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Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013 12:01 am

Too many cooks in the kitchen

Prepare your kitchen for the invasion of guest chefs. Clean, organize and stock the shelves for stress-free, heavy-duty cooking and baking this holiday season


There’s no place like home kitchens for the holidays. Or that’s what it seems, at least, when guests congregate in the heart of the home to chat, snack and offer the host or hostess a helping hand.

A crowded kitchen with a few extra cooks calls for extra preparation and organization. What it doesn’t call for, says Philadelphia-area chef Tony Clark, is extra stress.

“It’s the holidays and it’s more than just cooking,” Clark says. “You really want to make sure everyone’s enjoying themselves.”

Keep it simple
A chef of 35 years, and currently on syndicated TV shows “The Chef’s Kitchen” and “Rock Star Kitchen,” Clark is used to group cooking. With four sisters and five children, cooking is a family affair when they all gather for a holiday meal. “It’s much more fun when everyone’s involved,” he says.

Clark’s relatives typically stick to tradition with familiar family recipes. He purchases all the ingredients and completes any complicated cooking tasks before the guests arrive. “I try to make it easy, and never do anything too stressful,” he says.

Plus, a bottle of wine is at the ready, opened when the cooking begins.

Do your homework
Jess Dang, founder of Cook Smarts, an online resource aimed at educating and inspiring home cooks, says she creates a spreadsheet to get organized before hosting people for the holidays.

“Whenever I’m doing a large event, I find it really helpful to share a Google spreadsheet, where all the different meals are listed,” Dang says. “It lays things out nicely for folks to know what they’ll be responsible for. It also shows you took the time to think about it and plan.”
The good guest
People should also consider their cooking methods. If much of the meal will require the oven, they’ll need to plan accordingly. Oven rack inserts can help maximize space and save time.

One advantage of having many cooks in the kitchen? They bring an array of skills and specialties. Dang recommends hosts be mindful of this, playing up their guests’ strengths. Let the aunt who loves baking bring her mean cheesecake and give the cocktail-expert cousin bar duty. Anyone who is cooking-averse can help with cleanup.

“I think it all comes down to knowing what people are good at,” Dang says.

Make a plan
It’s important to make room for a deluge of food. Clean and strategically arrange your refrigerator and pantry ahead of time, Dang suggests.

To make more room in the kitchen, hosts can get creative by assigning guests to different stations throughout the home. Two sisters could catch up while chopping vegetables at the dining room table, for instance, while the kids snap green beans outside.

Susie Crowther, a Vermont-based chef, teacher and author of The No Recipe Cookbook (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013), says people should feel comfortable asking for and accepting help. “I think nowadays, we don’t want to ask for help,” she says. “Throw that paradigm away. This is not the time for the one-woman (or man) show.”

Instead, she suggests people embrace the mindset of working together as a community. Aside from making a dish or helping with cleanup, guests could contribute by bringing serving utensils, cutting boards or knives. “Have a list and just tell guests what to do. People like to give; it makes them feel important.”

Most of all, Crowther says, people cooking together over the holidays should focus on the process rather than the product. “The keys are to have fun, be together and be open to the outcome,” she says. “You might ruin the dish, but you’ll have a great story at the dinner table.”

© CTW Features

Space planning

A cramped kitchen can be an obstacle to any group cooking experience. Those who are short on counter space can make their mealtime easier with a few simple tweaks.

The easiest way to add counter space is to purchase a portable kitchen island or cart. The bonus is that it’ll add visual appeal along with extra storage – but it is a relatively big purchase, so only do so if you plan to use it throughout the year.

People should also look outside of the kitchen and utilize other spaces, says Jess Dang, founder of Cook Smarts, an online cooking resource. She suggests clearing clutter from counters by placing items on a dining table or a desk, or turning another room or the garage into a baking area with a card table and toaster oven.
Tony Clark, a Philadelphia-area chef, says he likes to use the outdoor grill year-round. When preparing a big meal, that’s one less piece that needs the oven.

The keys to working in a tight space, Clark says, are to keep the area clean and embrace simplicity. “Don’t overdo it,” he says. “People get stressed while cooking, but it’s not about that. You want to make sure you’re happy when you’re cooking the meal.” –Rachel Stark, © CTW Features

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