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What tools should you take on a restaurant trail?

By: Thomas Hunke
A common question from young aspiring chefs looking ahead to their first trail or their first day on the job is “ what should I bring with me?” Should you bring a chef’s knife? Should you bring a paring knife? A bread knife? A peeler? The list goes on. I’m happy to share some of my thoughts here about my own experience starting out as a young cook and learning the ropes at a trendy pasta spot in Brooklyn roughly 6 years ago.

First of all, it’s important to keep things in perspective. As you are probably aware, the restaurant industry is going through a labor shortage amid the fallout from Covid-19. So the easy answer is - you don’t have to bring anything at all. It’s not the move I would personally make coming in as more of a senior- level cook at this point, but chefs these days are going to be happy with anyone who is willing to show up and work.. Don’t let any list of must have items you see out there or from people like me deter you from applying for your first restaurant job. Anyone who shows up, listens, and does what they say they are going to do is ultimately on their way to chefdom.

But, if you are going to try and impress your chef by looking like you belong on the hot line then I would recommend a few essentials for the kitchen.

First, show up with something to write with, as well as a sharpie marker. Sharpies are used for writing those department of health mandated labels of every component you make. No one likes a cook who is constantly asking to borrow your marker. Don’t be that guy. Likewise, you’ll need a pen for all of those recipes you’re going to be learning. You may even find yourself writing a prep list or at least crossing things off the list during prep for your first service, so a pen and sharpie top my list of must-have items.

The other things you absolutely must have before they let you set foot in the kitchen are slip resistant shoes, long pants - preferably black - and something to cover your head. Sure, you can wear the commis cap they gave you at culinary school, or a hat if you want to appear a little more chill. If you want to look like a real hard ass, something to go along with that thousand yard stare you’ve been practicing in the mirror, go with a simple bandana tied around your head. Just please, please, please make sure you are aware of the messages you are sending if you wear blue or red or any other pattern that may hint at your particular social or political tendencies, deliberately or not.

The bottom line is, you need a head covering to be in the kitchen, so unless you want to meet all of your new friends in combat wearing a hairnet, which there is no doubt a box of sitting on some forlorn shelf in the office, for the love of god, bring a hat.

Okay now that we have the true essentials covered, we can finally talk about knives. Yes, you should probably show up with a chef’s knife to a trail. Also, you can expect that the chefs will be judging you on how sharp the blade is. It doesn’t really matter if you show up with a thousand dollar Japanese brand with that fancy octagonal handle made from virgin bonsai trees or a Rachel Ray special from Kmart. The only important thing is that the puppy is as sharp as you know how to make it. I have heard of trails being sent home from one of New York’s more prominent chef’s restaurants for not having a sharp knife. Don’t let that be you.

While we’re on the subject, I’d like to point out that your chef will have a pretty good read on your experience level by how you wield that knife, and in general how you work. I had a chef in culinary school once tell the class during a mincing demo: “I don’t care about your resume. You can throw that thing in the garbage. I want to see you mince a shallot. That will tell me everything I need to know about you - how you work, where you’ve been, how long you’ve been at it. That’s all I need, is one minced shallot.” The best thing to do with that piece of advice? Dont lie. Just show up for your trail and be you. Chefs aren’t always looking for senior cooks. They like young cooks too, someone they can instill their own habits in and teach from the bottom up. That’s a big part of the satisfaction they get from being a chef.

So in addition to a chef’s knife, what else should you bring? A paring knife? A bread knife? A slicer? A mandolin? Honestly, the next thing I would be sure to have is a box cutter. Line cooks generally carry a box cutter in their back pocket to open bulk containers and boxes in the walk-in on the fly. A really common task on a trail is being sent to the walk-in during service to refill the line. You don’t want to go hacking away at the box of burrata balls like an animal, and then try and peel the plastic with your fingers or, god forbid, your teeth, spilling milky salt water into every 9 pan on the garde manger station. So yeah, bring a box cutter.

The final thing I don’t work without is a watch. Prep tasks tend to take less than 10 minutes a piece and you will be constantly racing against the clock to hit certain deadlines. You will have a deadline to have family meal ready. You will have a deadline to be ready for service. You will have a deadline on every item you make during service. And you will have a deadline for you and the rest of the cooks to have the kitchen scrubbed, food put away, walkin tight, and prep lists written after service. You will live and die by the clock, so I recommend always having a watch. A cheap Timex would be my recommendation as you will no doubt have it submerged in the dishpit and held over flames on the sauté station and in 500 degree lowboy ovens on the reggae.
So to recap: when showing up for a trial, this would be my checklist in order of importance:

Kitchen Trail Must-haves:
  • Sharpie
  • Pen
  • A hat
  • black pants
  • Slip resistant shoes
  • A chef’s knife
  • A box cutter
  • A watch
The Maybes:
  • A peeler
  • A paring knife
Beyond that I would be careful about the signals I’m sending by showing up with superfluous crap. Mandolins, tweezers, kunz spoons, tongs - those things certainly have their place in your box of tools while you work a station, but it’s all a little excessive for a first day.

Now you’re all set. Go knock ‘em dead!

About The Author

Thomas Hunke
Thomas Hunke
A New York City based line cook and the creator of
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