Kitchen Parlance, Part One
by Nathen Dubé
Entering a professional kitchen might seem like a whole different realm with its own governing rules, and certainly its very own language.
“Clopen?” “All day?” “Behind?” “Covers?” “Deuce,” “dying on the pass”… If these terms sound foreign and made up to you, you’re not alone!
A busy kitchen can be a hot, intense, and stressful environment. Having a full-on conversation takes up valuable time when minutes and even seconds are the difference between a perfectly cooked plate of food and trash.
When actions need to be conveyed quickly and efficiently between two parties or a full team in a loud and fast-paced environment, slang develops out of necessity. Kitchens are no different, with their use of a creative and interesting lexicon.
New owners and operators opening their own concept may find many words and phrases they hear from the kitchen and servers strange at first. This is particularly true of owners and operators who may have little to no back-of-house or serving experience.
To lend a hand to hopeful operators or those opening their doors for the first time, let’s take a look at some of the more popular kitchen terms.
Operational & Equipment Terms
First, let’s take a look at the structural element of a restaurant and how they’re referred to.
The dining room (or whatever is deemed as guest seating in your establishment) is referred to as “the floor.” When someone asks, “who is on the floor tonight?”, they’re referring to the staff—usually servers—working the floor. Managers will walk the floor to check on guests and aid in service.
Note: The bar area, although it may have counter seating and its own tables, is referred to separately from the floor.
An under-counter refrigerator is called a “low boy” for its below-the-waist positioning, requiring cooks to bend down low to gather ingredients. This can include freezers as well. There are a variety of door configurations, including swinging, and drawer-style. Some even have salad tops where ingredients are kept in the top, under a lid.
A (very) large fridge or freezer, often constructed on site. It has a big swinging door that can be opened from both sides for safety reasons. The majority of raw ingredients—plus some prep and leftovers—are stored here. If you’re wondering where the word comes from, the clue is in the name: it’s so large, you can walk into it.
The walk-in is also notorious for being where restaurant staff go to scream some stress away, as the excellent insulation creates a nice sound barrier from guests.
The word “mise,” pronounced “meez,” is a slang term for “mise en place.” Mise en place is the French term for “having everything in its place” prior to service. Cooks use “mise” to refer to their own specific set of prepared ingredients, whether in terms of having it ready or not, or even worse, missing.
On the Line
The line, and the term “on the line,” refers to the area in the kitchen where the cooking equipment is located. Of course, this where chefs do most of the cooking during service. A typical line includes a walkway where the cooks work, and a flat table space—usually at the “window” or “pass” (see below)—where they plate, on the opposite side. Not surprisingly, that opposite side is referred to as the “plating area.”
If a concept requires it, there are separate “hot” lines where the hot cooking is done, and “cold” lines, where dishes that don’t require cooking are prepared. Deep fryers, ovens, and ranges are located in the former, and salad stations are located in the latter area. In classic French terms, the garde manger cook usually prepares most dishes on a cold line.
Pass / Window
The pass or window is the area opposite the cooking line where completed orders are placed for server pick-up. Think of passing dishes from the kitchen and you’ll understand this term immediately. Sometimes it will be referred to as a “window” in restaurants that have actual windows into the kitchen line from which food is passed to servers. The pass area is typically where the heat lamps are located, meant to keep dishes warm during a busy service.
The Rail / Board
The term “rail” or “board” refers to a strip of metal mounted to the food window that holds the food tickets (orders) from the kitchen printer in place. This keeps the flow organized and is normally overseen by the chef or line supervisor.
“Calling the board” means the person in charge reads out tickets as they come in, and directs cooking traffic to the other line cooks. Doing so helps to avoid disagreements and chaos in the kitchen. This position is reserved for the highest-ranking or most-talented cook, as it requires excellent cooking and communication skills. “Clear the board or rail” means completing all orders that have come in for the time being.
Chit / Ticket
When a server enters an order into the POS system, a chit or ticket, or even “dupe” (meaning “duplicate,” from the fact that some systems use three-color paper that prints a kitchen copy, a server copy, and an expo, bar, cold line, or pasty section copy), is printed to the kitchen. That ticket is then read aloud to the cooks before being placed in queue on the rail or board. When the food on the order is complete, the copy is marked in some fashion (stamp, marker, pen) and placed under the plate in the window. The server then picks up the food and the chit is “stabbed” on to a spike.
Don’t let spiked tickets fall out of the rail or all hell can break loose and derail a service!
Two-Top / Three-Top
Dining room tables are referred to as “tops” and are identified by how many guests they can accommodate (seats). A table with two chairs is a “two-top” or “deuce.” Tables with four or six chairs are “four-tops” and “six-tops,” respectively.
Each person who enters the restaurant is a cover: they “cover” one seat. The more covers, the busier a service will be, and vice versa. These numbers are used to project future numbers, staffing requirements, and inventory required. Covers are also a point of pride for kitchen staff. The more covers, the busier the service, and if you can navigate it with few mistakes, the adrenaline rush can directly convince yourself of your own talents.
A dead plate is a dish of food that’s no longer worthy of the dining room. Sitting in the window too long, incorrect preparation, or even worse, being sent back by a guest results in a dead plate. Untouched dead plates are usually given to dish washing staff or porters; those sent back by guests are tossed in the bin.
A section is how the floor is divided amongst serving staff. Typically, the more talented or senior staff get a bigger section. Designating sections, with all their tables in one close area, helps servers move efficiently during busy periods and keep close tabs on guests. Managers and floor captains will oversee a few or all sections and offer help to the individual servers during busy times or for large parties.
The front-of-house equivalent of the kitchen hot line. This is where everything servers need to do their jobs is located. Extra napkins, spare side plates, cutlery rolls, and cleaning supplies for clearing tables can all be found here. There are usually a few POS terminals here for entering orders.
Team & Guest Terms
These next few slang words are used to talk about certain people.
“Expo” is the shortened term for “expediter,” or the position of organizing, plating, and (in some cases) garnishing food at the pass. The main responsibility is to makes sure each dish is correct before the food runner or server brings it to the table. This role can be the liaison between front of house and back of house, allowing both teams to do their jobs without having to stop and coordinate.
Part of the porter team, the busser is the person who clears dishes from a table when guests leave, and drops them in the dish-washing area. The term refers to the bus bin or large plastic tub into which the bussers put all the dishes, flatware, glasses, and debris. They might also be tasked with wiping down tables and resetting them for new guests. Sometimes, the busser will pull double duty and also wash the dishes they bring back to the kitchen.
Trail / Stage
Note: In the foodservice world, “stage” is pronounced “staahj.”
A trail is essentially a training shift during which new team member will “trail” behind a cook or server. This provides the new hire the ability to learn, get comfortable with SOPs, and mitigates any potential mistakes. However, not all establishments have the staffing to offer this scenario and will train a new hire during live action.
A stage is a longer-term trail for a designated period of time. This can be a couple of weeks, a month or two, or an entire season at destination-style dining places, like Michelin-starred restaurants and hotels. The expectation is that this is a learning experience for the cook, who is exposed to new ingredients, recipes, and techniques. An agreed upon time frame is set and the cook trades labor for education.
A Personal Note on Stage
The short-term stage commitment includes the understanding that the restaurant won’t reward you monetarily. We all know the costs of training staff. Imagine investing all that effort and having that person leave after just a month or two.
Now, I despise the term “free labor” for the kitchen or benefiting restaurant. There’s a new argument that has been surfacing over the last few years that stages should be paid internships. I have two problems with this thought process.
One, these are often highly touted restaurants that operate at an elite level, and they’re extremely busy. Having a new body takes up valuable focus and resources from somebody in that kitchen. They are willing to work with you and share all their knowledge and experience.
Often times, there isn’t a chance in hell in getting a job there, and this can be the only way to get a chance at learning from these masters of the craft. Having gained valuable career experience from stages myself, they can be a great alternative if you can’t gain employment with the venues.
Two, those who raise these arguments have no experience in doing them; think they have learned nothing from the stages they may have done; had a bad experience overall; or really have no other alternatives to the points I just mentioned.
Hot tip: If you don’t like working for free, don’t! If you the value in stage, go for it!
This is a term for people who linger at their table well after they’ve finished and paid. While all guests are welcome to make themselves at home, the problem with campers is that they can take up valuable real estate during busy periods. This is the reason for table time caps at operations that run on the reservation system. They also prevent servers from “turning” tables to serve more guests and increase their tips.
These are some random terms that indicate actions and requests.
The process of finishing a dish. When an order is printed out, it may have courses such as appetizer, main, and dessert. All courses might be started and cooked to 80 percent completion and then held. The main wouldn’t be fired until after the appetizer. When the person in charge of the line says, “Fire table six mains,” that means finish cooking, plate the dishes, and send them to the pass.
A very quick way for a cook to request a tally of all the dishes ordered from their section. The line lead will provide totals of each dish, instead of reading out each table’s order. For example, a cook will ask for an all-day on fryers, and the lead will call back, “Six large fry, three medium fry, two poutine, and one chicken nugget.” The cook can quickly add up what they have cooking or need to prepare to fire.
As you can imagine, in a busy, happening kitchen, there are people racing in all directions in tight spaces. One quick way to avoid collisions around hot equipment and sharp objects is to yell “behind” when passing someone or a station of people. It gives them time to either move out of the way or stay in place to avoid catastrophe.
Other variations include “hot” to indicate hot pots or pans, or the potential of getting burnt. “Sharp” means a knife, and “corner” means coming around the corner. “Behind hot” and “hot, corner” are combinations which mean exactly what you think they mean.
To reheat a dish, or an item on a plate that sat under the heat lamp too long, or if a guest has requested something cooked further. Usually under a salamander, a convection oven, or a deep fryer for fried food. I’m sure for some establishments (I started out in places where this was the norm), “flashing” means “cooking” an item to well done via microwave.
Heard / Heard That
The acknowledgement that an order has been read by the person running the pass or the line and understood by all in the kitchen. Also works for a direct order to an individual.
In the Weeds
When one station is receiving the majority of the orders at any given time, or the dining room has filled up all at once and all the orders are coming in together, this can create a downward spiral between starting to cook and plating or finishing existing dishes. This is known as being “in the weeds.” The only way to survive is to put your head down and cook your way out. I’ve experienced surviving the weeds and having it ruin an entire service. It all depends on the resilience and talent of the cooks, servers, and leaders involved.
On the Fly
The request for something that is needed quickly. Perhaps the item was missed, dropped, or incorrect, and the rest of the dishes are at the table. Whatever is needed “on the fly” takes precedence over everything else or, worst-case scenario, gets shoehorned into orders coming up.
Kitchen lingo for getting as many portions out of something nearing its end as possible. For example, a saucepan only has enough for four steaks but five are needed. The sauce has completed cooking and the plates are waiting. So, the kitchen needs to “stretch it” and make it work or be down five plates of food.
Waxing a Table
This means giving a table special treatment. This person or these people could be VIPs, return guests, the owner’s family and friends, or an influential food writer. Whoever the are, they’ve been identified and are given a little extra attention by staff.
When a menu item has completely run out, the kitchen manager will say the item has been “86ed.” It’s important for the kitchen staff to communicate this to servers as soon as possible so that no more orders are placed for the item.
The pre-service meal enjoyed by all staff on premises. Usually made by the staff from leftovers as a way to showcase creativity and skill.
Referring to items removed from the bill for an error or because the guest didn’t like it. A comp also comes from waxing a table, of course. It’s important to track comped items for accounting purposes. Comps can be a great way to make guests happy in a pinch. However, owners, operators, executive chefs, and lead bartenders need to be aware of how often comps are being handed out; they can be indicative of quality-control problems or employee theft.
This is a portmanteau of “close” and “open.” The dreaded weekend brunch shift comes to mind. Working a busy late Friday or Saturday service and having to come back in the following morning to sling eggs to hungover patrons is a difficult and thankless task. In short, a team member who works back-to-back closing and opening shifts is working a clopen.
This stands for “first in, first out,” and references inventory organization, crucial for perishable items. The new items go behind the older ones so that the items that were there first get used first, ensuring freshness and quality. I once had a chef who decided that “FIFO” stood for “fit in, or f*ck off.”
These are just some of the slang terms in the culinary lexicon used to convey quick understanding when under fire. You might also hear differences in dialect between cultures and regions. I’ve worked in both Toronto and Montréal, and there are similarities and differences between terms used in Ontario and Québec, French and English, and English and South American Spanish.
So, next time you’re out dining and you hear one of these words or phrases, you might be able to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes. Tip well, be polite, and try something new!
Image: lasse bergqvist on Unsplash