”
  • Tuning you out: Is the person just tuning you out? Using their name might help but asking questions and waiting for an answer is more effective. So, instead of saying, “Chef, I will prepare 10 pounds of mirepoix,” and walking away, try asking a question. “Chef, last night you wanted 10 pounds of mirepoix. Should I do that again this evening?” When the chef notices you are standing there, repeat the question politely and wait for the answer. Don’t fall back into making a statement.
  • Make sure the person really hears you: Kitchens are noisy places. Equipment, safety call outs, orders being called out, possibly music blaring, hoods and other items make A LOT of noise. If you are not speaking loud enough then you are not communicating. As I used to tell my students, “If I didn’t hear it, you didn’t say it.”
  • Make sure the person understands you: People may not understand you even if they listen and hear you. Are you speaking the same language? Are you using slang not understood by the other person? These and similar issues get in the way of kitchen communication. To determine if the person understood you, politely and respectfully ask that person to explain in their own words what you said. For example, you tell the chef you need Tuesday off in two weeks because of a medical procedure, you say, “Chef I want to make sure I told you the right day. What day did I tell you I would need off?”

The big five Cs of communication are:

  1. Be clear: Saying to the chef, “I’ll make a soup,” is not clear. Saying, “I will make five gallons of vegetarian minestrone and have it ready by 11:30 a.m.” is very clear.

  2. Be concise: “Chef, when I was 10 my family took me on a cruise to Alaska and on the last night at dinner they turned out the lights in the dining room and started up some march music and all of the waiters carried out flaming Baked Alaska on a tray and I was fascinated how an ice cream dish could be on fire but not melt. It would be great if you could teach me sometime how to make it.” This is not concise and you lose the listener long before you get to the point. A concise format would be, “Chef, can you show me how to make Baked Alaska sometime?”

  3. Be complete: Here is a good example of complete, “Chef, I need a new apron. The string broke on the company-issued apron.” This will get you a new apron. What wouldn’t get you a new apron would be the not-complete version, “Chef, I have a problem with my uniform.”

  4. Be correct: It is important to be correct in what you are communicating. If you are repeatedly not correct, everyone else in the kitchen will lose faith and trust in you. If someone asks you a question, and you don’t know the answer, say so. Don’t makeup things. If you are asked how to make something and you don’t know how to do it say, “I have never made that. Would you please show me how you like it done so I do it right the first time?”

  5. Be compassionate: Remember whether you are the newest person in the kitchen or the most senior manager, you have to be caring, respectful and compassionate when talking with someone else. I was brought up in the old school of yelling and screaming. This isn’t in fashion anymore in nearly any kitchen.

In summary, remember that communication is a circle. It is not a one-way street. For communication to be effective the person speaking must make sure the listener(s) listened, heard and understood what was said.

As instructors, it is your task to effectively communicate the points of this article to your students.

And, by the way, according to the Smithsonian Institute, Cookie Monster’s first name is Sid although his Wikipedia page says his name is Sidney.


Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 17 years.