Cooking at home is a vastly different experience from the daily churn of cooking in a restaurant kitchen, but home cooks can become better cooks by taking a few kitchen tips from the big leagues.
1. Ditch the Sponge.
Sponges are often disgusting and bacteria-riddled, and for this reason they're verboten by health departments left and right. What do restaurant dish washers (of the human variety) use instead? Stainless steel pot scrubbers. Don't use them on your non-stick pans or your Bernardaud plates, of course, but have at it otherwise. They won't rust like Brillo pads, or hang on to moisture like sponges. Use terry cloth dish towels (known as bar mops or blue stripes, in the industry) to wipe down counters, and wash them often.
2. Change Containers.
If that chunk of miso that you bought ten months ago is slowly desiccating in its original, flimsy plastic container on the top shelf of your fridge, you're doing it all wrong. By transferring less frequently used condiments and dry goods into smaller containers as you use them up, you'll know what you need to replace and you'll free up storage space for even more ingredients.
3. Keep It Tight.
Air-tight, that is. Look, I know you probably don't have a vacuum sealer of your own, which means that you can't store that unused portion of sichuan peppercorn in a neat, little bag until you next need it, but protecting your ingredients from exposure to air will keep them better longer, and prevent them from picking up off flavors. Use air-tight storage containers for dry goods, spices and cheeses, or wrap things like butter tightly in plastic.
4. Just Label (and Date) It.
You've heard this one before, but knowing what kind of dried chilies you bought, or whether that jar in the freezer if full of gravy or peanut sauce, will prevent you from throwing things out or hanging on to them for too long. Use a sharpie on masking or painters tape to label jars and containers. It peels off easily without leaving residue.
5. Streamline Storage.
You'll find plastic half-pint, pint and quart containers (sometimes called deli cups) in every restaurant kitchen, from Chinese delivery places to Michelin-starred ones. They stack neatly for storage, they all use the same size lid, they're see-through and they're basically indestructible. Pick up a sleeve or two at a restaurant supply store or start saving them when you order take-out. If they pick-up flavors or aromas? Recycle them.
First in, first out. This should seem simple, but who among us hasn't wound up with two cartons of open half-and-half in the fridge? This is why labeling and dating are important. When you come home from the store, physically place the new stuff behind the old stuff and create a dogmatic house rule to use the older, open stuff first.
7. Be Efficient.
Most cooking magazines would have you believe that you need an enormous, granite counter-topped kitchen to make impressive meals, but the diminutive size of most restaurant kitchens would surprise the average diner. The space allotted to an individual cook in even a great restaurant is probably no bigger than that square of countertop in your apartment kitchen. Work with this in mind and you'll work neater, with less movement wasted.
8. Scrub Ya' Business.
Any restaurant worth its Maldon sea salt takes daily cleaning super seriously. This means scrubbing down the legs of the prep tables and squeegee-ing the counters every single night. Rigorous cleaning schedules are never the reason why people get into the industry, but they're part of what distinguishes the shady-to-average restaurant from the really great ones. Apply the same exacting standard in your home kitchen by taking a top-to-bottom approach. Walls, cabinet faces, appliances and then floors. Pretend that the health inspector is on her way.
9. Maintain Ventilation.
You might not have a hood, a fire suppression system, or anything of the like, but improving ventilation in your home kitchen will, honestly, make you a better cook. If you have a vent fan, use the heck out of it and change the filter regularly. If you don't, install one or make it a priority on your next apartment search, and do your best to rig up a fan-in-the-window alternative in the meantime. Having ventilation means that you can cook more aggressively at at higher heat, which means more sear, more caramelization, more flavor and less smoke detector.
10. Take Inventory.
In the tight-margined restaurant industry there are two words that can be the difference between success and failure: food cost. Food on hand is money that you've spent and not yet recouped. Every few months, take stock of what you've got in your freezer and cabinets, and challenge yourself to use up rice noodles, date syrup, shichimi togarashi, or whatever other ingredients you bought with a cooking project in mind that you haven't yet gotten around to. You'll cook more creatively without buying more, and you'll develop your palate along the way.